Christmas has arrived early in Puducherry. Along with promises of cash this election season, voters of Puducherry have been showered with presents that range from the unusual – pots and pans – to the deal-clinchers – LED televisions – from hopeful candidates.

Earlier this year, Valli (name changed), a resident of Puducherry, had to just flash her ration card to get 12 household items, including an induction stove, and a rice cooker. “We were told that this was from one of the potential candidates and given as a gift to each household,” she said.

Wary of the Model Code of Conduct, this year, the candidates of Puducherry distributed their freebies and money much before the elections were announced.

Bountiful harvest

It was a bountiful harvest season this year, at least when it came to election-related handouts. “For Pongal, we received four or five sugarcane stalks, rice, daal and a number of other household items from various people,” Valli said. “While the local MLA also distributes items, other hopeful candidates also distributed handouts for the festival,” Valli said, adding that this had become a standard practice in her area, Lawspet, in the past few years.

In a number of constituencies, candidates had distributed freebies well before the announcement of elections. According to former Communist Party of India(Marxist) General Secretary M Perumal, in Lawspet and in a few other constituencies, people have received more than Rs 3,000-worth of gifts each even before the model code became applicable.

In 2011, the cash-for-votes scandal erupted in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, with a Wikileaks cable alleging that politicians had admitted to violating election law to influence voters in the 2009 Thirumangalam by-elections.

The trend of handing out money to ensure voting in Puducherry, however, has a much longer history. According to politicians, the “cash for votes” culture started with the union territory’s first election in 1964.

“Even before that, it was a corruption charge against leaders of the erstwhile Socialist Party, including the first Mayor of Puducherry Goubert, that eventually led to Puducherry becoming a part of India,” N Nandhivarman, political historian, said. When these corruption charges were levelled against the party members, a group met with then Prime Minister Nehru, which set the ball rolling for the union territory’s inclusion in India, he added.

S Coumar, a resident of Puducherry, recalls how his grandmother would receive Rs 10 notes inside the voting slips. “Every election, we would eagerly wait to see how much money there would be inside the voting slip. In the 1960s, Rs 10 was a lot of money,” he said.

According to former chief minister and political historian MDR Ramachandran, what started out as a way to encourage the economically weaker sections has now become compulsory. “Only people who have the money to be able to distribute freebies are being considered by the parties,” he said. “This has resulted in a number of real estate dealers, and wine shop owners entering politics with no knowledge of the party structure, or how the elections work,” he added.

Another former minister explained that in the past, candidates would distribute money to ensure that they won the elections. “Earlier, the money was not a major concern. We would give a few households Rs 10 or Rs 20 to ensure victory. Now, many people will not come to vote unless they receive money from their local candidates,” he said.

It is estimated that politicians spend anywhere between Rs 50 lakh and Rs 3 crores per constituency, with each seat having under 30,000 voters.

It was only after the 1996 elections that candidates were forced to spend big money in their constituencies. “Since that election [1996 general elections], the amount that candidates have been distributing has increased exponentially,” Perumal said. Other politicians agree, saying spending has doubled each year.

Election Commission’s role

Every election, the Election Commission keeps a check on the candidates’ election spending, and cases are filed against the political parties. There are also raids conducted on vehicles to ensure that large amounts of cash are not being transported. For the past week, Section 144 has been in place from 11 pm to 6 am to ensure that people cannot gather in large groups, ostensibly to prevent the transfer of cash. This was tried in 2014 in Tamil Nadu as well but bombed miserably, with political cadres going from home to home to distribute money in small groups.

In Puducherry too, politicians and people argue that imposition of Section 144 has not prevented any transfer of cash. “The only thing this rule has managed to affect are the roadside food vendors and the bars that are normally open till 11.30 pm. Most households have already received the cash and other goodies,” R Sivacoumar, a resident, said.

Since the Model Code of Conduct came into force, the Election Commission has seized Rs 3.3 crore in cash, and returned Rs 2.9 crore, leaving the net seizure at a mere Rs 40 lakhs. They have also seized 9503 litres of alcohol, worth approximately Rs 9 lakh.

“We have filed 25 first information reports against various parties and individuals in Puducherry for inducement, and in Karaikal, we have filed five FIRs,” an election official said. Politicians, however, say that this is a meagre sum compared to the amount that is being distributed.

Money matters

Amidst the melee of candidates offering cash and goodies, A Devasagayam stands out. The Communist Party of India has fielded him in the Ozhukarai constituency. Known for his simplicity, he can be seen every day walking around his constituency – he is very popular with the people. He only wears a khadi dhoti, shirt and no slippers. “Although I have worked for the people and I am well known in the area, I am unsure if I will be able to win here,” he said, adding that the voters needed his help, but when it came to politics, they also expected their candidates to distribute money and freebies.

Last year, CH Balamohan, President of the Confederation of Pondicherry State Government Employees Association, too faced a similar situation. Balamohan is known for helping various labour unions and is a popular figure among the working class in Puducherry. “Unfortunately, this popularity did not convert into votes for me, because we did not distribute any kind of freebies,” he said.

Politicians argue that money is not everything. According to Congress workers, in several constituencies, it was not the person who paid the most money that won. “Money plays an important role, and any candidate who wants to win needs to distribute money and freebies in his or her constituency, but people will continue to vote for the candidate they deem best,” a senior Congress party member said.

The Congress party leadership is attempting to defend allegations of corruption, with Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her son facing the heat over the helicopter deal with AugustaWestland. On May 5, Sonia Gandhi spoke of corruption and the need to overthrow the incumbent NR Congress government in the union territory. The irony is that in the meanwhile, it seems like politicians in Puducherry are trying to perfect the cash for votes system that the Congress brought in to the union territory many decades ago.