How do Indian politicians and political parties shrug off corruption charges and romp home in elections? Voters in the world’s largest democracy seem to have full faith in legislators and ministers who accept bribes and blatantly misuse and abuse their office for personal gains.
This intriguing reality came to the fore once again on May 19 when Jayaram Jayalalitha scored a record victory in Tamil Nadu after being tried, convicted and sent to jail on corruption charges as recently as in September 2014. And in West Bengal the Trinamool Congress bagged 211 out of 294 seats despite its eight lawmakers being caught on camera earlier this year coolly accepting bundles of cash from muck-raking journalist Mathew Samuel posing as a wealthy investor to expose them.
The blind acceptance of Jayalalitha by the electorate is mind-boggling. She was found guilty of amassing wealth of more than $10 million, which was unaccounted for. Law enforcers also recovered from her residence 28 kg gold, 800 kg silver, 750 pairs of shoes, 91 watches and 10,500 sarees. She was given a four-year prison term by the trial judge but the High Court freed her on technical grounds. The case is now before the Supreme Court of India and there is every possibility of the apex court packing her off to jail again after hearing resumes in July.
In West Bengal, eight Trinamool leaders caught in what has come to be known as the Narada Sting Operation, fought the April-May legislative assembly elections. Except Madan Mitra — who also featured in the Saradha chit fund scam and is currently in jail — the rest won hands down. The bribe tapes had virtually no impact on urban or rural voters even in a highly politicized state like West Bengal, although the Opposition and the media went full throttle painting the nailed Trinamool leaders as enemies of the people. But, obviously, the people thought otherwise.
The trend has baffled sociologists and political scientists. Some studies in India and Spain suggest that “political corruption has little impact on voters under certain circumstances, particularly in situations where corrupt politicians are seen as having delivered economic benefits to the masses”.
Simon Weschle, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Carlos-III-Juan March Institute in Madrid says: “Voters are less tolerant of corruption if it only benefits politicians, but they seem to be more accepting of corruption if it is seen as benefitting the population in some way.”
Going by Weshle’s logic, the secret of Jayalalitha’s extraordinary electoral appeal lies in subsidized food canteens, free laptops with Internet connection to students, 50 percent subsidized scooters or mopeds for women, an allowance of Rs18,000 to pregnant women, and other populist schemes like gifting food mixers and grinders to under-privileged families. And these schemes are invariably named after her. The subsidized canteens are known as Amma Canteens. Amma in Tamil is mother — an honorific title by which Jayalalitha is addressed by her frenzied followers.
In West Bengal, the sins of Trinamool leaders caught on camera gleefully accepting bribes seem to have been forgiven by the masses who received rice and wheat at Rs2 per kg from the Trinamool state government besides free bicycles to 350,000 school girls. Gifted to schoolgirls, the bicycles come in handy for the entire family. Other populist measures include subsidies to religious preachers, financial allocations to youth clubs in various localities, and allowances for girls over 18 who have refused to get married so that they can complete their studies.
It seems that measures announced for the common man are an effective shield against the consequences of corruption in high places. Around three decades ago, the Bofors arms scandal brought down the Rajiv Gandhi government although the corruption charges were never proved in a court of law or otherwise. But last year, the Rashtriya Janata Dal headed by Lalu Prasad Yadav, who was tried, convicted and sentenced in a corruption scandal, won a bitterly-contested election in Bihar against a formidable foe like the Narendra Modi-led BJP.
And now Jayalalitha and the tainted Trinamool Congress have won landslide victories heralding a sea change in voter attitude to political corruption.