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Tradition and immorality

Jaswant Singh is not the first Indian politician to give out money to voters, nor will he be the last. So why are we so indignant? Gargi Gupta examines.

india Updated: Apr 03, 2009 23:16 IST
Gargi Gupta

Jaswant Singh seems to have got away this time — although he’ll only know for sure on Monday when the Election Commission has a look at CD footage of the senior BJP leader handing out cash to a woman in Barmer, his son’s constituency. However much the Congress may cry foul, Singh’s party seems to think nothing of this alleged violation of the EC model code of conduct and has given him the ticket to contest the polls from Darjeeling far away from Barmer and mischief.

“Tradition”, Singh said initially in his defence — he was only giving money to the folk dancer who had performed and bowed in his honour. It was the Rajput thing to do, and anyway, philanthropy and charity were a part of his family tradition. More recently, the dancer has morphed into a widow pleading with Singh for help to support a blind mother and leprosy-struck brother! This is, of course, not to doubt what the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha says. Perhaps the folk dancer was also a widow, or perhaps, they are two different people — in which case here’s more evidence of Singh’s kind heart that the EC should take note of.

Be that as it may, the point is that such inducements given to voters are not new. Just last month, Mulayam Singh Yadav similarly ran afoul of EC norms when he was caught by news cameras distributing cash to party workers in Etawah. “Tradition” had been Yadav’s line of defence too: it was Holi and he was only following the money-giving ritual that was a part of the festivities. Since the EC chose not to proceed against Yadav, it seems that the poll watchdog bought the Samajwadi Party leader’s reasoning — as election commissioner SY Qureshi was reported as having told the media recently, we are a society “governed by traditions”. Perhaps then the EC will be similarly understanding of the ‘traditions’ that prompted Singh’s transgressions.

But who is to say that cash handouts are any more heinous that the other variety of inducements that are part of every electoral candidate’s stock-in-trade — vote for me and I’ll get you a road, a factory, jobs, a cleaner government, and so on. What is, in real terms, to distinguish between cash in hand and such promises for the future, promises that will never be kept?

Anyway, the cash the folk dancer, or poor widow — or whoever she was — got out of Singh is perhaps the only concrete benefit that she’s likely to get if his son does win the elections. Politicians know this, which is why they fall back on giving away money during elections, saris on Dussehra, blankets in winter and so on. These are easy gestures, and bring in more immediate goodwill, especially among rural, poor voters, than building roads and factories. So however much the EC may frown upon it, you can be sure that far away from the reach of cameras, more such ‘inducements’ are being handed out. Politicians are like that only.

If giving money, or booze, or clothes is inducing voters and a heinous crime, then making promises that everyone concerned know will never be kept is no less heinous — going strictly by morality. Perhaps the EC should now widen its ambit and keep tabs on such promissory speeches that are never honoured. Now that would really set the cat among the pigeons.