‘If Money is Not Distributed, You Are Finished’
In India's contentious politics, it's impossible to avoid the smell of cash.
“It is too hot for campaigning, sir,” the aide explained. “We will take our lunch and then try again in the late afternoon.” It was 104 degrees in the shaded area of the porch where I was sitting and the aide’s words provided a welcome reprieve.
It was 2014, and elections were only two weeks away in this predominantly rural constituency located in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. On this particularly scorching day, I had come to spend some time with a candidate who was standing for elections to the Andhra legislature, which represents the state’s 50 million residents. Due to the relentless heat this time of year, candidates would visit constituents first thing in the morning before breaking around 10 or 11, at which point the sun’s glare became unbearable. They would resume again in the late afternoon, when the worst had passed, and stay out as late as their bodies could stand it before collapsing.
Fortunately for me, I was scheduled to accompany the candidate in his well-air-conditioned SUV for his afternoon and evening engagements. The candidate, whose identity I agreed not to reveal but will call “Sanjay,” was a newcomer to politics. Sanjay was well-educated, quite wealthy by Indian standards, and had several years’ experience in the private sector. Despite his parents’ qualms and his wife’s protestations, he had decided to take the plunge into electoral politics — backed by a wider party, but drawing on his own financial resources. “This has been a great experience,” Sanjay told me in the car as we drove to a nearby village for a rally, “but my wallet does not agree with me.” We both laughed before he continued, “This election is costing me between $1.5 and $2 million.”
Doing the math in my head, I figured Sanjay’s estimate of his campaign expenses was in the ballpark of thirty to forty times the legal limit for a state election (roughly $47,000). His costs rose substantially as the election drew nearer. Sanjay went on to explain that most of the money was his own or his family’s — as a newcomer, he could not rely on big corporate donations, and his party was not much help, either.
His personal wealth was precisely what made him an attractive candidate to the party to begin with.
In February and March 2017, voters in five Indian states are going to the polls. In each instance, the share of wealthy candidates in the fray is even larger than in the previous election; in the north Indian state of Punjab, for instance, 37 percent of contestants are “crorepatis” (that is, they possess a wealth greater than one crore, or 10 million rupees). In the tranquil coastal state of Goa, the assets of sitting politicians have grown by 50 percent in the past five years. But the challenges posed by the rising costs of elections are not unique to India; in democracies the world over, the need to amass a hefty campaign war chest is limiting the talent pool for office while often opening the door to vested interests. And in countries with weak checks and balances, the burgeoning costs of democracy raise the likelihood that, once elected, politicians will use the trappings of office to recoup their expenses.
Under Indian law, although there are strict limits on how much money individual candidates can spend on their campaign, these limits are routinely flouted. The spending caps are both unrealistically low and exceedingly hard to enforce. As a result, candidates and parties engage in a shadowy game of channeling largely undocumented cash in an effort to tilt the playing field in their favor.
To get around strictures prescribed by India’s autonomous Election Commission, candidates have come up with ingenious workarounds. In Sanjay’s case, rather than risk distributing actual bottles of alcohol in the waning hours of the campaign — which could raise unnecessary suspicion — party workers provided households with vouchers (that looked like innocent scraps of paper) for free booze that they could redeem at local liquor outlets. For most households, country hooch would suffice. For influential notables or well-to-do residents, the campaign was compelled to gift name-brand liquor.
I was dubious whether this type of “vote buying” was actually effective. In 2010, I had met a voter in the poor, northern state of Bihar who, mistaking me for a politician, desperately asked me to buy his vote. When I asked him how much he required, he admitted that one party had already given him 100 rupees. So, if I gave him money, too, would he vote for me, I asked? He let out a devilish grin and confessed he takes money from all candidates but then votes for whomever he wishes on the actual day.
I relayed this story to Sanjay and he nodded approvingly. “If money is distributed, voters might give you a chance. But if money is not distributed, you are finished,” he said. It was difficult, if not impossible, to secure an airtight quid pro quo, but the money and goodies were a sign of goodwill and largesse. Politicians like Sanjay held out hope that if they gave more money than the next guy, norms of reciprocity would kick in and voters would feel obliged to vote “the right way.” Doling out cash on the eve of elections was — as a veteran India-watcher once explained to me — akin to a poker game: All players need to ante up before the dealer hands you your cards. It’s the price of admission.
