COIMBATORE: It’s a game of cat and mouse for Naresh and his “flying squad”, stopping cars, trucks and scooters to hunt for goodies being handed to voters in India’s mammoth election starting this week.
The illegal doling out of everything from alcohol to kitchen appliances has long been a feature of the vast undertaking that is Indian elections. But it’s getting worse.
Naresh (not his real name) is part of one of 60 “mobile flying squads” in just one district in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where political parties are notoriously generous at election time.
“We never really know how our day will end,” Naresh, a khaki-uniformed policeman, said as AFP accompanied him and his team of officials around the prosperous industrial town of Coimbatore in their two SUVs.
“There are days when we get nothing. But on others, a timely tip-off by rivals or by plain perseverance and luck, we may find cash, a stash of alcohol or other freebies,” he added.
Over several hours, and in constant touch with a command centre, they stop dozens of vehicles and comb through the interiors, even under moped seats, but in vain — this time.
The day before another squad impounded a vehicle packed with saris. Others in the past have seized booze, watches, juicers, mixers, or just hard cash.
And while Tamil Nadu is a hotspot for such practices, it’s a nationwide phenomenon in the country of 1.3 billion people voting between April 11 and May 19.
In late March authorities said that they had already seized Rs1.5 billion (Dh80.7 million), 4.4 million litres of liquor and even precious metals and illegal drugs.
From the moment the election was announced in mid-March, special laws took effect banning Indians from carrying large amounts of money, gold or silver without proper supporting documentation.
Officials such as police and railway staff are also granted temporary powers during the campaign to seize items they believe are being used to sway voters.
The phenomenon may not be new but many observers say that it has only become more acute in recent years, giving a huge advantage to richer candidates who can always spend more to get elected.
A report by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a New Delhi-based non-government entity pushing for electoral transparency, says that 32 per cent of candidates in the first phase of voting on Thursday are multimillionaires.
“Our statistics prove that the candidates with criminal backgrounds and money have a much better chance of winning,” Anil Verma, head of ADR’s National Election Watch unit, told AFP.
“The unlimited flow of money and its use to induce voters is increasing and we can see it with the nationwide cash seizures by authorities,” he added.
Kumar, a Coimbatore resident who uses only one name, told AFP that he always rejected any inducements offered by local candidates.
“The parties give us Rs500 (Dh26.5) each asking us to vote for their party. I tell them that I don’t need money to vote and that I’d vote for whoever I want to vote,” he told AFP.
But he’s likely just one side of the coin.
Another ADR survey found 41 per cent of those polled felt that the distribution of freebies was an important part of the election process — even though almost 73 per cent know it is illegal.
“Many politicians say that voters themselves demand freebies and they feel even more pressured if any rival offers them,” Verma said.
“It is a temptation many can’t resist. One can still understand the economically weak doing it but in some Indian states including Tamil Nadu, even the middle classes often take the money and the freebies,” he added.
Meanwhile, others say that while they might take what is offered, they won’t necessarily fulfil their side of the bargain.
“Why refuse when they offer us money? We can still go and vote for the candidate we like,” said Senthil Kumar, a Coimbatore cab driver.
“I even tell my family to take the money but vote for whoever they want.”