Why do people in India take money to vote? In order to address this question we should first understand why the citizens are selling their vote for money. In a large and complex country like India, it is impossible for the national or state legislatures to fairly or effectively represent the people and all shades of public opinion. Given the largeness of constituencies and complexity of elections, there will always be a tendency to abuse public office or resort to vote-buying. Even with the best will, and the most comprehensive electoral reforms, in a poor country many voters are often swayed by the inducement of money and liquor. The most credible citizens are discouraged from contesting as long as voters expect money to exercise their franchise.

This habit of taking money to vote is actually a rational response to an irrational situation. It is often tempting to blame the illiterate and poor citizens for this plight of our democracy. But, in reality, it is the democratic vigour and enthusiastic participation of the countless poor and illiterate voters which has sustained our democracy so far. However, most people have realised with experience that the outcome of elections is of little consequence to their lives in the long run.

Most poor people have realised with experience that the outcome of elections is of little consequence to their lives in the long run and that there is no real long-term stake involved in electoral politics. Many are forced to take a rational decision to maximise their short-term gains and the vote has become a purchasable commodity for money or liquor.
At the macro level, when we examine a whole state or the country, the electoral verdicts do broadly reflect public opinion. More often than not, this verdict is a reflection of the people’s anger and frustration and is manifested in the rejection vote, or their support to a leader, promise or platform. However, at the local level, caste or sub-caste, crime, money and muscle power have become the determinants of political power. All parties are compelled to put up candidates who can muster these resources in abundance in order to have a realistic chance of success. While political waves are perceived around the time of election or afterwards, at the time of nomination of candidates all parties are uncertain about their success and would naturally try to maximise their chances of success at the polls by choosing those candidates who can somehow manipulate or coerce the voters.

As a net result, irrespective of which party wins, the nature of political leadership and quality remain largely the same, and the people end up being losers. This is then followed by another rejection vote in the next election and the vicious cycle keeps repeating itself. Where the candidate cannot muster money or muscle power, he stands little chance of getting elected irrespective of his party’s electoral fortunes. Increasingly, in several pockets of the country, people are spared even the bother of having to go to the polling station. Organised booth capturing and rigging are ensuring victory without people’s involvement.

There is much that is wrong with our elections. Flawed electoral rolls have become a menace. About 40 per cent errors are noticed in electoral rolls in many urban areas, and bogus voting in towns exceeds 20 per cent, making our elections a mockery. Purchase of votes through money and liquor, preventing poorer sections from voting, large scale impersonation and bogus voting, purchase of agents of opponents, threatening and forcing agents and polling personnel to allow false voting, booth-capturing and large scale rigging, bribing polling staff and police personnel to get favours and to harass opponents, use of violence and criminal gangs, stealing ballot boxes or tampering with the ballot papers, inducing or forcing voters to reveal their voting preferences through various techniques including ‘cycling’ etc., illegally entering the polling stations and controlling polling process all these are an integral part of our electoral landscape. No wonder the Election Commission estimate that more than 700 of the 4,072 legislators have a criminal record!

Many scholars wonder how, despite massive irregularities, the electoral verdicts still reflect public opinion, and how parties in power often lose elections. The answers are simple. Happily for us, though parties in power are prone to abusing authority for electoral gains, there has never been any serious state-sponsored rigging in most of India. The irregularities are largely limited to the polling process alone, and most of the pre-polling activities including printing and distribution of ballot papers, and post-polling activities including transport and storage of ballot boxes and counting of ballots are free from any political interference or organised manipulation. That is why parties in power have no decisive advantage in manipulating the polls, and electoral verdicts broadly reflect shifts in public opinion.

However, the massive irregularities in polling process make sure that candidates who deploy abnormal money and muscle power have a distinct advantage. Sensing this, most major parties have come to nominate ‘winnable’ candidates without reference to their ability and integrity. Thus, almost all the parties sanction the use of money power and muscle power, and often they tend to neutralise each other. The net result is that candidates who do not indulge in any irregularity have very little chance of being elected. Election expenditure – mostly for illegitimate vote-buying, hiring of hoodlums and bribing officials – is often ten or twenty times the ceiling permitted by law. Criminals have a decisive or dominant influence on the outcome in many parts of India, and have often become party candidates and won on a large scale.

Given the several distortions, elections have lost their real meaning as far as people are concerned. If, by a miracle, all winners in an election lose, and all their immediate rivals are elected instead, there will still be no real improvement in the quality of governance. This remarkable inertia and the seeming intractability of the governance process have convinced citizens that there is no real long-term stake involved in electoral politics. Therefore, many poor citizens are forced to take a rational decision to maximise their short-term gains. As a result, the vote has become a purchasable commodity for money or liquor. More often, it is a sign of assertion of primordial loyalties of caste, religion, group, ethnicity, region or language. Very often, without even any material inducement or emotional outburst based on prejudices, the sheer anger against the dysfunctional governance process makes most voters reject the status quo. Often, this rejection of the government of the day is indiscriminate and there is no rational evaluation of the alternatives offered.

