Voters showed up in large numbers in Andrha Pradesh this week to kick off the 2009 Indian elections. I was in Hyderabad, the state’s capital, filming the political hustle-and-bustle for Voice of America News correspondent Steve Herman.
There are 16 political parties in Andrha Pradesh alone, some regional and others national like the Congress Party featured on the left.
Capturing the competing political rallies made my head spin. I haven't felt this way since I walked down the Barbie aisle at 'Toys R US' as a wee girl awe-struck by the different incarnations of that dreadful doll
Voters gathered in long lines clinging to what looked like church-fair raffle tickets.
They exited the polling stations with ink stained index fingernails (the Indian version of the "I Voted" sticker one receives in the United States).
Those who are illiterate, like the 82-year-old featured here, also had an ink-blot on their thumbs indicating they voted by finger-print.
During the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election, President Obama soared to financial power thanks to a slew of micro-donations from the American public. Young Americans double clicked on voteforchange.com and zapped over 10 or 20 bucks to secure Obama’s victory. Here in Andrha Pradesh, India (where the first votes for the month-long Indian election have kicked off), it is the complete opposite. The people are on the receiving end of cash hand-outs.
Parties literally hand out wads of cash and liquor to entice voters. In Hyderabad alone, the police seized about 260 million dollars of cash and three times that worth in liquor. That is arguably only two percent of the actual money floating around.
These bills come in small denominations so that party heads can hand them directly to voters in the back alleys of slums and throughout the villages. Just imagine wheelbarrows of rupee notes.
And that is just the pre-election fanfare. While the Obama campaign spoke wistfully of universal health care and timelines for troop withdrawal in Iraq, in Andrha Pradesh the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) promises a television for every home. Vote for me and you’ll be the proud owner of a 14 inch, Chinese made color television! This is an enticing deal despite the fact that many in the state still don't have electricity.
There is a tradition of money distribution in Indian politics. Most parties end up much like “the fat kid in gym class,” just trying to keep up with each other. If they don’t give, then the other party will most definitely win. So, it’s a non-stop game of one-upmanship.
The Western response in this “age of Obama” would be to instantly slam this sort of behavior. It certainly corrupts this notion of free and fair elections which are critical in a democracy.But, I can't help to note the positive side to all of this.
Hear me out. I often call myself a “Pell Grant Pilgrim.” I’ve reached a successful point in my life thanks to the free lunches offered at my public school, thanks to government funded programs for at-risk youth and ultimately was able to go to college thanks to a cart-load of federal aid. In the United States I could get this sort of social welfare through cleaner channels. In India, this reliable infrastructure is just not there.
The fact is, when else are poor villagers and slum dwellers able to go to get this sort of direct financial support from government players? If this is the only welfare program being offered by politicians in an impoverished country, why stop it? As Washington Post Reporter Emily Wax quoted in a recent article “the farmer is like an emperor this election.” Many of these regal villagers are able to use this money to get a good meal in or pay-off a withstanding farm loan. Why not, then, give poor folk the chance to be king for a day?
Signing out, below are some young boys in Hyderabad who have caught election fever!