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Free TVs and laptops for voters in Tamil Nadu election

12 May 11 15:14 GMT

By Nidhi Dutt
Tamil Nadu

The assembly elections in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu have turned into a competition between the political parties on who could give away the best free gift.

An elderly lady draped in a pink and orange sari sits on the dusty cement floor of her home, straining to make out the picture on her small television perched on a rickety stand.

Twenty-year-old Ramya Mani's aging grandmother tunes in to the latest episode of a long-running, emotional soap story, the kind Indian television is famous for.  

Their little hut is no more than two-by-three metres. In the hot and dark nothingness, two things catch my eye - a gas stove and that tiny TV.

Both happen to be gifts from the incumbent political party of Tamil Nadu - tokens of thanks for being faithful voters.

Over the past five years, tens of millions of people, like Ramya and her grandmother, were thanked in this way by the ruling DMK party.

It all started back in 2006 when the DMK (who were in opposition) pledged to give voters television sets in a last-ditch attempt to salvage an all-but-lost election.

Much to its surprise and that of the opposition, the DMK won. It seems the freebies swung it.

So successful was this TV-for-vote drive, that this time round the main opposition party has also made gift-giving a central part of its election campaign. In fact both major parties have written giveaways into their manifestos.

Consumer bonanza

Political observers say that the local parties seem to think that makes the practice look less corrupt and protects them against accusations of blatant vote buying.

But the gifts and cash-for-votes in this southern state have turned the latest assembly election into a chaotic, consumer bonanza.

A mind-boggling array of hand-outs are on offer ranging from basic cold hard cash, to medical insurance for the elderly and gold for underprivileged brides... the list goes on.   

Voters I spoke to said some of the poorest households in the state stand to rake in a whole host of consumer durables and household goods.

But none of this comes free. Take the TVs for instance. Each one is worth around $30. Since 2006 it is estimated that more than 15 million of them have been distributed state-wide.

Experts believe the funds for these gifts have come from government coffers - money that should have been used for social projects and major development.

Moral question

I wondered how the lucky voters would remember who had rewarded them.

But on closer inspection of the freebies given to Ramya and her grandmother I could see embossed on the front of the television and on the edge of the gas stove, the emblem of the "Government of Tamil Nadu". 

On polling day, voters could face a hard choice: "Should I vote between a grinder [a type of blender] or medical insurance?"

But when will this freebie drive stop? The election commission says it has tried hard to clamp down on cash transfers and vote buying. But it too concedes that it cannot police all parties all the time.

I ask Ramya about the morality of accepting the gifts. She says she would not mind a few more things.

She has got her eye on one party's promise of laptops. But she adds, rather sheepishly, that she would have voted for them regardless of the freebies.

But I wonder: "So much for the world's biggest democracy... may the best freebie win!"

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