A cartoon in a local daily shows a politician with folded hands asking a family of platform-dwellers: "Will you give your vote free? The money meant for you has been seized by the EC."
As Tamil Nadu goes to the polls Monday, the Election Commission has mounted a round-the-clock vigil to check bribing of voters, which has assumed menacing proportions.
Cash for votes is nothing new in this state, of course. No less an authority than former chief election commissioner TS Krishnamurthi once observed: "I have seen elections even in Bihar. But never have I seen such widespread buying of votes as in Tamil Nadu."
Even so, it has touched a new high, or low, this time with the state election commission reporting that in the run-up to the polls, it has recovered Rs 104 crore of unaccounted money, the highest among the poll-bound states. This figure does not take into account Rs 570 crore seized by the SEC from three container trucks in Tirupur Friday night.
Although the State Bank of India chairman has said it was legitimate money being transferred to Vishakapatnam from Coimbatore, there is more to it than meets the eye. The trucks bore Andhra Pradesh registration numbers, and the documents did not mention the registration numbers. The date mentioned on the invoice also did not match, SEC officials have said.
The SBI claims the money transfer had been authorised by the RBI. But then such money should be transported in armoured vehicles under armed escort all the way. The Andhra policemen in the trucks were in plainclothes.
The EC has said it would hold on to the cash till the bank properly explains the "transfer", with documents. The CPI(M) has demanded that the EC also keep the trucks until the election gets over.
Despite EC's best efforts, political parties, mainly the ruling AIADMK, have found ingenious ways to reach money to the voters - through coupons, village headmen and grassroots workers. The going rate is Rs 200 for a vote, which is equal to a day's wage for a landless labourer. A biryani lunch is thrown as an add-on. Can we blame the voter if he falls for it?
The opposition parties have not been able to match the money power of the AIADMK. DMDK leader Vijayakanth's wife Premalatha has rightly said the poor are honour-bound. So, she tells them: "If money is offered, by all means accept it. After all, it is ill-gotten money, it is tax payer's money and so your money. But vote according to your conscience."
To what extent money influenced the poll surveys conducted by leading TV news channels and magazines, and how objective they were remains to be seen. But all have predicted a sweep for J Jayalalithaa. But reporters on the ground say there is a sense of anger against the administration.
Like cash for vote, freebies are taken as a given in elections in Tamil Nadu ever since Karunanidhi offered free television sets in 2006. Jayalalithaa, who succeeded him, took it to the next level by giving free mixies, grinders and fans as well as subsidised canteens, mineral water, even Amma salt
The BJP has claimed the so-called Amma rice - 20 kg per month is offered free in ration shops - is heavily subsidised by the central government, up to Rs 27 a kg, and the state government chips in with a mere Rs 3 a kg, and yet takes all the credit.
The only one to take a bold stand against the freebie culture is Pattali Makkal Katchi's chief ministerial candidate and former Union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss. He has been dismissed as an also-ran in the surveys.
Undeterred, Ramadoss has sought to woo the educated middle class through full-page advertisements in leading dailies in which he states: "No freebies, but quality healthcare and education will be free." He goes on to promise: "No cash for votes. Only developmental plans for the people."
Dr Anbumani tells the voter: "Say no to 50 years of corrupt rule. You don't have to choose between the devil and the deep sea. Now you have a choice - a doctor."
But will his prescription, the bitter pill, be palatable to the people?
The DMK and the BJP have also sought to appeal to the voters through ads. All the candidates of the DMK, led by M Karunanidhi and MK Stalin, have promised clean governance and easy accessibility. On BJP's behalf, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked voters "to put a full stop to the politics of blame game and usher in a corruption-free and efficient administration". The BJP, he has said, "is the only hope". Poll surveys give the BJP only a couple of seats.
Neither Jaya nor the six-party People's Welfare Front led by Vijayakanth have thought it necessary to issue any last-minute appeal. Only a partner in the front has, in a candid moment, said off the record: "They don't want Jayalalithaa and they do not like Karunanidhi, but then they don't take us seriously."
Reflecting the mood of the masses was a maid servant. She said she would take the off day after the election. Reason? The 20th death anniversary of her son-in-law. He died of excess drinking, leaving a young widow and two sons. I asked her whom she would vote. She replied, almost apologetically, that she would vote for Karunanidhi. "At least during his previous stint, essentials were available all through the month in ration shops."
Is that what good governance is all about?
Edited by Mehraj D. Lone