Is Andhra Pradesh home to the second most expensive election season in the world?

Vivekananda Nemana
Grist Media

On a sweltering, breezeless afternoon by the shores of Udwanapalle, a fishing village in northern Andhra Pradesh’s Srikakulam district, Kinjarapu Rammohan Naidu, a first-time parliamentary candidate with the Telugu Desam Party, climbed aboard his brightly-painted campaign truck with an unusual request.

“Some people these days are paying 500 to 1000 rupees for your votes,” he announced to the crowd. “Please don’t take the money, because then they’ll come and take that money back from you.”

His supporters cheered, and some even shouted, “No money for votes!” With his round face and broad, bearded smile, Rammohan – only 27 – looks a lot like his father, the late Srikakulam parliamentarian K Yerran Naidu, whose garlanded image adorns his campaign posters, and whose name Rammohan frequently invokes in his speeches. But his father’s popularity alone may not be enough to overcome a worrisome development: members of his main opposition, the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP), were said to be dramatically outspending the TDP and, Rammohan’s supporters alleged, buying support with their generous reserves of campaign funds.

As the entourage left Udwanapalle for the next campaign stop, driving through leafy, verdant forests of coconut and cashew trees, I asked Rammohan about his speech.

“For poor voters, the kind of money they hand out is a small fortune,” he said. “We are trying to tell them to resist that temptation, because ultimately it’s their money that someone will take away.”

Or, as a TDP worker later said with a shrug of resignation, “Even if we wanted to spend like the other guys, we just don’t have that kind of resources.”

Politics in Andhra Pradesh is synonymous with big money. The state has built a reputation for holding the country’s most lavish elections, and fielding the richest candidates – especially since 2004, the year that the Congress routed the TDP in a huge victory, and newly super-rich Andhra businessmen descended into politics en masse. Democratically-elected positions are regularly discussed in monetary terms: a seat in Parliament will cost you Rs 50 crore, a seat in the Assembly will cost you Rs 15 crore, and even campaigning as a village sarpanch will run up a bill of at least Rs 15 lakh. So much money is involved that it has sent the state’s political system spiraling out of control: as desperate parties search for ever-wealthier candidates, elected representatives secure lucrative contracts to finance future campaigns, and voters – resigned to the corruption – have come to expect gifts at the polls.

“There is much, much more money in elections these days,” says a senior police official in charge of campaign violations in the state. “Basically elections are a big festival. There’s plenty of money around, so people drink, they play, enjoy and make merry.”

The Election Commission and the police have stepped up their enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct since 2004, when bribing voters became de rigeur in Andhra Pradesh. Checkposts dot the state’s highways, and “flying squads” conduct raids on suspicious vehicles. But parties keep coming up with ingenious new ways to get money to the grassroots, according to interviews with party workers, police officials, journalists and anti-corruption activists.

Usually, you would get your money to the villages well before police checkpoints are set up. For more last-minute deliveries, you may transport the goods in ambulances, delivery trucks, buses, or – a crude but effective method – mail stacks of cash through a parcel service. In some places, parties have dropped cash altogether, instead paying electricity and telephone bills, or buying household appliances, saris, cell phone top-ups, and cricket kits. But if you do need to physically transport cash, and for some reason none of the above options will do, simply get out of the car and walk around when you see a police checkpost – if you do get caught, you can always attempt to bribe the cops.

"The distribution of money is highly decentralized," says Rakesh Reddy Dubbudu, an RTI activist who works with the Association for Democratic Reforms, which analyzes candidates’ criminal backgrounds and net worth. “And parties customize it based on the demographic they are targeting.”

This feudal idea of self-interested benevolence, of a politician sharing his vast fortune to divert attention from how it was made, is so deeply embedded in Andhra Pradesh’s political culture that it continues well after election season ends. VM Krishna Rao, a veteran editor at the Deccan Chronicle, recalls how, during his days as a reporter in Delhi in the 90s, he noticed MPs from Andhra Pradesh distributing their largesse in the national capital.

“They made it a habit to give 100 or 500 rupee tips to chaiwallahs and assistants,” he tells me at the newspaper’s head office in Secunderabad. “So all these fellows would compete for the Andhra guys. Meanwhile, the MP from Kerala or West Bengal would count out individual ten rupee notes and make the attendant bring back the change.”

And of course, that Newtonian law of Indian politics must hold: where money is spent, money will be earned. Although Andhra Pradesh is one of the union’s leading states in fighting corruption, according to 

a study by the World Financial Review, the state has also pioneered the leverage of political connections to push private interests. In 2012, for instance, the CBI indicted YSR Congress chief YS Jaganmohan Reddy, son of the former Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy, for earning more than Rs 3000 crore in illegal quid pro quo deals made while his father was in power.

