I have been struck by the differences in world coverage of the Iranian elections and the Indian elections. Western news outlets seemed, at times, to have reveled in how poorly the Iranian elections have played out. Indian election coverage abroad is milquetoast in comparison — a misty-eyed celebration of the world’s largest democracy (cue photographs of a poor old woman exiting a polling booth in a remote corner of the country).
Strangely enough, from within, the elections did not look so rosy, especially within Tamil Nadu. Aditya Sinha, the editor-in-chief of the New Indian Express, wrote a great article a few weeks ago calling this round “the most bogus election” of all. But the elections were not quite rigged (at least not in most parts of the state), as Mr. Sinha points out. They were bought. He estimates that Rs. 1,000 crores (more than $200 million) were spent on bribing Tamil voters before the elections. In by-elections that took place in Tirumangalam constituency a few months before these elections, the current Deputy Chief Minister was actually caught on video distributing Rs. 500 notes to voters, but it hardly stopped them from continuing the practice through this round. I heard rumors from friends that, in addition to just handing out cash, booze, and biriyani dinners, the government actually deposited thousands of rupees in the bank accounts of Self-Help Groups (women’s microfinance savings groups that have been widely promoted in Tamil Nadu). Even Jayalalitha, the leader of the opposition and a woman not known for her scruples, seemed to have been blindsided by the sheer scale of the money spent by the winning party on these elections.
Is it surprising then that Tamil Nadu had the highest voter turnout in its history?
But I have to agree with Mr. Sinha: if the voters don’t see anything wrong with it, then I suppose there isn’t anything particularly wrong with buying votes. You could even argue that it is a good resource transfer from the state to the citizen, perhaps even a good way of getting thousands of rupees of black money lost from the population in bribes back to its rightful owners.
However, none of this changes the fact that Western news outlets did very little to probe the image of India’s elections as innocent celebrations of the country’s democratic spirit.