This is the complete memo sent from the Chennai Consulate to the US State Department on 2009-05-13 , as per the doucuments published by Wikileaks.org, which reminds us of our political and electoral system.
SUBJECT: BHARAT BALLOT O9: CASH FOR VOTES IN SOUTH INDIA
1. Summary: Bribes from political parties to voters, in the form of cash, goods, or services, are a regular feature of elections in South India. Poor voters expect bribes from political candidates, and candidates find various ways to satisfy voter expectations. From paying to dig a community well to slipping cash into an envelope delivered inside the morning newspaper, politicians and their operatives admitted to violating election rules to influence voters. The money to pay the bribes comes from the proceeds of fundraising, which often crosses into political corruption. Although the precise impact of bribery on voter behavior is hard to measure, it no doubt swings at least some elections, especially the close races. End summary.
2. The subject of politicians bribing voters, with either cash or gifts, was a recurring theme in the course of covering the 2009 election campaigns in South India. Wherever we went, journalists, politicians, and voters spoke of the bribes as a commonly accepted fact of the election process. Political insiders, and in some instances candidates themselves, admitted to us that candidates regularly violate India’s election rules in the course of campaigning for office. This cable examines methods by which political parties bribe voters and how those bribes affect elections in India.
Poor voters expect cash
3. (SBU) In visits to slums in Chennai and Hyderabad we learned that poor urban voters expect political parties to pay come election time. A DMK political strategist told us slums are critical to a campaign because their population density and poverty allows them to be more “”easily mobilized”” by bribes. Representatives of an NGO that works in Chennai’s slums told us that the two main political parties in Tamil Nadu — the DMK and AIADMK – regularly bribe voters. They described a sophisticated operation used to distribute the cash. According to an NGO representative, in the weeks before the elections, “”agents of the parties come to the neighborhood with cash carried in rice sacks. They have copies of the voter lists and they distribute the money based on who is on the list.”” The agents come in the middle of the night, “”between two and four in the morning, when the Election Commission is asleep.”” A neighborhood resident confirmed this version of events, noting that in the 2004 election each family got 500 rupees for their vote. (Note: The residents of this slum reported that they earned around 4000 rupees a month working as day laborers. End note.) In a Hyderabad slum voters we talked with three weeks before voting told us that they were expecting candidates’ representatives to pay them a visit soon. “”We’ll see what they offer, and then we’ll decide,”” said one man who spoke for the group.
4. Rural voters also expect candidates to deliver goods in exchange for votes. Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s son, Karti Chidambaram, who is managing his father’s campaign for the Lok Sabha seat from Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu, told us that “”every village leader asks for two things: some money for the local temple and a community hall.”” Chidambaram went on to say that it is impossible to fulfill every such request, but that he does give “”a few sops”” to villages that might be on the fence about supporting his father. He specifically denied paying cash for votes, but not because of any moral objection to doing so. According to Chidambaram, he does not pay cash for votes in his rural constituency because it is impossible to distribute the money effectively when the villages are spread so far apart. But the President of the Tamil Nadu Youth Congress told us that he had just visited Chidambaram and said, “”Karti is doing a good job in Sivaganga. He is distributing some money to the people, which his father won’t do.””
Member of Parliament admits to bribing constituents
5. Assaduddin Owaisi, a sitting Member of Parliament and leader of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) party, was surprisingly candid. Owaisi explained to us the ins-and-outs of campaigning over a late dinner after spending a long day on the trail. He said that during the campaign he tries to cover every street in his urban constituency in Hyderabad’s Old City, visiting people at their homes and businesses. As he walks the neighborhood, he said, people regularly appeal to him for small favors. One community’s leaders asked Owaisi that day to dig them a well. “”So I sent one of my party men back later in the day,”” he explained, “”to give them 25,000 rupees (approximately 500 USD).”” Owaisi emphasized that he does not give cash directly to voters, but rather funds worthy requests: “”If they want a well, I give them the money, but make sure they use it for the well.”” On the same day, he also told us that he had paid 35,000 rupees (700 USD) to pay for the marriage of an orphaned girl. Owaisi contrasted his practice of funding projects for the community’s benefit with the Congress and Telugu Desam parties, which Owaisi said pay money to individual voters.
