Maheswar Mohanty is certain to be pilloried for his politically incorrect comment at an event in Puri today that even Mahatma Gandhi would have lost the election without money if he was to fight one now. Unpalatable though it may sound, what the Revenue Minister has said is a brutally honest admission of the real electoral dynamics by a man who has won five successive Assembly elections and knows the ground realities much better than any of us do.
Leader of Opposition Narasingha Mishra’s statement that the ‘going rate’ in the just concluded by-election in Bijepur was Rs. 5, 000 a voter may have an element of exaggeration. But the essence of what he said was not very far from truth. Most, if not all, voters these days do sell their vote to the highest bidder. Thus the party that can fork out the maximum amount invariably ends up on the winning side, barring some notable exceptions. Two examples would illustrate how things actually work at the ground level.
A few weeks ago, our maid asked for a day’s leave. When my wife asked her the purpose, she said she would go to her village, somewhere in Nayagarh district, to vote. It was apparently for a repoll or a rescheduled poll as part of the three-tier panchayat elections last year. Worried about the burden of household chores she would have to take care of in her absence, my wife tried to persuade her not to go. But the maid was insistent. When asked why it was so important for her to take a day’s leave to take the trouble of commuting to her village and back, she revealed the actual reason. A local leader from the ruling party had apparently visited her home – and those of two other families from her village – in the slum close to my place where she leaves and handed her money at the rate of Rs 500 per person in the family while insisting that each member must go and vote (no prizes for guessing for whom!). “All I will have to spend is Rs 20 per head on the to and fro train journey to my village (which has just got its first train service),” she said with a chuckle leaving my wife to count the neat packet she stood to make.
It is not as if only the ruling party spends money. The second example is from the 2012 Panchayat elections and was narrated to me by a friend, who is a local BJP leader in the Chandaka area. My friend and a few of his party colleagues had gone to a hamlet where 5-6 families belonging to the Sabara tribe lived and had given them money at the rate of Rs 500 per family to vote for their party. The recipients had readily agreed. But two days after this, the sahi elder came with all the money and handed it back to my friend saying “Sorry, we cannot accept it.” Surprised at the sudden volte face, my friend asked him the reason. “Some ‘shankha’ people came and gave us Rs 1, 000 per family,” he replied rather innocently. Startled though he was, the friend had no option but to take the money back.
While money does play a role in elections all over the country, this is where Odisha is unique. The average voter here has no compunction selling his vote to the highest bidder, but his ‘conscience’ and ‘sense of morality’ would not allow him to vote for someone other than the person or party he has taken money from. My maid could have just kept the money without taking the trouble of visiting her native place or voted for some other party. The Sabar families could have voted for the ruling party and were under no compulsion whatsoever to return the money taken from my friend. But their ‘honour’ and ‘honesty’ did not allow them to do that.
In more politically aware states, voters accept money from whoever offers it – and from as many parties or candidates – but then go on to vote for whoever they think is the right candidate. Not so in Odisha. Voters here believe in the Odia dictum “Jahaara Luna Khaibu, Taara Guna Gaaibu” (“We shall sing paeans to whoever gives us the moolah”!).
There is no point blaming the poor voters who know for sure that their lot would not change no matter who wins an election. They also know that no politician would give them a damn once the election is over. Selling their vote to the highest bidder thus makes sense for them.
There is also a flip side to it. At the grassroots level, it is not difficult for workers of political parties to find out who voted or did not vote for their party. The fear of retribution – which can mean non-sanction or cancellation of a ration card or a PMAY house, apart from physical violence – deters voters from exercising their free choice. This scenario places the ruling party at a distinct advantage over others. Not only does it have more money to outbid its rivals, it is also in a position to punish those who refuse to toe its line.
This is the hard, bitter and unpalatable truth of the BJD’s much trumpeted invincibility.