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Posted on 17 March 2011

Addicted to goodies, people take corruption in their stride

There appear to be no moral dilemmas in this election, despite 2G and A Raja

Sai Manish

In an atmosphere of outrage over corruption, this one is an eye-opener.

Jagannathan is a daily-wager who now drives an autorickshaw in Chennai. He hears what the streets say. “Sir, Karunanidhi has given me everything,” Jagannathan begins. “In 2007, I got an auto permit. In 2008, I got a free gas connection and the next year I was told the government would pay Rs 1 lakh of any costs I would incur if I were to be hospitalised. Why should I care if Karunanidhi’s family earns crores?”

This is how thousands feel in Tamil Nadu, a state seemingly populated by people who think they owe much to the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). In 1976, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the current chief minister, was described as a master of scientific corruption by the Sarkaria Commission when Indira Gandhi sacked the DMK government on grounds of corruption and imposed President’s Rule.

By 2009, Tamil Nadu had evolved into a ‘Thirumangalam Model’. Many remember a by-election that year. Silva, an avid blogger from Thirumangalam, recounts what happened. “My four-member family got Rs 16,000 in that election. The AIADMK gave Rs 1,000 each to my four family members; the DMK gave another Rs 12,000. Then, DMK leaders would offer chicken biryani every evening and gold coins to old women. Almost every night after 10 pm, we used to line up for free alcohol behind the TASMAC shop.”

Political parties in that by-election inserted envelopes of cash into the morning newspapers. The voter didn’t even have a choice to turn down the bribe! The DMK swept Thirumangalam by a margin of 39,266 votes and Karunanidhi described the victory as an ‘endorsement of my government’s pro-people policies’.

Can an electorate that makes biryani-fuelled choices be expected to defy its own fondness for the goodies every time Tamil Nadu hits the poll road?

Observers believe corruption is not an issue in this election. Instead, price rise, anti-incumbency, shifting caste loyalties, new alliances, urban governance, poll promises, farmers’ unrest, upheaval in the textile industry, and fishermen’s rights are some of the themes that could determine the nature of the fresh mandate.

This is the same electorate that has allowed the two main Dravidian parties to alternate in power though they abandoned the founding ideals on which they used to mobilise the masses. What started as Arivu Vidutalai Iyakkam, a movement to liberate and broaden the intellect of the masses, has transformed into a political environment that fostered a culture of subservience of the conscience to money.

Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination brought the AIADMK to power. After that, the DMK appears to have figured that the best way to minimise voter volatility and retain power was to shower them with material things that go beyond need. The basics were covered by state-sponsored welfare schemes.

The electorate responded to the pampering with double thumbs up. The rousing reception to the freebie culture further reinforced the notion of a tradable voter with buyable rates. This has institutionalised corruption and has embedded a sense of tolerance about dirty money.

As long as money kept the voters happy, those in power could go on enriching themselves and distribute tidbits to the electorate every now and then, by way of free television sets, free auto rickshaws, free movie tickets and free chicken biryani.

Tamil voters are known to be a highly practical lot. In the run-up to this election, there isn’t a whisper on the Eelam issue or on the plight of Tamils displaced by the war in Sri Lanka. This is the first election after the LTTE was defeated and no party is raising the issue because they think the LTTE is history and no longer touches an emotional chord with the electorate.

The C-word falls in the same category.

Says P Radhakrishnan, a social scientist with the Madras Institute of Development Studies, “In Tamil society today, everybody pays a bribe. You have to pay capitation fee to admit your child, you can do nothing about it. From getting a license at the RTO to getting a project cleared from the CM’s office, there is demand for payment. I have to pay money even for the water tanker to arrive at time in my building. People have come to accept corruption as a character trait of their politicians. So the Tamil voter cannot chose between the best and worst. He has to choose the best among the worst.”

Take the 2G spectrum allocation, for instance. The level of understanding of this scam is quite diverse. In Nagapattinam for instance, where the AIADMK is expected to do a good job this time, people believe that Karunanidhi and A Raja together pocketed a cool Rs 1,76,000 crore.

“Where does he keep it? He must have dumped some in the sea to avoid suspicion,” says Ramamurthy, a tea-vendor near the fisherman’s harbour in Nagappatinam as his wife cries out, “This time they better pay us well. Nothing less than Rs 1,500.” “What 1,500? Rs 2,000 for every member of my family if you want my vote,” exclaims his wife’s sister who has joined the conversation.

