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In India's elections, many say cash-for-votes is an open secret

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

India's ongoing elections are the biggest exercise in voting in the world. Nearly a billion people are eligible to pick candidates for more than 540 parliamentary seats. What motivates some people to vote one way or another? Gifts, even money. NPR's Mumbai producer, Omkar Khandekar, visited one remote Himalayan state where residents say the practice of cash for votes is an open secret.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing in non-English language).

OMKAR KHANDEKAR, BYLINE: Actors perform a play at a crowded market place in Arunachal's state capital, Itanagar. Here come the elections, they sing. Here come the good times.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing in non-English language).

KHANDEKAR: Give me a drink, take my vote - or a car or cash. The audience is a small crowd of morning shoppers. They nod and laugh. Some use their phones to film the satire on electoral bribery, which is practiced widely here in Arunachal Pradesh. Actor Ravi Tayem says they do the street play all over - markets, villages, temples, shopping centers. Their message? Don't sell your votes for money.

RAVI TAYEM: (Non-English language spoken).

KHANDEKAR: Tayem says, "we tell them, this is holding back our development, because once we sell our votes, the winning candidate is going to try to recoup what they have spent in power, and they won't spend it on us." Competition is intense in Indian elections, and rules are often flouted. It is such a pervasive problem that India's Election Commission said it had seized nearly half a billion dollars of cash and inducements even before the polls opened in April.

MILAN VAISHNAV: The analogy that I like to use is that of a poker game.

KHANDEKAR: Milan Vaishnav is an expert on India's political economy. He says candidates see bribing voters as the cost of doing business.

VAISHNAV: If you're playing poker and if you want to get a stack of cards, you have to put something in the pot, and there's no guarantee that putting money in the pot guarantees victory, but it ensures that you get a stack of cards.

KHANDEKAR: And it's not just money on offer. Candidates give anything from food and drinks to laptops and jewelry. They even pay for medical expenses. It's not clear how many folks are actually swayed by this to vote a certain way. But the last available survey, conducted six years ago by a nonprofit called the Association of Democratic Reforms, suggested it does play a role for nearly 2 in every 5 voters. All that cash has led to a certain cynicism here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

KHANDEKAR: At a rally in a playground flanked by mountains, supporters cheer for candidates from the ruling BJP party. I get talking to a construction worker, Chukhu Hollo. He tells me all elected leaders buy votes. Even the children know that.

CHUKHU HOLLO: (Non-English language spoken).

KHANDEKAR: And, he says, "this is how it happens." "The party workers call and check if a family is up to negotiate. They meet. There are some snacks, some drinks. And then the two sides agree on an amount."

HOLLO: (Non-English language spoken).

KHANDEKAR: He says, "it's like going on a first date. They will take you to a nice place, feed you, woo you and then talk about what they really want from you." But this hurts the very people who get money. No party admits to offering tribes for votes. The ruling BJP party called on people this year not to sell their votes. But one former party member says the party did offer cash favors and gifts for votes, and he knows this because he used to help arrange them.

NPR is not using his full name for fear of reprisals against him. To meet him, I jumped in a bus and then a taxi along bumpy roads that pass waterfalls and curve along Himalayan, mountains. A solar-powered bungalow stands out from the bamboo cottages that dot the hills around his town. He was one of the senior leaders and political fixers here in this district. He says he never bribed anyone to vote. All he offered was help.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

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

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

KHANDEKAR: "After the election," he explains, "the winning party politicians start getting contract work, which helps recoup election expenses." In response, a party spokesperson says the BJP condemns money culture and that anyone saying otherwise was making false allegations.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

KHANDEKAR: At the local market in town, Sunny Kotin is having a cup of tea.

SUNNY KOTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

KHANDEKAR: He says, "life is tough around here." "There are folks who don't even have electricity. They want a better life." But as voting day draws closer, he tells me, the amount of money offered by politicians gets higher. Kotin says that even those who refuse at first change their mind.

KOTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

KHANDEKAR: "It's just too tempting."

Omkar Khandekar, NPR News, Itanagar.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Omkar Khandekar
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