Beware of the Dirty Tricks Political Parties Use at Polling Booths
When citizens walk into the polling booth to participate in democracy, they are hardly on the lookout for deception. But maybe they should be, because political parties have a long history of using dirty tricks to get votes that most people may not be aware of.
As the 2019 elections approach, The Quint spoke to experts in the field to understand the various ways in which this ‘confusion’ occurs.
Here are a few things to look out for at the booths to make sure your vote counts.
"The principle idea to hoodwink and confuse, by hook or by crook, the voter of the opponent," said Vipul Mudgal, Director and Chief Executive of Common Cause, an NGO that works for electoral reforms in the country.
How Many ‘Chandu Lals’ Can There Be, Really?
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Chandu Lal Sahu, BJP's candidate from Chhattisgarh's Mahasamand constituency, won by a slim margin of 1,217 votes against Congress's Ajit Jogi.
But it turned out there were seven other Chandu Lal Sahu's contesting as Independents, who managed to get a total of almost 60,000 votes – and that wasn’t a coincidence.
Political parties will often look for namesakes of opposition candidates to confuse the opposition voter in constituencies where even a few hundred could swing the vote, and this is what happened with Sahu.
Jagdeep Chhokar, Founder and Trustee of Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) said, "It is like a dirty trick. It is really sad but it is a fact that we, as a society, have come to accept (not only tolerate) dirty tricks, particularly from politicians. This, societal acceptance of unscrupulous behaviour by politicians is at the root of this ‘inefficiency and fraud’, as you call it."
"If, for instance, you have someone with the name Veerappa Moily in a constituency where Veerappa Moily is contesting, then you would love to give him a few lakhs to confuse the voter, make him fight the election. The expense is negligible in the larger scheme of things," Mudgal said.
Dummy Candidates Galore
When The Quint asked Prof Chhokar the scale of this behaviour, he said it was quite widespread amongst political parties.
Mudgal outlined examples. He said in the 2018 Assembly elections in Rajasthan, the ruling party, which was certain they would not get votes from certain communities, propped up a Tribal party in Banswara and a Jat party in Shekhawati to divide the vote by pumping in money.
In every constituency where a Muslim candidate is likely to win, the opposition party will field a large number of Muslim candidates, Mudgal said, referring to the recent 2018 Rajasthan elections.
“You don’t field them directly, but if you are a strong cadre-based party, there are ways in which this is done. In Adarsh Nagar in Jaipur, for example, which has 40 percent Muslim electorate, 14 Muslim candidates contested against the more known Rafeek Khan of the Congress, thereby dividing the vote share. The idea in this case is to not let the Muslim candidate win.”
While this strategy did not work in the 2018 elections with Khan winning, in the 2013 elections, this Muslim-dominated Adarsh Nagar seat was won by BJP’s Ashok Parnami by a margin of 3,803 votes. That time, 16 other Muslim candidates got 4,494 votes.
Wait, Whose Symbol Is That Anyway?
To make sure everyone is totally confused, paid-off ‘Independents’ are sometimes given party symbols very similar to that of the opposing candidate.
At the end of March 2019, weeks before Telangana voted, YSR Congress accused the Praja Shanthi Party of deliberately trying to confuse voters by choosing the 'helicopter' symbol for their party, which is similar to the 'fan' symbol of the YSRCP.
Similarly, the Aam Aadmi Party in August 2018 had approached the Delhi High Court because the 'Aapki Apni Party' was using the torch and rays symbol, which looks very similar to the broom, the Aam Aadmi Party's symbol. The court found in favour of AAP and restrained Aapki Apni Party from using the symbol.
Prof Chhokar said there is a simple fix to end this confusion.
“The Election Commission of India should ensure political parties use symbols which are not, and cannot be made to look, similar to other party symbols,” he said.
But Mudgal is of the view that getting a symbol is not easy. "These are probably coincidences. This also does not fall under rampant attempt at rigging or malpractice. But you need to remember, at the end, political parties will do anything to win an election."
What Should Be Done?
While experts agree that dummy candidates are put up, that there are often fronts set up with the sole purpose to divide the vote, both Chhokar and Mudgal say the requirements should not be made stricter.
Prof Chhokar says many people contesting elections is not a problem at all, and rather, that it shows the 'robustness of our democracy.' Case in point is Telangana's Nizamabad Lok Sabha constituency where 185 candidates, the highest number of candidates ever, are contesting. Amongst them is Telangana CM K Chandrashekar Rao’s daughter and sitting MP K Kavitha. The EC is paying extra attention to this constituency in an effort to ensure the process goes smoothly.
"No, I do not think we should revise the requirements for this reason. Making them stricter, I think, will be a step towards exclusion of people with lesser means or with much less access to means. I think that will actually be anti-democratic," he said.
“Always remember, curbs actually never work the way you want them too. You will not be able to change this. It is an intense competition. Democracy today is reduced to winning the election at any cost and when you are spending thousands of crores, it is a big game for you.”
He said that if a change is made, it could exclude people from the democratic process, while adding that the focus should be on ensuring the autonomy of the election commission.
"The other approach is to make the EC a powerful autonomous body of which the selection process should be high-level. So the government in power is not able to influence its decisions, that it has a stronger more powerful hand to engage with the menace on the ground."
While the autonomy of the Election Commission of India is debated as we head towards election 2019, the point is to be aware of these tricks.
For many Indians, navigating these dirty tricks can be a fraught exercise. Awareness and alertness is key – parties will try to win power by any means, it is our job as citizens to keep them accountable. So carefully note the name of the candidate, party symbol and ask for clarity if needed before casting your vote.