That’s the Tamil voter—not swayed by moral dilemmas and forever unpredictable in his choices.

This is the same electorate who could be pleased merely if Tamil ministers threatened to pull out of a union government over the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils. The message is clear: it’s not who you are that matters, it’s what you can do for me that counts. But, 2G will be an irritant in the cities where the urban voter finds it far more difficult to be street smart and morally uninhibited like his rural counterparts.

That probably explains why Karunanidhi is likely to contest from the rural constituency of Thiravarur, where he was born, rather than his favoured Chepauk in Chennai. This is the first time since 1967 that Karunanidhi could move out of Chennai. Apparently, partymen have told him that price rise and 2G could make things hard for the party in Chennai this time.

The AIADMK, which has lost each time after a stint in power, stands to gain from the voter’s expectations on DMK goodies. But, even then Jayalalithaa is merely the ‘less dirty one’.

The Sarkaria Commission had found 28 cases of corruption against Karunanidhi, and Janata Party President Subramanian Swamy says he has evidence in another 23 cases of corruption against him.

Jayalalithaa has been booked under the Prevention of Corruption Act with more than 12 major cases pending against her and had to run a proxy government with a puppet chief minister after she was barred from contesting polls after a conviction in the TANSI case in 2001.

The cases against her range from the Pleasant Hotel Stay case to the Colour TV case to the Grapes case to the most bizarre of them all—the Disproportionate Assets case. In 2011, voters could give the AIADMK a shot. There is a wave of compassion for Jayalalithaa’s lack of a family.

Her image as an ‘orphan’ rests well with the voters’ sensibilities because Karunanidhi’s corruption is widely perceived to be the consequence of a family-run syndicate where the spoils have to be shared between every family member from the wife to the son to the daughter to the grandson to the nephew.

“She doesn’t need much because she has no family. Whatever she gains will be for herself and the party. Karunanidhi has to keep looting more to meet the growing aspirations of his sons and grandsons. There is no end. Jaya will be restrained and she takes care of the people unlike the DMK where personal enrichment is the only goal,” says Sankar Raman, a grocery store owner in Chennai’s Luz Corner who lives in a slum along the banks of the Cooum in Saidapet.

In his slum that is neatly divided between the DMK and the AIADMK, cash, marijuana and liquor are expected to be major deciding factors. “In 2006, we got huge bags of marijuana and crates of strong beer. Last time, a sack with envelopes containing cash was dropped from the top of the bridge on the river bed. But my family of five got only one envelope containing Rs 1,000. Many others did not get a single rupee. This time we will make sure they pay more. We won’t be cheated this time.”

In this competitive corruption, what may tilt it in the AIADMK’s favour is the alignment of parties like Vijaykanth’s DMDK who has built support by distancing himself from both ‘corrupt parties’ and eventually aligning with the ‘lesser evil.’

Vijaykanth, who has been called a ‘drunkard’ by Jayalalithaa in the past, will add credibility to her poll chances. Another man who has come into the AIADMK fold on an anti-DMK platform is actor, producer, writer Sharath Kumar, a Nadar, who floated his own party, the All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi.

His star power will further boost the AIADMK’s chances and lend credibility among the urban voters. “People here know about the DMK’s ways but are silent because of muscle and money power. How do you think an educated man feels when he knows the DMK and Congress have done wrong but Manish Tewari steps out every evening to defend all their wrongs without remorse or admission of guilt?” asks Sharath Kumar.

“Tamil society is a receptive society. But everybody has a limit. Tamil voters don’t mind corruption only because the extreme levels of corruption is hitting them in manageable ways,” says Radhakrishnan.

In 2011, in the currency-decorated corridors of Tamil Nadu politics, the voters’ greed, quite like the leaders who feed the greed, seems to be on the ascendancy. The electorate is finding it hard to ignore the seduction of money that is being showered on them every election. A vote in Tamil Nadu has become like a share on the stock market. The voter wants the dividend of his democratic investment and disappointment on that front can simply mean offloading and re-routing of the vote to the opposition.

Chief Ministers change every five years. Money is the only constant. And in 2011, the demand for more is getting shriller by the day.

Manish is a Correspondent with Tehelka
[email protected]

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Posted on 17 March 2011



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