Whisky flows freely in Indian election as candidates offer poll perks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2014, 11:08pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 April, 2014, 1:36am

Rickshaw puller Rampal Singh remembers vividly the "feast" of democracy he enjoyed last time India went to the polls in 2009: it included a free hot meal, a bottle of whisky and a banknote.

"They treated us to really good biryani and a quarter of whisky," Singh says wistfully of the hospitality shared by a major political party. "We were also handed a 500-rupee (HK$65) note. Then we were asked to vote for them," he said.

Singh, 42, feeds a family of five on the roughly 5,000 rupees a month he earns cycling his single-gear rickshaw around the dusty streets of New Delhi. He was happy to oblige his host at the ballot box.

"I am sure they will take us around this time as well," he said ahead of voting in the capital in the country's marathon election.

Influencing voters through illicit liquor and cash is an age-old trick across the country, despite heavy penalties prescribed by the Election Commission against vote-buying.

On Monday, the Commission said it had seized more than 1.96 billion rupees in cash and 2.7 million litres of liquor in country-wide raids since March 5.

Just the confiscated alcohol would be enough to offer roughly one in every 80 of India's 814 million voters a quarter-litre bottle.

In past elections, alcohol has been secreted in water tankers and cash stashed in ambulances.

K.G. Suresh, a fellow at New Delhi's Vivekananda International Foundation think tank, says it is easy to entice voters in a country where nearly 70 per cent of the population lives on less than 120 rupees a day.

"There are millions in the country who have to struggle for even a square meal. Election for them is a payday and loyalties depend on who has what to offer," he said.

"So a candidate may end up losing simply because his rival has deeper pockets than him and can afford poll-eve treats."

While handing out liquor and cash before elections is illegal, many political parties rely on legitimate election freebies to secure loyalty from voters.

The chief minister of southern Tamil Nadu state, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, is seen as the queen of such tactics. She gave away sewing machines, spice mixers and even gold to the poor after her party won state elections in 2011.

In her 2014 manifesto, she promises cows, goats, fans and 20 kilos of rice for the poor.

Ahead of 2012 state polls, the regional Samajwadi Party in northern Uttar Pradesh state promised free laptops to high school students.

The party won handily in the state, which is one of the key battlegrounds for the 2014 polls because it sends 80 out of 543 MPs to parliament.

There can be unexpected downsides, however.

Suresh of the Vivekanand Foundation recalled how the regional DMK party from Tamil Nadu offered free television sets to voters ahead of 2006 state polls. The party then became embroiled in one of India's biggest corruption scandals when DMK minister A. Raja was charged with fraudulently selling mobile phone licences, losing the national exchequer up to 2.35 trillion rupees.