May 2, 2019

India's election commission seizes mountain of cash, gold and booze

India’s election commission has confiscated more than $474 million worth of drugs, alcohol, cash and gold that politicians intended to distribute to voters.

Data: Election Commission of India; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Why it matters: The seizures expose the deep-rooted culture of vote buying in the world's largest election. With 17 days still to go in the staggered elections, the value of the seizures is already 2.5 times higher than the total from 2014.

Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment tells Axios this could be India's costliest election ever, with parties spending some $7 billion.

  • "Most of the money that fuels Indian elections is so-called 'black money' that is transmitted off-the-books to avoid the prying eyes of the election commission," he says. "Although there are strict limits on how much candidates can spend, there are innumerable ways that politicians can skirt the rules."
  • "One of the biggest expenses candidates incur is the distribution of cash, liquor, and other inducements on the eve of polling. This practice of 'gift-giving' does not necessarily guarantee victory, but it signals a candidate’s largesse and is widely accepted as the cost of doing business in Indian elections."

S. Y. Quraishi, India’s former Chief Election Commissioner, tells Axios that “money power” is “one of the unsolved problems in the Indian elections.”

  • He says the seizures show two things: “The role of money power is still huge,” but the election commission is taking strong action.

The big picture: India has completed four out of seven phases of polling, with final results expected on May 23. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking another term.

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