In short, even the illiterate, ordinary voter is making a rational assumption that the vote has no serious long-term consequences and the choice is between Tweedledom and Tweedledee. Therefore, he is attempting to maximise his short-term material or emotional gain!

Voting and the public good
This situation can be corrected only when the citizen appreciates the link between his vote and public good. If the local elected representative has no alibis for non-performance, then vote acquires a new meaning. If the school, road, drain, water-supply, traffic regulation, land records, health centre and a myriad other public services are directly the responsibility of the elected government at the local level, then people see that who they elect has a tremendous bearing on what happens after the elections. Such a situation is possible when the local governments – panchayats or municipalities – are truly empowered, and authority is exercised as close to the citizen as possible in an accountable manner. When there is a clear link between their vote and public good, and when tax monies are directly transferred to the public services, then people start using we vote as an effective tool to make fine political judgements and elect suitable representatives.

A large-sized district in India is larger than about eighty nation-states in the world in terms of population. Size-wise, most of our larger states would compare easily with the large nations of the world. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and West Bengal, each would be the largest nation in Europe if independent. Even a truncated Uttar Pradesh would be the world’s sixth largest nation! Given these mind-boggling demographic realities, coupled with unmatched diversity, our centralised, somewhat imperial style of governance is archaic and ineffective.

An incident during British Raj some 80 years ago illustrates the absurdity of over-centralisation in a democratic polity in the 21st century. Chittaranjan Das, the great Bengali patriot, was elected as mayor of the newly constituted Calcutta municipal corporation in 1924. Das argued with the then British authorities that as the head of the elected local government he should have the right to appoint the chief executive officer (commissioner) of the city government. The British offered him the services of any ICS officer he chose. Das declined and won the right to appoint his own official. He then picked a bright young 27-year-old as the commissioner. He was none other than Subhash Chandra Bose!

The story did not end there. Bose did an outstanding job as the city administrator and gained wide recognition in a few months. Several months later, he was arrested as a suspected terrorist and detained in Alipore Jail. CR Das again insisted that Bose did a great job, the charges against him were unrelated to his work as the city official, and the elected local government could not be denied his services. Amazingly, the colonial government relented, and directed that Bose should continue as the commissioner even while in custody! Files were sent to him in jail, and his orders were carried out. This extraordinary practice continued until Bose was exiled to Mandalay in Burma. Bose went on to become Mayor of Calcutta in 1930, and later Congress President in 1938 and 1939.

Today, the elected local government of even a ‘B’ grade municipality enjoys no such autonomy, let alone the great metropolis like Kolkata or Mumbai. One of the paradoxes of democratic India is that our governance is far more centralised than in colonial India or communist China.

The 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution merely created local governments. It is now mandatory to create panchayats and municipalities, to hold regular elections, to have a State Election Commission and State Finance Commission. However, in the absence of constitutionally mandated entrustment of responsibilities, local governments are at the mercy of the state legislatures. The state governments are often wary of parting with powers and functions. The Eleventh and Twelfth Schedules of the Constitution are merely recommendatory and many state laws have violated the spirit of the Constitution. These provisions do not have the force of the Seventh Schedule, which clearly demarcates the functional jurisdiction of the Union and States. It is therefore necessary to clearly demarcate the functions of local governments constitutionally on par with the Seventh Schedule, and to ensure that the required resources and control of public servants are entrusted to the local governments. Only then can representative government be truly democratic, accountable and effective.

State legislators vs. local governments
Another important and unhappy consequence of a parliamentary executive and unaccountable executive power in the hands of state legislators is the severe weakening of local governments. A local legislator whose sole preoccupation is local political patronage often sees the elected local government as a serious rival encroaching into his territory. As local governments have been at the mercy of state legislatures until 1993, in most states local governments either did not exist or, when constituted, they tended to be feeble and ineffective. The states rarely showed any degree of commitment to transfer resources, functions and control over functionaries to local governments. As the state’s political executive owes its survival entirely to elected legislators’ good will and support, it is but natural that local governments would not be allowed to take roots against the will of the legislators whose dominance is threatened by empowered local governance.

This situation underwent marginal change after 1993, with the advent of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments. However, given the reluctance of the states, these amendments did not result in truly empowered and effective local governments. The Constitution now only ensures that local governments are constituted, elections are held regularly, panchayats and municipalities are not superseded en masse, and independent constitutional bodies are appointed to monitor elections and advise on financial devolution. However, the Eleventh and Twelfth Schedules of the Constitution have no mandatory force and the state legislatures are free to transfer such subjects and powers as they deem fit to local governments. Given the political realities of legislators’ unaccountable and disguised executive powers, most states chose not to empower local governments effectively. Even the constitutional obligations of constituting local governments and holding regular and periodic elections are violated with impunity, by employing a variety of disingenuous and undemocratic devices and stratagems.