6. We asked Owaisi point blank whether it was against the law for him to pay for the well and the marriage. Owaisi laughed and said, “”Of course, but that’s the great thing about democracy.”” He went on to describe the legal spending limit of 2.5 million rupees (50,000 USD) as “”a joke,”” noting that he would spend 2.5 million rupees on “”polling day alone.””
Karunanidhi’s son runs for parliament
7. On a recent trip to Madurai in southern Tamil Nadu virtually every conversation centered on the parliamentary candidacy of M.K. Azhagiri, son of the M.K. Karunanidhi, Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister and head of the DMK party. Azhagiri’s control of the DMK’s south Tamil Nadu operation has earned him a reputation for political thuggery. He was recently acquitted in the case of the 2003 murder of one of his political rivals, though critics argued that the trial, held in Tamil Nadu, could not be impartial with Azhagiri’s father as the state’s Chief Minister. In 2007, Azhagiri’s supporters burned down a newspaper office in Madurai, killing three people, after the paper published a poll that Azhagiri was a distant second choice to his brother among DMK supporters as successor to Karunanidhi (ref B).
By-election sets the stage
8. After long relying on political muscle to enforce his will in Madurai, Azhagiri has added money to his arsenal and is using it to a degree previously unseen in Tamil Nadu. Azhagiri’s approach debuted in the January assembly by-election held in Thirumangalam near Madurai, which he managed for the DMK. This race was marked by unprecedented bribes to voters (ref A). M. Patturajan, the former Mayor of Madurai and a confidant of Azhagiri, told us that “”it is no secret at all, Azhagiri paid 5,000 rupees (approximately USD 100) per voter in Thirumangalam.”” S. Kannan, a mid-level Congress party official in Madurai, told us “”the 5,000 rupees per voter in Thirumangalam changed everything,”” noting that previous bribes to voters had topped out at 500 rupees. S. Annamalai, Madurai editor of The Hindu, also confirmed the 5,000 rupee figure, telling us that all of his employees who live in Thirumangalam received the money.
Can I get another morning paper?
9. The Thirumangalam campaign that Azhagiri ran for the DMK was notable for how the money was distributed, in addition to the amount distributed. Rather than using the traditional practice of handing cash to voters in the middle of the night, in Thirumangalam the DMK distributed money to every person on the voting roll in envelopes inserted in their morning newspapers. In addition to the money, the envelopes contained the DMK “”voting slip”” which instructed the recipient for whom they should vote. Annamalai pointed out that distributing the money with the newspapers forced everyone to receive the bribe. “”This way makes it impossible to refuse the money,”” Annamalai noted. Patturajan confirmed the newspaper distribution, but questioned its efficiency. He pointed out that giving bribes to every voter wasted money on committed anti-DMK voters, but conceded that it was an effective way to ensure the bribes reached every potential persuadable voter.
Applying Thirumangalam to a parliamentary race
10. Patturajan and others pointed out that the larger size of a parliamentary constituency makes it difficult to apply the Thirumangalam approach. The Thirumangalam contest concerned a single assembly seat, which is about one-seventh the size of a parliamentary district. A journalist for Thuglak, a Tamil weekly, confirmed that the Madurai parliamentary constituency has approximately one million voters. It would cost Azhagiri $100 million USD to replicate the Thirumangalam payment of $100 USD to each voter in the Madurai constituency, which is “”impossible”” according to Patturajan. As a result, Azhagiri has been forced to ratchet the payment back down to more typical levels, but he still plans on giving it to every voter through the newspaper distribution method. The journalist said that he had personally seen some of the one million envelopes that the DMK had prepared for the Madurai race, each of which contained a 500 rupee (10 USD) note. The journalist told us that Azhagiri wanted to double the amount to 1000 rupees (20 USD) per voter, but the DMK leadership was reluctant to commit 20 million USD to one parliamentary race. A week after we met with the journalist, newspapers reported that DMK officials were handing out envelopes with 500 rupees to voters.
Does vote-buying work?
