© 2024 Marfa Public Radio
A 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

Lobby Hours: Monday - Friday 10 AM to Noon & 1 PM to 4 PM
For general inquiries: (432) 729-4578
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
We're currently experiencing technical problems with our KOJP signal, which serves the Presidio area. We regret the inconvenience and hope to be back on the air soon.

In a remote Indian state, trading cash and gifts for votes is an open secret

 Senior leaders of the ruling BJP party hold an election campaign rally at a playground outside Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh, in the second week of April. Voting took place in the remote northeastern Indian state on April 19.
Omkar Khandekar
/
NPR
Senior leaders of the ruling BJP party hold an election campaign rally at a playground outside Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh, in the second week of April. Voting took place in the remote northeastern Indian state on April 19.

ITANAGAR, Arunachal Pradesh — Actors perform a play at a crowded marketplace. "Here come the elections," they sing to an audience of morning shoppers, who chuckle and film the spectacle. "Here come the good times."

"Give me a drink, take my vote," they sing. Or a car. Or cash.

The audience laughs and nods. In the remote northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, trading cash and gifts for votes is an open secret. These actors are part of a local independent theater troupe trying to convince citizens to vote on the basis of a candidate's promises and performance — not bribes.

"We do this street play all over — markets, villages, temples, shopping centers. Our message is: don't sell your vote for money," explains actor Ravi Tayem. "This is holding back our development, because once we sell our votes, the winning candidate is going to try to recoup what they've spent in power. They won't spend it on us."

India's elections are in full swing. The mammoth national voting exercise is spread over six weeks, with nearly a billion eligible citizens tasked with choosing over 540 parliamentarians. Voting began in April and results will be announced June 4. Narendra Modi, India's prime minister for the past decade and leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, is widely expected to win a third term.

Competition is intense, and rules are often flouted — especially where bribery is concerned. In some parts of India, people have even taken to the streets to protest when they didn't receive money they said they'd been promised in exchange for votes.

Although bribing voters is illegal, India's election commission says it has seized more than a billion dollars' worth of cash and other suspected inducements between mid-March and mid-May.

These included food, alcohol, jewelry, drugs and what the commission referred to as other "freebies."

"The analogy that I like to use is that of a poker game," says Milan Vaishnav, a Washington, D.C.-based expert on India's political economy and author of When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics.

Roots, a theater troupe from Arunachal Pradesh, performs a satirical street play about the practice of cash for votes in the state capital Itanagar in the second week of April. "Our message is: don't sell your vote for money," says actor Ravi Tayem.
/ Omkar Khandekar/NPR
/
Omkar Khandekar/NPR
Roots, a theater troupe from Arunachal Pradesh, performs a satirical street play about the practice of cash for votes in the state capital Itanagar in the second week of April. "Our message is: don't sell your vote for money," says actor Ravi Tayem.

He says candidates see bribing voters as the cost of doing business.

"If you're playing poker, and if you want to get a [hand] of cards, you have to put something in the pot," he says. "And there's no guarantee that putting money in the pot is a guarantee of victory, but it ensures that you get a [hand] of cards."

It's not clear how many are swayed by cash or gifts to vote a certain way. The most recent large-scale survey of voters was conducted six years ago by the New Delhi-based Association for Democratic Reforms. It found that for 41% of people surveyed, material inducements — "distribution of cash, liquor, gifts etc." — were an important factor motivating their votes for a candidate.

The issue is pervasive enough that India's election commission identified bribery as one of its biggest challenges in ensuring elections are free and fair.

But election watchdogs and political analysts say despite efforts at law enforcement, the commission rarely pursues prosecutions of those suspected of bribery. According to the Times of India, after India's last national elections in 2019, the election commission told the Supreme Court that it returned most of the money and goods it had seized to their owners. The commission said it initiated prosecution in only three cases, but would not offer any information. The commission did not respond to NPR's multiple requests for comment.

In the 2019 elections, the commission publicized a daily list of seizures from across the country. This time, it has stopped doing it altogether .

Trilochan Sastry, founder-member of the Association for Democratic Reforms, says the commission’s reluctance to prosecute those suspected of electoral bribery sends the wrong signal to political parties. "Keep doing this," he says – "that's the message they're sending."

People sometimes collect as much as a year's earnings in election bribes

Bribery is easier to get away with in far-flung places like Arunachal Pradesh, away from the glare of Indian media and central authorities, than it is in India's more central areas or densely populated cities. The Himalayan state, seen as an exotic destination for many Indians, borders Bhutan, Myanmar and China. It has a tiny population by Indian standards — around 1.5 million people clustered in villages.

That means it's easy to identify voters, contact them and figure out their needs, says Nani Bath, a political scientist at Rajiv Gandhi University in the state capital Itanagar.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to supporters on May 13 in Varanasi, India.
Ritesh Shukla / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to supporters on May 13 in Varanasi, India.

Unlike most other Indian states, elections for both the national parliament and state offices are held simultaneously in Arunachal Pradesh, which voted this year on April 19. (NPR's reporting for this story took place the week before). Bath says that voters can expect the equivalent of up to $2,500 each — about a year's average earnings in Arunachal Pradesh. As India's richest party, the ruling BJP has an advantage.

All that cash has led to a certain cynicism among voters. At a BJP rally in a playground flanked by mountains outside the capital, a group of state leaders gather on a wooden stage, surrounded by armed guards. Amid cheers, they promise to rid the state of corruption.

At least one man in the crowd isn't convinced. "All elected leaders buy votes — even children know that," says construction worker Chukhu Hollo.

Hollo explains how he's seen it done.

"It's like going on a first date," he says. "They will take you to a nice place, feed you, woo you, then talk about what they really want from you."

Party workers call and check if a family is willing to negotiate, he says. They meet. There are some snacks, some drinks, and then the two sides agree on an amount.

But once the votes are cast, there's no guarantee that those who are elected will help their constituents.

Not bribes, but "help"

No party admits publicly to offering bribes for votes. The BJP called on peoplethis year not to accept inducements in exchange for votes.

But one former senior BJP party leader in Arunachal Pradesh tells NPR that the party did, at least in the past, offer cash, favors and gifts for votes. He says he knows this because he helped arrange them.

NPR is not using his name to allow him to speak freely about these practices.

He denies that he's ever bribed anyone to vote. He describes what he did as providing "help."

"When we help people with their medical bills," he says, "they like our ideology, and they vote for us."

This former party leader, whose SUV and solar-powered bungalow stand out among his neighbors' simple bamboo cottages, says he used to recoup his expenses by getting contract work from the politicians he helped elect.

When NPR asked the BJP for comment on this, the party's state vice president Tarh Tarak responded that the party condemns inducement for votes, and that "anyone saying otherwise is making false allegations."

At a local market in Arunachal Pradesh, Sunny Kotin has a cup of tea. "Life is tough around here," Kotin says. "There are folks who don't have any electricity. They want a better life."

Kotin says the inducements and cash offered by politicians gets higher as voting day draws closer. Kotin says even those who refuse at first change their minds.

He says: "It's just too tempting."

Diaa Hadid contributed to this story from Mumbai.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Omkar Khandekar
[Copyright 2024 NPR]