Tuesday, April 19, 2011

How and Why Money matters in an election?

There's been quite a lot of talk about the distribution of money by the DMK in the Tamil Nadu election. The allegations against the ruling party are largely true and despite the Election Commission's crackdown money did flow to the voter, choked by the crack down, but it did reach the voter. The question really is can the money change the outcome of an election where nearly 80 percent of the nearly five core voters cast their vote. Many analysts feel that focusing on money distribution as the only reason for an electoral victory is an insult to the electorate's sensibilities, yes that's true but that argument cannot discount the fact that cash to the voter is decisively changing the electoral dynamics at least in specific states. If it doesn't help then no politician will distribute tons of stolen money to the voter.

The Congress under the late YSR Reddy managed an election with enormous money in 2009 and won it , The BJP galvanized by the Reddy brothers in Karnataka did it in 2008 and the DMK showed the two national parties how it's done in Tamil Nadu in the 2009 lok sabha polls. Since the focus now is on Tamil Nadu I am going to attempt explaining why the strategic distribution of money can have an impact on the Dravidian electoral outcome. The confidence exhibited by the DMK (every senior leader claims the alliance will get 130 to 150 seats) after polling is largely because of the money they spent. I am not Nira Radia, but, if my phone was tapped then I am confident there would be proof of this straight from the mouth of the several horses that ran the Tamil race!

Tamil Nadu is a highly politicised state driven by strong political leanings and views. The DMK voter (around 27 -28 percent) will vote for the DMK no matter what and same is the case with the AIADMK (around 32-33 percent). Other political forces like the congress, PMK, etc also have a consolidated caste vote that by and large is transferrable and this ranges from (2 or 3 percent to 9 or 10 percent depending on the party). It's the sum total of the vote share of an alliance that is called arithmetic and whichever Dravidian party has managed an alliance with the larger sum total has won an election since 1991. Even in huge wave elections like in 1996 and 2004 against Jayalalithaa, she was able to retain her committed vote and the alliance arithmetic was better with her rival. So the bet is that this committed voter will not change his vote even if he receives money.

Beyond the committed voter lies the silent, non aligned voter whose share was anywhere between five to ten percent and if this section voted in one block then it meant a massive sweep. This section normally voted in one block only when it was incensed and angry with the government that existed. The defining feature of this section is that it is largely unhappy with both sides and yet chooses one over the other. There is no empirical evidence to prove that this section takes money and actually votes for the party which pays them the higher amount, but it is a matter of wide belief in the political class that those who have taken money do vote for the party which "bribed" them. In an election where the electoral arithmetic is close then if two or three percent of the undecided voters go in favour of one formation it can seal the deal. The other section which can change with the money game is the section in the opposition's rank and file that is disgruntled. Disgruntlement is usually over the choice of the candidate and this section can be lured to change its choice with money.

One of the reasons given by grass root party workers for the high turnout (close to 80 percent) this time is that voters have realized that parties pay only those who go out to vote. They also ensure that the promised freebees are delivered to those who have cast their vote and those who don't get ink on their finger fall back on the queue. In the 2009 lok sabha polls when the DMK-Congress combine won the turn out was a high 74 percent and hence a high turnout does not mean an anti establishment vote. It only means that many voters have decided to come out to vote for a range of reasons and one of those could be that there is an immediate gratification for exercising their franchise. I am not accusing people of selling their votes but unfortunately money does become a reason for the decision taken by a section of the electorate and that fact needs to be accepted.

When you walk into a locality at election time the first talk you hear is about who has given how much money has been delivered or promised - not about the state of roads, power or water. Unless the issue is really stark and grave money has taken precedence. The defining moment was when the voter asks you "What's wrong for the next five years I will have to pay but now I will make them pay". The rates are defined and I am told in these elections it ranged from 500 to 2000 rupees per vote depending on the profile of the candidate and at a campaign Jayalalithaa even remarked "take the money from the DMK, it is your money that they are giving back, just remember to vote for us" and one of those campaigning for her director Seeman told a gathering "Take the money from the DMK, put five rupees from it in the temple hundi and then vote for Amma - God will forgive you for cheating the DMK !!!". It may be disgusting to urban, erudite sensibilities but it is the reality. There is a sense of guilt in not voting which has given you money.

In a careful assessment the offer of free bees is an institutional, legal and official example of how an electorate can be made to vote on the basis of material gratification rather than larger ideological and political issues. If the voter can legally and publicly vote on the basis of a free mixer, grinder or colour TV set then why would he or she not vote on the basis of a few thousand rupees illegally and discreetly delivered to him. The Politicians who have fought an election believe that money is proving to be decisive and those who cannot spend money are now left with the hope that it may not be a long term trend.

So no matter what anyone may say money matters. It cannot swing an election across the board but it does swing a percentage of the voter and that percentage does have an impact on the big picture. IF the DMK wins this election then it means money continues to matter and has played a decisive role. Analysts can try but I am not sure if anyone can offer any other practical rational and plausible reason for a victory amidst such resentment ranging from power cuts and price rise to corruption. You may ask what about the election commission's crack down. Yes they did a fantastic job but remember the politician knows how to get to the voter despite the curbs!!!

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