Stalin Hands Out Laptops as Indian Politicians Ramp Up Campaigns

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
The DMK is part of the coalition government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Photographer: Jock Fistick/Bloomberg

With pledges to dole out laptops to students and food blenders to housewives, the ruling party in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu kicked off its re-election bid in the same generous way it captured power five years ago.

Leaders of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam said they will also hand out color televisions and bus passes for people over 60. Last week, they promised to buy homes for slum dwellers if victorious in state assembly polls beginning April 13.

“In every election, the DMK takes bribing voters to a new level,” said Bibhu Mohapatra of the India Development Foundation, an organization based in the federal capital, New Delhi, that campaigns for better governance. “This is now part of the political process in Tamil Nadu. Voters expect it.”

While about one-fifth of Indian voters surveyed in 2009 by the Centre for Media Studies, also based in Delhi, said that politicians or party workers had offered incentives for their vote in the past 10 years, in Tamil Nadu the figure was a third, the second-highest level in the country. The DMK is part of the coalition government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Kanimozhi, daughter of the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, helps run the governing party with her half-brother M.K. Stalin and denies it is guilty of buying votes. “People need these welfare schemes,” Kanimozhi, who uses one name, said in an interview March 24. “Election promises are made all over the world.” Neither Kanimozhi nor her party have been charged with any wrongdoing by officials in connection with this year’s poll.

Her party says it will distribute laptops to all students from groups at the lower end of India’s caste hierarchy who are in their first year at university or government colleges.

‘Women’s Recreation’

Not to be upstaged, the DMK’s chief rival, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, said in its manifesto it will give portable computers to all students aged 16 to 18. Families will receive a fan, a blender, and a grinder, it said. Those living below the poverty line will get an extra bonus: four free sheep.

At the last state elections in 2006, the DMK offered free color televisions in the name of “women’s recreation and general knowledge.” Since then the party has bought 16 million sets for about $827 million of taxpayers’ money, enough for one in every four people in the state, according to Tamil Nadu’s interim budget published last month.

Handouts included in party manifestos are not barred by election rules, said T.S. Krishnamurthy, who served as India’s chief election commissioner for 15 months up to May 2005. The Election Commission can only prevent the practice during the period between the vote being called and the announcement of the result, he said in an interview March 24.

Mass Poverty

“If you promised a dam, a bridge or a school, it’s for the public good, but when you promise something for a section of voters, in my opinion, it’s a bribe,” Krishnamurthy said.

While Tamil Nadu, with a per capita income of about $1,000 in 2009, according to the government’s statistics department, is prosperous in comparison with other Indian states, about 22 percent of rural households don’t have access to electricity, a study by New York’s Columbia University found. It is home to more than 12 million people -- greater than the population of Portugal -- living on less than $2 a day, the World Bank says.

“Nobody is dying of starvation, the standard of living is reasonable,” Kanimozhi said. To tackle the power shortage, “we have come up with lots of projects in the last five years and by 2012 it will be under control.”

Sari Stampede

Politicians handing out saris to voters in Uttar Pradesh triggered a stampede in 2004 that killed 21 women. In other regions such as Andhra Pradesh parties have pledged free power and cheap rice to poor voters. State assemblies will also be elected in Assam, West Bengal and Kerala in April and May.

Subramaniam Balaji, a Tamil lawyer, filed a complaint to the Election Commission on March 22 claiming that the DMK is breaking rules that prevent parties from paying for votes. He said DMK promises would cost 200,000 rupees ($4,500) per family over five years and that the money would be better spent on poverty-reduction programs or building roads and power grids.

“The government cannot afford to fritter away its money,” Balaji said in an interview in Chennai. “The chief justice of Madras High Court came to a local court recently where there were no tables, no chairs, no bathrooms, no water. And the government is proposing to throw away money on these luxury goods. What on earth is going on?”

Parties led by film stars and scriptwriters have dominated politics in Tamil Nadu for four decades, using cinema to promote Tamil culture and language and win support. DMK head and Tamil Nadu chief minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi wrote plays and film scripts, while AIADMK leader Jayalalitha was formerly a popular actress.

Former Telecommunications Minister Andimuthu Raja, a member of the DMK, resigned from the government in November and is now in jail after being accused of benefitting telecommunications companies in the 2008 award of licenses to run mobile-phone services. He denies any wrongdoing.