“How can you expect a corruption-free government if as a candidate I have to spend a minimum of 10 crores every 5 years?” says N Vamsi Srinivas, a veteran journalist with NTV in Hyderabad. “Once I’m in office, I’ll obviously try to make more – much more – than what I put in.”

A (probably blasphemous) image that I can’t get out of my head: the Indian political system is a casino in Las Vegas, and the Andhra politicians are the high rollers making a swaggering entrance in their Stetsons and their snakeskin suits. And boy, are they really looking to hit the jackpot.

The crores spent by candidates today is a dramatic shift from just two decades ago, when in 1996 Yerran Naidu, Rammohan recalled, spent just “three or four lakhs” on a successful parliamentary campaign that was funded mostly by voters. One major change, he said, was in the way parties reached out to voters.

“It used to be that villages would vote together as a unit,” he said. “But then people started targeting groups: scheduled castes, minorities, and so on. So the system has been broken down into so many smaller systems. Instead of asking what you can do for our village, people are asking, ‘What can you do for me?’ It’s hard to provide such small-scale things, unless you give them cash.”

When I asked Rammohan if he distributed money in his own campaign, he said that voters had asked, “I haven’t felt the need for it so far.”

“Well, not yet,” he added with a smile.

This year’s election will likely be the most extravagant of all. With local body, state and Lok Sabha elections all happening at the same time, votes are high in demand. Estimates of total campaign spending in Andhra Pradesh range from Rs 7,000 to Rs 30,000 crore across the state – which, if the latter is true, would on its own make it the second most expensive election season in the history of the world, after the 2012 American presidential election. Already, state police have seized Rs 56 crore

 in unaccounted-for cash (Some press reports said this amount was 124 crores, but much of that money was returned once its legitimacy was established, according to the AP police) and 4,40,000 litres of liquor in Andhra Pradesh – vastly more than in any other state, although that’s at least partly because the state is under governor’s rule, enabling police to operate freely. In just one instance on April 25, two bus passengers in Hyderabad were caught with more than Rs 8 crore meant for distribution among voters.

The state’s regional parties are spending so much, political experts say, because this election poses an existential crisis of sorts, and will probably determine their survival in the future. Andhra Pradesh will split on June 2 into Telangana and Seemandhra. The Telangana Rashtra Sabha, which has lobbied extensively for bifurcation, needs to come to power in newly-formed Telangana to remain relevant, although victory is less than assured. Meanwhile, the TDP and the YSR Congress are battling for control of Seemandhra, and the chance to forever inscribe their name with the new state – and to indulge in the spoils.

“There is going to be a lot of construction in Seemandhra since the government will need to build a new capital, new infrastructure, and other very lucrative projects,” says Krishna Rao. “So we’re seeing a lot of competition to bag those contracts. The best way is to get yourself elected.”

The development of Seemandhra – a state that had been unjustly broken off from the capital Hyderabad, locals will tell you – was a major theme running through Rammohan’s campaign. In every village where we stopped, dozens of supporters sporting the TDP’s bright yellow scarves, headbands and flags crowded around Rammohan and the local TDP candidates. Rallying cries of Jai Chandrababu! (referring to Chandrababu Naidu, the head of the TDP) and Jai Rammohan! and Jai Telugu Desam! rippled through the crowd. High-amp speakers blasted folk songs with lyrics like, “If you want a job-u, vote for Babu!” People danced. Party workers distributed fliers, but as far as I could tell, no one promised to hand out money.

“The basic unit of spending is these rallies,” Rammohan told me as we drove to another village for his campaign.

“You pay someone Rs 500 a day just to follow you around, in order to show people that you have a lot of support. It’s very different from paying for votes, which usually happens in the last day or two before Election Day.”

I tried asking some of the TDP members about how their party spends money in elections. Repeatedly, their answer was that their party campaigned on people’s genuine support; the YSR Congress, they said, was the party that paid for votes. But pushed further, some party workers accepted that breaking campaign laws was a necessary evil of Andhra Pradesh politics.

“We don’t hand out cash for votes. But maybe we’ll throw a get together with food and liquor and all that,” says one campaign worker. “Just something so that we can remain competitive with the other party.”

“People have it set in their mind what party they’ll vote for,” said another. “But you have to play the game.”

This is the caveat of big money politics, the strange quirk of Andhra democracy – you can spend enough to buy the moon, and it still won’t guarantee you a win. Parties in Andhra Pradesh have spent fortunes on campaigns, only to lose. During a 2012 by-election in Kadapa district, for instance, the Congress reportedly spent Rs 100 crore, and the TDP another Rs 40 crore, but both lost to Jaganmohan Reddy by a huge margin.

“There is no proof that he is going to vote for you if you pay him,” Srinivas, of NTV, says of the typical voter in Andhra Pradesh. “But he definitely won’t vote for you if you don’t.”