When we reached the village rally, I was introduced to a man who had previously contested elections in the area but was now campaigning for Sanjay. I asked the man why he chose not to run again; he rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, making the universal gesture for cash. “I just finished paying off the last one,” he said with a laugh. Without going into detail, I casually mentioned my conversation with Sanjay about campaign costs. “That’s nothing,” he remarked. “The man who is running for the [national-level] parliamentary seat from this area is spending several times as much.”
Later that night, when we returned to Sanjay’s party office after a series of exhausting though exhilarating rallies, I asked him why he decided to get into politics. He cited all the usual reasons one would expect: public service, a desire to help people, a belief he could better represent the constituency than the incumbent. But given the huge expenses, was the financial investment worth it? “If I am lucky enough to win, next time, I’ll need even more money,” he lamented, already pondering his potential reelection expenses. “How does one remain honest and succeed in politics in this country?” he wondered aloud.
The next day, in between campaign stops, I asked Sanjay about the supposed link between the crush of money and criminal activity (or “muscle,” as it is called in the Indian parlance). The nexus between crime and elections in India is deeply woven into its political fabric.
“Parties have a pretty good sense of what elections cost now and what they’re likely to cost in the future,” Sanjay said. “They know that they have to find well-off candidates to fight elections for them.” What costs 100 million rupees today will cost 200 million rupees five years from now when the next election comes around, he said. But, I interjected, not all were criminals — he did not have a criminal record, for instance. “But there are not enough of us,” he replied. “Without money, you cannot do anything. You will be wiped out. You first have to make money, and then you can do good after you’re entrenched and secure.”
Sanjay related to me the example of one of his party’s senior leaders, who had amassed a large fortune through a series of questionable business dealings that traded heavily on his political connections. He is a good man, Sanjay assured me (in what sounded like a blatant rationalization), but he needed to build a big enough war chest that would allow him to do good in the future. For those in a rush to make money, there were lots of shortcuts available, and parties are always willing to look the other way. “Political parties are full of excuses,” he said with a smirk.
Before departing Sanjay’s constituency, I spent some time with one of the young men tasked with handling the large amounts of cash Sanjay’s campaign would distribute on the eve of elections. The boy, whose parents were longtime friends of the candidate’s, described to me the intricate network of cash distribution he would play a small role in facilitating. The constituency was divided into five segments and for each segment, the candidate had entrusted one family member or close associate with the responsibility of providing “goodies” on the eve of voting. Each of the five “block” leaders, in turn, had five deputies, and so on. The boy was one such deputy, but for someone entrusted with so much responsibility he appeared deeply uninterested in politics, telling me that he was doing it only as a favor since Sanjay was a close family friend. When I asked him if he ever thought of joining politics, his response was swift: “No way.” Politics was a dirty game, he said, and money was having a corrosive effect.
A few weeks before I arrived in Andhra Pradesh, the state held municipal elections, and the boy was asked by another politician friend of the family to help in the final days of that campaign. The candidate he was tasked with helping had come up with a clever plan to win votes: Rather than handing out cash to voters, he would distribute free cell phones. The phones were worth several hundred rupees, but the candidate had ordered in bulk and hence received a huge discount from his supplier. The ploy backfired, the boy explained, because most voters already had a mobile phone and had no use for a second one. Furthermore, voters felt the candidate was behaving like a cheapskate. The rival candidate in the area who stuck to traditional cash handouts won handily. Whether money had anything to do with the candidate’s loss was impossible to verify, but it was immaterial; there was a perception that it cost him the election. “Local elections now cost what state elections used to five years ago. State elections now cost what national elections used to. Where does it stop?” he asked.
On my way to the local airport to catch a flight out of town, I paid one last visit to Sanjay in his makeshift party office. I regaled him with stories the young boy had told me — stories, of course, that Sanjay had already heard. I promised Sanjay I would return in several months if he won his election. “If I win,” Sanjay daydreamed, “maybe I will run for member of parliament in five years.” He paused, smiling, “But to do that, I’ll have to become a billionaire first.”
In the end, Sanjay lost the race by a narrow margin: just 6,000 votes out of more than 163,000 ballots cast. While money made him competitive, it was not enough to catapult him over the top — especially against a well-resourced incumbent backed by a strong party organization. After the poll, Sanjay retreated to his small business, licking his wounds and plotting his future. Last month, I traded messages with Sanjay and he told me that he remains active in politics, making frequent trips to nurture his constituency. He is even thinking of contesting elections in 2019, but first things first: He has to replenish his bank balance.
This article has been excerpted from Milan Vaishnav’s new book, When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics (Yale University Press, 2017)
Photo Credit: SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/Getty Images