Every election invariably witnesses the unearthing of slush money, as has proved true of Karnataka as well. Days ahead of the May 12 polling in the state, the seizure of cash, liquor and other freebies worth at least Rs 136 crore by the Election Commission, has, as elsewhere in the past, evoked a lament at the undermining of democracy. This lament presumes that voters will rationally determine whom to elect, and vote for those who are best qualified to govern them. Candidates who purchase votes consequently overturn the scale of evaluation – their purchasing power masks their inadequacies.

Such candidates risk the Election Commission’s hawk eye to purchase votes because they know that the most rational choice for a large segment of Indian voters in any election is to sell their votes. The sellers comprise those who believe their votes will neither empower them nor enhance their living conditions. Their only tangible gain from democracy then is to monetise their right to vote, arguably the most rational choice in their deplorable economic condition.

The working of the vote-market was vividly illustrated in a recent Times of India report, which claimed that aides of candidates in Karnataka have been transferring Rs 1,000 to the Jan Dhan accounts of voters who have pledged them their vote. The voters have been promised another tranche of Rs 1,000 after the election results are announced on May 15.

Thus, Karnataka’s vote-market has priced a vote at Rs 2,000, which signifies a lucrative deal for many poor voters, involving as it does little work other than going to the polling booth. By contrast, their daily lives are harsh. According to a gazette notification effective from April 1, the monthly minimum wage rate for an unskilled worker in Karnataka is Rs 12,270, ignoring minor variations across different industries. In other words, an unskilled voter in the state can earn nearly 17% of their monthly wage by voting.

Many unskilled workers might not even find work for the entire month. Nor do all employers necessarily pay the minimum wage. Though nobody would expect losing candidates to pay the second instalment, for those who do not have assured daily employment, even Rs 1,000, or 8.33% of the minimum monthly wage, would seem like a deal. Think of the lure for those who earn Rs 236 a day under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Under it, a person is guaranteed 100 days of work in a year, but usually manages just 40 days.

The vote market

It is India’s socio-economic architecture that has created a market for trading votes for money, a market that neither political morality nor the Election Commission’s machinery can obliterate. That is why vote-markets mushroom clandestinely before every election anywhere in the country.

In a 2014 interview to Scroll,in, Shefali Misra, the Aam Aadmi Party’s candidate from Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, in that year’s Lok Sabha elections, disclosed, “The going rate in UP in the last Lok Sabha election was said to be Rs 1 lakh for every 150 votes.” It means a vote in Uttar Pradesh in 2014 was priced at Rs 666.66, comparing unfavourably with Karnataka’s current rate of Rs 2,000 a vote.

But then, the economic vulnerability of voters is higher in India’s most populous state. The current monthly minimum wage for unskilled workers in Uttar Pradesh today is just Rs 7,613, or Rs 4,657 less than in Karnataka for the same category. Since this wage rate came into effect on April 1, it was presumably lower in 2014. More significantly, the current unemployment rate in the state is 5.5%, nearly double that of Karnataka’s 2.6%. For those who are unemployed, voting day is an opportunity to make money.

This is not to claim that the market takes into account economic indices before fixing the price of a vote in the area. But the thumb rule is that a vote in a poorer state is likely to be priced lower than it is in a wealthier state. The price of a vote could also depend on the nature of electoral competition. Since the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party are locked in a dead heat in Karnataka, every vote there becomes dearer and will send its price north.

Perhaps the most fascinating eyewitness account of cash-for-votes is that of Manpreet Randhawa, who wrote an article on it for the Hindustan Times in 2009. During that year’s Lok Sabha elections, Randhawa went to the polling booth to cast his vote in Mansa, part of the Bhatinda Lok Sabha constituency in Punjab, where Harsimrat Kaur Badal of the Akali Dal was pitted against the Congress’ Raninder Singh, son of Amarinder Singh, who is now the chief minister. An Akali Dal worker told him, “You will be paid.” Randhawa cast his vote.

Randhawa wrote that the cash-dispensing centre was a large house where people with voter identity cards milled around. A person was paying Rs 200 to every person who showed a voter identity card. There were people with the identity cards of their entire families. The current minimum wage rate for unskilled workers in Punjab is Rs 302 a day. Nine years ago, it would have been even lower. A family of four could earn Rs 800. Randhawa informed officials about the vote market. No raids took place.

(Photo credit: PTI).

Sabotaging the saboteurs

The silence on cash-for-votes was rent apart in the Assembly elections in Delhi in 2013 and 2015. Arvind Kejriwal asked Delhi’s voters to take the money parties offered them, but vote for his Aam Aadmi Party. This was his refrain in just about every speech he delivered. The results showed that the poor took Kejriwal’s advice. The Aam Aadmi Party swept 67 of Delhi’s 70 Assembly seats in 2015. In a sense, Kejriwal introduced the idea that it was not unethical to betray the saboteurs of the democratic process.

But Punjab found an antidote to Kejriwal’s formula in the 2017 state elections. People were asked to swear on their holy books that they would vote for the candidate whose money they accepted. At several places, voters were marched to gurdwaras and temples to be administered the oath. The fear of God runs too deep in India for people to violate their religious pledge.

No less significant is the fear of the candidate who is forking out the cash. Since ballots are not mixed before they are counted, the purchaser can tally the number of persons paid with the votes the candidate bagged. Obviously, individual identities cannot be known, but if there is a large mismatch, the credentials of the broker between the seller and buyer are tarnished. Often, the broker is the leader of a clutch of people who depend on him for work and assistance during an emergency. It is for this reason these people are disinclined to betray the broker.

For sure, the poor have gained from anti-poverty measures over the last 70 years. They also gain employment because of development projects, such as building of roads. But so abysmal and unpredictable are their earnings, so backbreaking their work, that for them, money earned from selling votes seems like manna from heaven. They also know that a future government cannot roll back the existing anti-poverty measures.

Middle class morality

At a certain level of income, the lure to sell votes diminishes. Take middle class voters, who are generally not paid for their votes. For one, Rs 2,000 a vote is unlikely to make even a temporary difference to them. For the other, it is a price too low to indulge in an unethical act, which often has most humans experience the sting of self-reproach.

It is not that the Indian middle class is a paragon of morality – they give and take bribes, and circumvent laws. But the price a large segment of this class would demand for engaging in an unethical act makes it uneconomical for candidates to purchase their votes. Then again, the turnout of middle class voters on polling day is rarely impressive. They do comprehend the nuances of good governance, but they also know that irrespective of which party comes to power, their lives will not be critically affected. Their networks ensure their work and lives will not stall.

It is the reverse for the poor, who sell their votes because they know that their lives will likely remain tough and brutal regardless of which party is governing them. In their world then, it is rational to milk their votes for pecuniary gains. If India’s vote-market has not brought more people into its fold than it has now, or the price of a vote has not skyrocketed, it is, perhaps, because of the fear of being nabbed and the irrationality of caste and religious politics having equal or even greater pull than materialism, of which rationality is the very foundation.