India is holding one of the world’s largest – and most corrupt – elections

“I don’t want to have to give my voters money,” one parliamentary candidate tells me. “But it’s simply a reality of the situation India is in. If I don’t pay, my opponents will.”

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Police checkpoints are no new thing in India. Mobile barriers in cities across the country force cars to slowly snake through a gauntlet of bored police officers meant to be looking for security threats. In recent weeks, however, the checkpoints have multiplied, and the police on duty look more interested in their jobs. That’s because it’s election season and they’re no longer looking for terrorists, but cold hard cash.

Most foreign press coverage of the six-week long election will focus on it being the world’s largest, and feature joyful colour about the polling stations in jungles where there is only one voter, or constituencies in the heights of the Himalayas. In reality, actually voting in one of India’s 10 million polling stations is a minor footnote to what is one of the furthest things from free democracy in the world today.

Taking place in seven phases, the election moves around the country, staggering polling day among India’s 36 states and territories so that the electorate of 900 million all have a chance to vote without overwhelming the country’s Election Commission. The count will happen on May 23, with the results coming soon after.

Much of the electoral system was set up in the closing days of British India, and voters elect members to the country’s lower house, the Lok Sabha. The upper house – the Rajya Sabha – is made up of 250 indirectly elected and appointed members. The constitution also mandates that two additional members of the Lok Sabha are appointed by the President of India without election, to represent the Anglo-Indian community.

Indians can’t vote by post, forcing many to walk miles to make it to the nearest polling booth. Thousands of civil servants are dragooned into manning polling stations far from home. Votes are cast electronically, and the machines generate a receipt, given to the voter, which shows them which party and candidate their vote was cast for.

Most of India’s voters will choose between the incumbent Hindu-nationalist BJP Party, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, or the secular Indian National Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi.   

However should they not be able to make up their mind, Indians have an option not available in most countries’ national elections. They may choose “None of the Above” to express their dislike of all candidates. Strangely, though, a win for None of the Above has no actual effect – and the second place candidate is given the seat.

Officially, the exercise is going to cost around £5bn, according to the New Delhi Center for Media Studies. Politicians jet from state-to-state and spend millions on social media advertising. But lurking in the shadows are the piles of dark money quite literally set to be handed out to the electorate.

“I don’t want to have to give my voters money,” one parliamentary candidate tells me. “But it’s simply a reality of the situation India is in. If I don’t pay, my opponents will.”

At the beginning of April, Indian police raided a nondescript warehouse in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. They found sacks and cardboard boxes bulging with more than 11 crore Rupees (£1.2m) in cash. The money was neatly stacked and tied up in bundles of a few hundred rupees, and marked with the names of voters in the local constituency of Vellore written on them.

The warehouse was owned by a worker for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Party, a socialist group led by the perfectly named MK Stalin. As a result of the raid, Vellore’s election has been cancelled by the president of India, an action which the DMK’s treasurer, with no sense of irony, has labelled a “murder of democracy”.

The raid in Vellore is not an isolated incident. More than £45m of assets have been seized by the Election Commission in Tamil Nadu alone, while in the northwestern state of Gujarat the total is £55m. Other states trail behind in the mere tens of millions.

In an election where more than 8,000 candidates are competing for 543 seats, there is only so much a targeted Twitter campaign can do. Dr Jennifer Bussell, a professor at UC Berkeley and an expert on Indian elections and corruption, conducted a survey and found that more than 90 per cent of Indian federal-level officials feel compelled to buy gifts and give money to their prospective voters.

It’s not just cash that’s given out. Smartphones preloaded with campaign videos are a popular choice, along with kitchen goods and even farm animals like goats. Recently, drugs such as heroin have been seized by officials who claim they, too, were being handed out in return for votes.

Most popular, however, is alcohol. Despite polling days being legally dry, making buying and selling liquor illegal, volunteers will try their best to get opposition voters so drunk they can’t be bothered to fight their way through a hangover to make it to a polling station.

But it is not just money that buys votes. While India is now independent and an increasingly technologically advanced nation, many of the rural electorate still give their votes to families that ruled them for centuries. In more remote areas where tribe and caste are fundamental, former royal families may have lost their titles in the 1970s, but many have instead simply put MP after their name. Politicians from princely families in India have an election success rate of 85 per cent and will often lead their second place opponents by more than 20 points, thanks to turnout spurred by a still remaining feudal allegiance felt by voters.

While the system is broken, few are willing to fix it. Losing candidates this time around are less likely to think about how they can change their policies to win in 2024 – but instead how much they’re going to have to pay.

Ned Donovan is a freelance journalist based in India