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Arappor Iyakkam has written to the Election Commission of India alleging that the Erode East by-election is heavily marred by political parties bribing voters with freebies and cash for votes. The unfortunate trend set by the infamous Thirumangalam by-election in 2009 is being followed by all parties alike.
Jayaram Venkatesan, Coordinator of Arappor Iyakkam, a people’s movement that has been striving for a just and equitable society, sheds light on the anti-democratic electoral practice of distributing cash for votes, in an interaction with inmathi.com.
Q: Even the most prominent of parties are encouraging the menace of cash-for-votes and freebie culture. What’s your take?
A: Political parties are vying with one another to grease the palms of voters, distributing gifts and cash for votes. They are blaming one another for this culture which is taken for granted now.
The ruling party claims that it has delivered on 85 per cent of its electoral promises and the opposition party recalls how its schemes and services benefited Erode East constituency during their term earlier. Then why should they distribute cash for votes? They could have let their achievements speak for them. If the party’s prospects of winning the election are bright, why should it woo voters with money and gifts?
Political parties should stop distributing money to voters and instead practise and preach ethics fit for society. But even leaders of the ruling party have lost their moral sense. They are distributing cash and gifts to voters, and also hiring people to participate in election campaign meetings to inflate the perception of support that the party has. Thus, they are promoting a culture of corruption.
Political parties are vying with one another to grease the palms of the voters, distributing gifts and cash for votes. They are blaming one another for this culture which is now taken for granted
Q: How can the Election Commission stem the rot?
A: When a candidate is found bribing voters, he/she should be disqualified. But the Election Commission is not legally equipped to do this. At best, the EC can file a case against corrupt candidates. Even if a case is filed, the legal ramifications are not strong enough to act as a deterrent. The problem is that the Election Commission has no role left after the conduct of elections. So, cases that are filed may fizzle out as it is doubtful if the government will pursue such cases seriously.
To change this situation, the Election Commission must be empowered to conduct case proceedings on its own. For this, the Constitution must be amended to give the Election Commission powers to serve as a watchdog against corrupt electoral practices and take penal action against those found guilty of perpetrating them.
Q: What kind of action can be taken against candidates or parties for bribing voters?
A: Candidates who are found guilty of bribing voters should be disqualified. But the EC is not empowered to do so in its present state. It can, however, countermand the election if complaints of bribery in the run-up to the elections are scrutinised and found true. That was how the RK Nagar by-election in 2017 was countermanded a day before voting.
Another way to stem the cash for votes practice is to reform election laws and include penalties for giving or receiving cash, gifts or favours.
Another issue with regard to election corruption is the funds received by political parties in the form of donations. Electoral bonds and other such donations are legal. The law enacted in 2012 has a provision enabling and legalising donations to political parties. Subsequently, donations running to crores of rupees are pouring into the coffers of parties, with no scrutiny of who is donating what and to whom. Even the ruling party at the Centre, which harps on elimination of black money, just converts the black money into legally-accepted donations during election time. Depending on the strength and strategies of various political parties, the amount of money laundered in this manner varies.
Q: But aren’t the people themselves willingly accepting cash for votes from political parties?
A: Voters justify their action of accepting cash for votes by pointing to elected parties looting crores of rupees from the public during their rule. It is this whataboutery that has corroded democratic values.
Not only are people accepting money for voting, even educated voters — who should ideally be more politically conscious as well as conscientious — are indifferent about whoever comes to power, and many do not make the effort to cast their votes. These two trends are detrimental to democracy.
People must understand that accepting cash for votes is tantamount to giving a licence to the ruling party to loot them for five years. A candidate who talks big about honesty and sincerity and yet knocks at your door, offering cash for votes, should be questioned. The people can ask the candidate, “If you are honest as you claim, why should you indulge in the dishonest practice of giving cash for votes?”
People must understand that accepting cash for votes is tantamount to giving a licence to the ruling party to loot them for five years
Q: What are the ways in which this cash-for-votes practice can be eliminated?
A: Legal action should be taken not only against the giver of money but also against those accepting cash for votes. Penalties against promising one’s vote to a certain party in exchange for cash will deter voters from indulging in this corrupt practice. People’s movements and NGOs must join hands and raise a strong voice against this shameful election culture; the public should resign themselves to this trend.
Q: How to stop the distribution of money to voters?
A: It takes a mass struggle to protect democracy and ensure the wellbeing of the people. For instance, the practice of putting up banners indiscriminately ahead of elections was ended thanks to relentless protests. Similarly, only when people assemble and fight for their rights and welfare would governments yield to their demands.
Students and the youth must be educated about upholding the values of honesty and selflessness in politics and social life. Political discourse and discussions should be conducted regularly in schools and colleges so that good leaders emerge in the future.
Political parties that have ruled so far cannot be trusted to work 100 per cent for the welfare of the people. It’s common knowledge that there is a lot of corruption, both in elections as well as in governance. Voters must therefore arm themselves with knowledge about the election candidates’ background, education, economic status, lifestyle and social service track record. Voters should then make an informed decision and cast their votes only based on delivery of governance and genuine promises, not pre-election inducements.
As only major parties are grabbing the limelight, genuine independent candidates who desire to serve the people fall by the wayside during electioneering and go unnoticed. People should give a chance to independent candidates if their track record has been good and not just be blinded by the razzle dazzle that the big parties indulge in during campaigning.
Importantly, people should not be apathetic about voting. If every voter thinks their vote will not make a difference to the overall outcome, what will ultimately be affected is nothing but their own lives and living conditions that are dependent on government policies and services. So, every vote counts. It is voters who have to pick the best candidate, and for this they must make themselves politically aware and strive to keep their representatives accountable.
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