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19 May 2016 Editorial


19  MAY 2016

Tamil Nadu’s direct cash transfers

The Election Commission may believe it has done enough by postponing voting in two Assembly constituencies in Tamil Nadu where there were allegations of rampant voter bribery and distribution of cash and gifts over the last month, and ordering an inquiry. But given the situation on the ground, coupled with the EC’s own grim portrayal of the widespread electoral malpractice, deferring the election in Aravakurichi and Thanjavur by a week is a grossly inadequate response. For one, there is enough reason to believe that the cash-for-votes phenomenon has taken deep roots in all constituencies. Also, deferment means little in the long run if recovery of cash is not followed up with the implementation of strategies to stamp out this perversion. In Aravakurichi, the EC seized Rs.4.77 crore from a person linked to the AIADMK and its Ministers. It seized Rs.1.98 crore from the DMK candidate and his son. It found evidence that ambulances were used for cash runs to distribution points. Details of ward-wise distribution, possibly of up to Rs.6 crore, have been found in Thanjavur. A well-oiled cash distribution system was undoubtedly in place. Some cases have been registered, but the candidates remain untouched. Hence the widespread scepticism about the EC’s claim that with the seven-day postponement the “vitiating effect” of the money and gifts distributed would “lose its intensity”.

The term “money power” is used to describe the financial clout of some candidates backed by superior resources. In India’s electoral history, there have been any number of allegations of attempts to influence voters. However, Tamil Nadu is acquiring a reputation for its well-oiled cash economy of electioneering, with every vote seen to be on auction. This dynamic, in part, explains why Assembly elections in the State are becoming so lacklustre, with the essential democratic outreach through manifestos and programmes replaced by competing rosters of freebies and, behind the scenes, the promise of payment for votes. By-elections held a decade ago heralded the beginning of large-scale bribing of voters, and there are suggestions that few, if any, constituencies are wholly free of ‘cash’ enticements. Indeed, candidates tremble at the prospect of meeting voters ‘empty-handed’. The EC has used its enormous powers effectively to end most malpractices across the country. It has worked successfully to increase turnouts and opened up access to polling booths to all sections. However, it has clearly failed to contain money power, especially in Tamil Nadu. That is only to be expected. The EC cannot wage this battle alone — efforts to curb the flow of cash in election campaigns need to be embedded in a wider cleaning up of the account books of political parties. Campaign finance remains anachronistically opaque, and the distortions include not just “money power” at election time, but also corruption in administration and in, say, the use of local area development funds. The only cause for cheer in this grim scenario is that voters do not necessarily vote for the highest bidder.

Rebooting ties with Iran

Even before India announced Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Iran, it was certain that the Centre was keen on taking ties with this “extended neighbour” to a higher level. The removal of sanctions on Iran following the nuclear deal has ended its isolation, and enabled its return to the economic and diplomatic mainstream. Over the last few months, Iran hosted several high-profile visitors, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Three senior Ministers of the Modi government, including External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, have travelled to Tehran in the past few months to step up engagement, revive some stalled joint projects as well as set the stage for the prime ministerial visit. Mr. Modi’s trip on May 22-23 is expected to bridge the trust deficit in bilateral cooperation and boost energy and trade ties while expediting India’s connectivity plans. Strong ties with Iran are vital for India. The key factor is energy. Till sanctions were imposed on Iran, it was India’s second largest source of crude oil after Saudi Arabia. Once the Chabahar port in Iran is developed, it will offer India alternative access to landlocked Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. Both Iran and India share the goal of a stable government in Kabul free of the Taliban’s influence. Globally, New Delhi and Tehran are on the same page in their opposition towards groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Despite these shared interests, bilateral ties took a beating during the sanctions years. India had voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency over its clandestine nuclear programme and, under pressure from the U.S., slashed oil imports from the country by up to 40 per cent during the period. New Delhi had also backed off from a pipeline project that aimed to bring natural gas from Iran to India through Pakistan. But with sanctions removed and foreign countries and companies rushing back to Tehran to seize business and economic deals, it is important for India to reboot relations. Iran also seems keen on pursuing stronger ties with India. The Iranian government had invited Mr. Modi some months ago and expressed interest in expediting stalled projects. Mr. Modi’s visit assumes greater significance in the larger context of his own policy of enhanced engagement with West Asia. The Iran visit comes after his trips to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and ahead of visits to Qatar and Israel. The government appears to be trying to reach out to the three poles of the region. While it will pursue good ties with the Sunni Gulf for energy supplies, Iran would act as a gateway to Central Asia besides enhancing India’s energy security. Israel remains one of India’s top defence and technology suppliers. The success of this policy depends on New Delhi’s capacity to do the balancing act. The Iran visit is an opportunity to restore equilibrium in India’s foreign policy, which, of late, was seen to be skewed towards Israel and Saudi Arabia.

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