11. Although our interlocutors agreed that paying cash influences voter behavior, they disagreed on the extent to which it did. We consistently probed why parties trust people to cast their vote for the candidate who pays them in light of the fact that there is no way to confirm that an individual voter actually “”honors the deal.”” Patturajan of the DMK said voters who take money feel “”honor bound”” to vote for the candidate. Kannan, the Congress official from Madurai, agreed that cultural norms ensure that poor voters in particular will feel obligated to vote for the candidate from whom they accept money. He said candidates play to religious sentiments and traditional beliefs to ensure bribed voters hold up their end of the bargain.
12. Annamalai of The Hindu argued that many voters “”will still vote their conscience.”” He said voters find the bribes “”insulting,”” and they vote against the candidate even though they are forced to take the money as it is left on their doorstep. He cited his own staff as an example, noting that the ones who received money during the Thirumangalam by-election pooled it together to donate to a scholarship fund for a poor student but largely voted against the DMK candidate. Annamalai’s view, however, is likely limited to the largely middle- and upper-class readership of his English-language newspaper.
13. Karti Chidambaram said that bribes are useful but not necessary to political success. He said that bribes are one factor among many, along with the quality of the candidate, the strength of the party, and the issues. But he cautioned that bribes alone will not prevail: “”Anil Ambani (an Indian billionaire who is one of the world’s richest men) can’t win an election just by paying people off. It doesn’t work that way.”” Chidambaram said that candidates need a strong party apparatus in order to win elections, but that “”bribes can help put you over the top”” in a close race.
Diminishing returns due to bribe inflation?
14. The DMK’s decision to field Azhagiri for the Madurai parliamentary seat has raised voter expectations. Congress’s Kannan said that 110,000 people signed up for voter identification cards after he announced his candidacy, presumably motivated by their desire to get Azhagiri’s bribe by putting their names on the voting rolls. Patturajan said that Azhagiri’s presence on the ballot had “”raised expectations”” with people expecting to get the same 5,000 rupees per vote offered in Thirumangalam. He said that his dhobi (clothes washer) told him, “”I have five votes in my family, so I should get 25,000 which will pay for my daughter’s marriage.”” When Patturajan told the dhobi that the DMK would not be paying 5,000 per voter this time around, the dhobi replied that he would vote for Azhagiri (presumably keeping in mind Patturajan’s relationship with Azhagiri) regardless of the amount offered, but that “”most people will hesitate if the DMK only gives 1,000.”” Patturajan conceded that he was concerned that the DMK could be harmed by its failure to meet the expectations created by the extraordinarily large Thirumangalam bribes. But he remained optimistic, arguing that Azhagiri will still prevail by paying more money to more voters than his opponent, who is from the more law-abiding Communist Party of India.
Where’s the money come from? Corruption and corporates…
15. The money required to pay bribes comes from a variety of sources, primarily from the proceeds of corruption and from funds the parties raise from businesses. Corruption, according to interlocutors, is a major source of funds for political parties who are in power. “”The DMK can try to buy elections because it has spent years in power in Delhi and Chennai,”” said one journalist. In addition to corruption, backers in the business community regularly fund political parties’ election activities. Ravi Sam, Managing Director of Adwaith Lakshmi Industries, Inc., a major textile manufacturer in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, told us that he had been avoiding visiting Chennai as of late. “”It is the season for the political parties to come looking for donations,”” he said. But, Sam said, “”There is no avoiding it in the end,”” and each party gets its “”package”” depending on its place in the hierarchy. Another entrepreneur echoed Sam’s comments, telling us that even in a one-party town like Azhagiri’s Madurai, business people hedge their bets by contributing to multiple political parties.
Cash for votes a way of political life
16. Comment: Among the many factors — personalities, alliances, caste, and religion, to name just a few — that play out in Indian elections, the role of money is one of the most difficult to analyze. Observers and participants see bribery as a fact of life in India’s elections. But the methods used and the degree to which they impact voter preferences are, by their very nature, hard to assess, especially for outsiders. That said, our experience in South India suggests that the practice of paying cash for votes is widespread and that it is likely to swing elections, especially close contests, given India’s predominately poor electorate. The influence of the many other factors makes it impossible for a political party to “”buy”” all of the seats in play in any election, but cases like the Thirumangalam by-election and Azhagiri’s run for parliament show that voter bribery will no doubt have an impact on the results of India’s elections when they are announced on May 16. End comment.