Is this the Telangana version of the cash-for-votes template perfected in the Tamil Nadu elections? The Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) candidate from Yellareddy constituency, E Ravinder Reddy was caught on camera negotiating a deal with a group of women for Rs 5 lakh. He wanted 50 such women groups to take an oath while passing a resolution that all of them will vote for the TRS candidate in the upcoming Assembly elections in Telangana.
"Organise meetings with 50 groups. You should unanimously take an oath that you will vote for the TRS and I will give you Rs 5 lakh,'' Reddy is heard saying in the video that is being circulated over social media.
"Will it be possible with Rs five lakh, sir?'' the women are heard bargaining, asking for more money. At which point, one of Reddy's aides chips in to ask the women to do this first, as if holding the carrot of giving more money once the work is done.
On 24 September, Ravinder Reddy's Facebook page posted photographs of a group of people from Ramreddy mandal, promising to support him. It is difficult not to put two and two together.
In the last couple of weeks, several groups in select villages in constituencies in Telangana have adopted this modus operandi in favour of the TRS. It started with Telangana irrigation minister Harish Rao, who is also chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao's nephew, in his Siddipet constituency. Rao has represented Siddipet since 2004. Whatsapp groups were flooded with pictures and videos of resolutions passed by villagers in favour of Harish Rao. Half a dozen community groups also pooled in Rs 30,000 to contribute to the nomination amount that Rao would have to submit along with his candidature papers.
Transport minister Mahender Reddy followed suit with a group of Muslims taking a similar oath inside a mosque in Tandur constituency. The decision to indulge in political activity inside a place of worship came in for criticism, forcing the person who had organised the oath-taking ceremony to apologise. Armoor TRS candidate Jeevan Reddy accepted a copy of a resolution passed by a group of weavers in front of a Ganesha idol. A group from Chinna Arepalli village in Dubbaka similarly promised to vote for TRS candidate S Ramalinga Reddy.
Telangana Assembly Speaker Madhusudhana Chary was the recipient of a resolution passed by 150 voters in Mulugu Ghanpur mandal in Bhupalapalli. About 70 people took a pledge to vote for Warangal candidate Vinay Bhaskar. In Khanapur constituency, close to 200 voters pledged to back Rekha Naik of the TRS.
Even though the number of voters in each group is not very large, the videos of such pledges propagated through Whatsapp and other forms of social media, give an impression of a mass upsurge in favour of the TRS. They make it seem that the elections are a mere formality and that the Opposition is fighting a losing battle. These are mind games being played by the TRS even before the formal campaign has kicked off. This is bound to put pressure on Opposition candidates, once they are announced, to try similar gimmicks among their support groups.
In Siddipet, a group of barbers offered to do a haircut and a shave for free till election day for anyone who promised to vote for Harish Rao. One of them was recorded on a mobile camera talking about the decision. But the manner in which another person, not visible on camera, was heard prompting the barber on what to say, only aroused suspicion that it was a set-up.
While there is nothing to prove that money exchanged hands to nudge a community to pass a resolution in favour of many of the TRS candidates, the case of Ravinder Reddy, where money is being openly offered, has made this entire exercise look suspect.
Privately, the TRS leadership is displeased with the outing of the Ravinder Reddy video, admitting it was wrong on his part to offer money and to be careless about it being recorded on camera. But leaders also point out that people routinely demand cricket kits, construction of a community hall and gym in their localities and expect the candidates to donate money.
Bribing voters at election time is not as widespread in Telangana as it is in Tamil Nadu, or even Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh to an extent. But this election, in which the stakes are high, promises to be different. This kind of conduct reduces an election to a transaction, making electoral democracy a case of `buy' the people.
"This will be seen as a violation of the model code of conduct which is already in effect,'' says Bhanwarlal, who was Chief Electoral Officer of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh till November 2017. "Even if money is not given for taking such an oath, the question arises as to why they asked them to take such a pledge. If you say it was done voluntarily, the question arises as to why they would do so, and why all of them are speaking in favour of only one party.''
The Opposition parties have complained to the Election Commission about the resolutions, which they allege are sponsored by the TRS.
"This Telangana government is still a caretaker government; the state is not under Governor's rule. But you find no minister attending to official work. Instead, they are out in their constituencies, organising these pledges,'' says Aditya Reddy of the Telangana Jana Samiti.
The TRS denies anyone is being coerced or bribed to take part in these resolutions.
"These resolutions are not binding on anyone. It is the decision of people in panchayats to express solidarity with the TRS so that tomorrow, they can rightfully ask for benefits from the TRS government,'' says Kishore Goud, TRS leader.
In the past, there have been cases of villages in Telangana auctioning their votes to the highest bidder well before the panchayat elections. The money would then be used to fund developmental work in the village.
"I would say this is worse,'' says former IAS officer Jayaprakash Narayan and founder of Foundation for Democratic Reforms. "The EC should penalise such villages, because it puts pressure on other voters in the village to also fall in line. It will browbeat those who are opposed to this mood in favour of a particular candidate.''
But while it is highly unlikely that politicians will pay the price, D Ravinder, a primary school teacher in Karimnagar district has. Ravinder has been placed under suspension after he was found leading villagers to take an oath in favour of the local TRS candidate.
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Updated Date: Oct 01, 2018 07:33:57 IST