Voters in Andhra Pradesh used to be loyal to candidates they thought were honest, election observers say, but perceptions of corruption have so thoroughly degenerated faith in the system that the electorate tries to take advantage while it can – making hay while the sun shines, so to speak.

“It’s a vicious cycle. A voter thinks nothing is wrong with taking money from someone who’s looting the state in any case,” Dubbudu tells me. “And candidates loot the state at least partially so that they can keep winning elections.”

The insecurity, he adds, has led to some candidates making voters swear on god and their children that they’ll actually vote for them after taking their money.

The electoral system in Andhra Pradesh has become a classic example of The Prisoner’s Dilemma: the optimal situation for everyone involved would be for candidates to campaign honestly, lessening both state corruption and the costs borne by the candidates themselves. But because a candidate who cheats can definitely beat an honest opponent (for proof, look no further than the travails of the 

Lok Satta party), candidates always have an incentive to cheat, spending more, and more, and more on their campaigns.

To finance this unbreakable spiral, parties are fielding ever-wealthier candidates – usually, major industrialists and contractors. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, the average declared assets of the TDP’s parliamentary candidates this election amount to Rs 68 crore, the highest of any party in the state. It is a triplefold increase from 2009, when the party’s average candidate was worth Rs 23 crore. For the Telangana Rashtra Sabha, that number went from Rs 5 crore in 2009 to Rs 43 crore this election. Among the major parties, the average candidate went from having Rs 10.3 crore in 2009 – already high by national standards – to Rs 33.5 crore today.

“Since 2004, the profile of the candidate itself has changed,” says Srinivas. There is, for instance, the resigned Congress MP Lagadapati Rajagopal, dubbed 

Pepper Spray Rajagopal in an immortal Arnab Goswami bit, who is worth Rs 300 crore thanks to his stake in the Lanco Hills real estate venture. And the infrastructure contractor Nama Nageswara Rao, a TDP MP worth Rs 338 crore. Konda Vishweshar Reddy, running for the first time this year on a TRS ticket, whose shares in Apollo Hospitals and other companies have netted him Rs 528 crore. And of course we have Dr Gaddam Vivekanand, a Congress MP who has declared Rs 266 crore but, rumor has it, has several thousand crores more stashed in secret offshore companies in the Virgin Islands.

These are just a few of Andhra Pradesh’s fabulously wealthy industrialist-politicians. They may or may not have abused their privileges as representatives, but in general, if you are an industrialist, then Parliament is a good place to be.

“Once you’re in Parliament, and find yourself on a parliamentary committee, you can use that clout to get contracts for your own company,” Krishna Rao explains.

Moreover, most of the industrialist-politicians tend to operate in fields like real estate, mining and contracting – industries that require government backing to secure lucrative deals around the country. “So you have politicians who are supposed to legislate instead focused on expanding their businesses, which means they are violating their commitments as public representatives,” says Dubbudu.

M Padmanabha Reddy, secretary of the Forum for Good Governance in Hyderabad, says the nexus of politics and business is an alarming trend because it makes politics accessible only to the extremely wealthy, who use their influence to “make more money or protect ill-gotten gains.”

“The Election Commission’s big achievement is ensuring free elections,” he says. “But it failed to provide fair elections.”

I meet Reddy, a lean, amicable retired Forest Service officer, at the Forum for Good Governance’s modest office, which was basically a converted flat. His organization lobbies the government to take action against electoral violations. Under Section 171 of the Indian Penal Code, candidates who bribe voters with gifts and money can be removed from office and sent to jail for three years. But the rule is virtually never enforced – the Center surveyed 544 cases of vote-buying filed in the 2009 elections, but not a single one resulted in a conviction under Section 171.

“When demand and supply work perfectly, police intervention cannot stop anything,” Reddy says. “But if we can prosecute in just one percent of these cases, and put just five MLAs behind bars, then parties would get a clear message that they cannot keep bribing the voters.”

I ask him if he believes things will ever change. He is hopeful. “I have great faith in Indian democracy,” he says. “And the country’s youth give plenty of reason for optimism.”

Perhaps he’s right. It was nearly 11pm when Rammohan’s day of campaigning wound to a close; we had been to more villages than I could count, and I was so tired that my bones burned. Rammohan’s forehead was covered in vermillion smeared on by a hundred women, his white shirt was soaked through with sweat, yet he somehow remained energetic.

“You know,” he said, turning to me. “After ten years of this, I honestly think people realize that accepting money for their vote isn’t worth it.”

In one of the villages we had stopped in earlier, I asked two eighteen-year-old laborers, both voting for the first time, if they would accept one thousand rupees each for their vote.

“No,” they said. “What we really want is a road.”

Vivekananda Nemana is a freelance journalist and author of an upcoming book on tribal youth in India’s Maoist heartland. Follow him on Twitter @vnemana, or on his blog, Brown White and Blue.