On a hot afternoon in Vriddhachalam, in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu, the charismatic Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa took stage at a rally organised ahead of the May 16 Assembly polls. It was around 3 pm and the sun beat down upon the crowds that had been waiting for her since 9 am. Many had come from places like Ariyalur and Perambalur, about 80 km away.

While many of these people wanted to catch a glimpse of Amma, as Jayalalithaa is popularly called, a large number of them admitted to journalists that they came because of the promise of Rs 250 per head for women, Rs 300 for men, a packet of biryani each, and a quarter bottle of hard liquor for the men. The crowd at the venue was approximately around one lakh. Even allowing for a conservative estimate, the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam must have spent a mind-boggling sum of money just on this rally alone. And there’s over a month left till polling day.

But it is not just the AIADMK that resorts to such tactics to draw in crowds. The other major Dravidian party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, is equally complicit. Local leaders of both parties said they are expected to round up people, pay them, transport them, and ply them with food and alcohol. “Our district secretary will inform all of us about the strength of the crowd needed at the rally,” said a party worker of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, who did not wish to be named. “If it is an urban centre, like Chennai, we will bring people from the slums. If it is rural, we will send buses and autorickshaws to villages and bring people. Our political survival depends on showing crowds.”

After the AIADMK’s Vriddhachalam rally on Monday, its workers too said that a huge amount of effort had gone into getting people to the venue. Each of the 13 candidates being introduced at the event was asked to bring in 20,000 people. There is no skimping on cash at such events.

The expectant voter

The Election Commission of India classifies Tamil Nadu as a “highly sensitive state”. This is mainly because politicians, and a section of the public, have come together to make the individual vote a saleable commodity.

Tamil Nadu tops the list of states going to the polls this time in terms of unaccounted cash, and goods seized by the Election Commission’s flying squads. The model code of conduct has been enforced since March 4. But as of April 11, Rs 21.85 crore has been seized in Tamil Nadu, according to EC data. This amount is more than the combined cash seized from three other states and a union territory that are also going to the polls.

It’s not just cash though. In Salem, the Election Commission seized over a hundred pairs of silver anklets bearing the photos of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M Karunanidhi and his heir apparent MK Stalin. This haul was worth Rs 3 lakh. Similarly, gold jewellery, liquor, illicit arrack and even 10,000 kg of palm oil were seized from Pattukottai in Thanjavur district. Mobile phones, gas stoves, stainless steel vessels, saris, veshtis (dhotis) and bags of rice have also been confiscated.

Such is the expectation from voters that even when political parties do not offer freebies, voters imagine there’s still some small gift out there. For instance, the DMK announced a “missed call campaign” in mid-February, where supporters would get a call back from the number called and hear a message from Karunanidhi. At that time, a rumour spread like wildfire in Periyakulam in Theni district. “Everyone said that if we give a missed call to the DMK number, they would automatically recharge our mobiles with Rs 100,” said S Shankar, a resident of Periyakulam. “I called the number at least 20 times. Nothing happened though.”

Cash flow

In Chennai, police are cracking down on pawn shops too since local politicians are clearing small jewellery loans en masse in order to make voters feel indebted to them.

On the other hand, there are hapless victims of this crackdown as well. A cattle merchant from Erode told Scroll.in that the Election Commission had seized money he had made after a sale. “When I sold a cow at the cattle fair I had Rs 75,000 with me, which was confiscated,” said the merchant. “What documents does one have for selling a cow? The EC does not differentiate between the money with politicians and the public.”

Social activist Padam Narayanan said that many people in Tamil Nadu felt they were unfairly targeted by the Election Commission’s squads while politicians got away. “The Election Commission confiscates money from small traders and the public, but the bulk of the money with politicians to bribe voters is moving around freely without any check,” said Narayanan. “The commission takes action in its own ways but politicians find new ways to make the money reach its destination.”

In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, Rs 39 crore was confiscated in Tamil Nadu. That increased to Rs 60.1 crore in the 2011 Assembly polls, and in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, nearly Rs 77 crore was confiscated. More than half of such confiscated money is never claimed, said Income Tax Department officials. “After the 2011 polls, Rs 36 crore was not claimed by anyone,” said an IT Department official who did not wish to be named. “We deposited it in the government treasury.”

The official detailed the route that the confiscated cash took once seized by the Election Commission. “For about three months after seizure, the money will be with the Income Tax Department,” he said. “One can show proper documentation and get back the money, but most of them do not do so. So if no one comes to claim it, we then deposit the amount in the government treasury. After that it is impossible to get the money back,”

Former Election Commissioner Naresh Gupta said that the problem was indeed huge. “Cash for votes has been there for a very long time, but this has become gargantuan in the last 10 years,” Gupta said. “This happens in a large way in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The Election Commission takes several measures to curb this but only when the voter says that he will not take cash for his vote, can this be eliminated.”

The Thirumangalam formula

When candidates visit people’s homes seeking votes, Tamil tradition dictates that the woman of the house conduct an aarti to ward off the evil eye. The candidate is expected to put some money on the plate. This practice has been in vogue since the time of former chief minister and founder of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, MG Ramachandran. This set the precedent in the state of paying cash for votes.

The 2009 Thirumangalam bypoll in Madurai district was a game-changer of sorts. The DMK, following a strategy proposed by MK Alagiri (Karunanidhi’s politically estranged elder son), adopted the practice of paying cash directly to people. For about a week before the bypoll, newspapers landing at the doorsteps of Thirumangalam’s residents had a picture of the rising sun, the poll symbol of the DMK, along with currency notes ranging from Rs 100 to Rs 500. The DMK won the bypoll. That is when other politicians took note of the Thirumangalam formula.

At street corner meetings in Tamil Nadu, one hears a common refrain: “Thi mu ka kodu potta, Anna thi mu ka road poduvaanga (If the DMK draws a line, the AIADMK will lay a road.)” This means that whatever the DMK does, the AIADMK will do better.

That was evident in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when the AIADMK is said to have mapped every street and house, giving different amounts of money to the voter, depending on her or his political leaning. The police and the Election Commission struggled to control this clinical and strategic cash distribution by the ruling party, said sources in the police department.

In a no-holds barred contest, which is expected to go right down to the wire, money will play an important role in ensuring a victory margin. The Election Commission may do its best, but when the politician and the voter collude, such illegality is almost impossible to curb.