Linking economic reforms and electoral corruption may read incompatible and inappropriate on paper, on the ground in Indian conditions, they have become fellow-travellers. However, early acceptance of the inevitable yet invisible linkages and a consequent bold and closer look alone would help end the malady. This malady has already infected the body politic of an ‘enlightened’ State like Tamil Nadu.
Despite being a pioneer in social justice, education-driven employability, simultaneous creation of employment-centric increased family incomes, Tamil Nadu has been at the centre of ‘cash-for-vote’ form of electoral corruption of the highest order in the country. It began almost around the advent of economic reforms, from by-elections fought immediately after Elections-91, when AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa was the Chief Minister, having dwarfed the rival DMK parent beyond purported recognition. The nation erred first then, taken in by the sweeping electoral reforms – rather the enforcement of powers and rules – by and under Chief Election Commissioner T N Seshan.
The focus of the anti-corruption drive of the electoral kind and involving the EC were focussed on ‘unmanageable’ States like Bihar and UP, where booth-capturing was the order of the day, a new dimension to this being added by the advent of left militancy in these and adjoining States in central India. Suffice is to point out that there are still provisions in the Representation of the People Act, empowering the EC to countermand or cancel polling/elections against ‘booth-capturing’ but none to do eradicate ‘cash-for-vote’ menace.
So when the EC countermanded polling in two constituencies in Tamil Nadu in Elections-2016, and later cancelled the first-time by-poll in Jayalalitha’s R K Nagar by-election in April 2017, held after her death and consequent vacancy, it flowed from the residuary powers of the EC read with such other sections of the law and Constitution. In a way, all owed it to public opinion, and the fear of political parties and candidates about the possibility of the higher judiciary ticking them off as none before, if they were to challenge the last-minute EC decision.
Though dubbed the ‘Thirumangalam model’, only to be replaced by the more recent ‘R K Nagar model’, where tens of thousands of rupees per vote replaced tens of hundreds votes over a decade or so, it all had begun during the ‘Seshan era’, when in the heart of the capital city of Chennai’s elite Mylapore constituency, the EC refused to order re-poll even after hundreds of legitimate voters appeared before its inquiry officer to charge ‘scientific booth-rigging’, in which they had individually lost their franchise to some ‘faceless’ person, who in some cases, had cast the vote from only a few places ahead in the queue. The EC ruled that though the cases of impersonation may have been proved, even adding or deducting those votes from the final figures would not have altered the results (victory for the ruling AIADMK) drastically, and hence there would be no-repoll.
Before and after Mylapore, there were Kancheepuram, Gummidipoondi, Saidapet, and of course, Jayalalithaa’s Andipatti by-poll victory after the Supreme Court had cleared her in the ‘TANSI land-deal case’, under the AIADMK, and Thirumangalam, Madras East and Pennagaram when the DMK was in power. That way, the R K Nagar by-poll in December 2017 is the first time in over two decades when the ruling party — the post-Jayalalithaa AIADMK in this case — has lost, and so very convincingly. That the victorious AIADMK rebel, declared ‘Independent’ under the electoral laws, T T V Dhinakaran, also carries the maximum burden of poll-rigging this time, should not distract from the fact.
From the pre-Independence Madras Presidency days, present-day Tamil Nadu has been the innovator with regard to legal and legitimate push-pull ways of employing social justice for all-round development of the population, layer by layer, election after election. Post-Independence, the introduction of free education, accompanied by overnight expansion of pre-Independence experimental free meals scheme, since followed by student-sector subsidies like free books and uniforms, bicycles and laptops, accompanied by unprecedented and at times uneconomical expansion of professional education, at apporpriate intervals and appropraite times, have caused the creation of an aspirational generation(s).
Coupled with the advent of what is otherwise derisively dismissed as ‘freebies raj’, in the form of LPG connections for fast-tracking homehold chores for the women folk, and free TV sets for home entertainment in the limited time available for the housewife after her own working hours in the evenings, the new-generation Tamil Nadu youth has greater exposure to the world, and matter and material worldly, supposed to have been supported by his/her education-driven employability and employment. With years of rain-failure and consequent drought, accompanied by massive power and water shortages putting off early promises of faster industrialisation in the reforms era, not to leave out the decades-old Cauvery and Mullaperiyar disputes with neighbouring states adding to the people’s woes, temptations of the overnight riches of the ‘cash-for-vote’ kind have come to dominate the electoral scene – with increasing frequency and increasing pay-outs, too.
This is not a justification, but for a family of five voters, say, to get Rs 1 lakh or thereabouts for a day’s vote, when the rest of the State structure, constitutional scheme and hopes of and for the promised land have all failed him/her, and fallen flat all round him/her, the equal temptation for the voter to get ‘influenced’ thus is the emerging reality of the existing situation. Suffice is to point out that two brothers of S Anitha, daughter of a head-load worker, who committed suicide after failing NEET for court-ordered uniform, medical college admissions, based on merit, were doing professional courses, on their own volition. If anything, it should be an eye-opener for those who cannot otherwise understand/appreciate the hopes of the ‘aspirational generation’ in these parts.
With ‘social justice’ taking roots in the rest of the country three or four decades down the line, learning from and compared to Tamil Nadu, it is but inevitable that large-scale automation, and consequent loss of jobs at entry and emerging levels, in the rest of the country, could cause tectonic shifts of the kind that could either create a society that imbibes the ‘Tamil Nadu model’ in electoral politics, or take to left and other fundamental militancies, of the kind that has already gripped central and north India. It is not that one of them is going to replace the other, but both the maladies could well overtake the Indian system and scheme before the ‘distant’ Delhi durbar wakes up and starts of the cleansing act, which again could be not where it should be, but where it would be.
‘Reforms with a human face’
Needless to point out in this context, Manmohan Singh, who as Union Finance Minister, introduced economic reforms as a cure for all Indian economic and political maladies, soon shifted gears to rephrase it to mean ‘reforms with a human face’. The BJP-NDA governments of Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and now Narendra Modil have embraced the ‘subsidies scheme’ inherited from the ‘corrupt Congress’, not only because it brought in votes, but also because it may have been the right thing to do under Indian circumstances, inherited not at Independence, but by generations and centuries before that.
If anything critics of the Congress’ ‘socialist model’ have only gone further and farther on the subsidies front when in power, and their own promise and expectations to eradicate poliical corruption, as flowing from the socialist raj, have all been belied. Thlere is thus greater corruption now than at any time in the pre-reforms era, with the voter too being made an equitable – and thankfully not as equal – stake-holder. Maybe, such a trend should also be seen as a contributing factor for the EC’s early successes in ending booth-capturing, which too has since been revived in a more scientiic fashion, what with electronic facilities being deployed as much in faking processes as with voting processes.
The cure thus lies not in revisiting election laws, and look askance at the ‘Tamil Nadu model’ of electoral corruption, but instead at the ‘Tamil Nadu model’ of post-reforms economic development that is still unable to keep pace with societal development, individual aspirations and ‘denied’ growth, all flowing from the success of the social justice plank, which the rest of the country has embraced, in paces and stages – and rightly so. A combined review of both economic reforms and intended electoral reforms, for the 21st century India, thus alone will be in order, if our democray does not takes a tail-spin, but instead, is able to move forward, taking the majority of the nation’s diversified population with it.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).