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Poll buffet: chicken, mutton, whisky

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By SAMANWAYA RAUTRAY IN BHUBANESWAR
  • Published 23.04.09
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Loan waivers and Rs 2 rice are for later, right now mutton curry and whisky are better. And make sure the rice with the curry is Rs 24-a-kg grade.

Leading parties in Orissa are wining and dining voters before the crucial April 23 polling — at 11 Lok Sabha seats and their Assembly segments — in the coastal belt.

“Even if Lord Krishna were to come down, he would not win votes unless he filled up the voters with chicken, mutton and liquor,” said a Congress official, busy overseeing preparations to feed at least 500 people at a makeshift kitchen in Jagatsinghpur constituency.

Er, desi liquor? “You must be mad,” he said. “Things have changed. Nothing less than (Indian-made) foreign liquor will do, that too the costly ones.”

The parties have realised that the long-term sops in the manifesto aren’t enough — after all, they are just politicians’ promises. The voters expect something concrete, here and now.

So last weekend, the Congress, Biju Janata Dal and the BJP all opened a string of “camps” with giant kitchens across the coastal constituencies. Sources claimed the Congress and the BJD expected to serve lunch and dinner to at least 50,000 voters every day till April 22 in each of the poll-bound Lok Sabha constituencies.

“These people insist on the best-grade rice, which costs at least Rs 24 a kg. If we serve rice that costs Rs 12 or Rs 14, they won’t eat it,” the Congress kitchen organiser said.

Liquor is served only at dinner, but there are endless rounds of lassi on the house in the summer daytime. In constituencies where the parties don’t hope to do well, however, the menu is scaled down to rice, dal, fish ghanta and plain water.

Sources estimated the per-head cost of chicken-rice and liquor would be Rs 150, which suggests a dinner bill of Rs 75 lakh every night at every “winning” constituency.

The feasts aren’t the only sop. If someone can promise the votes of his entire family, he often gets some cash on the spot. “If the BJD gives Rs 1,000, we pay Rs 2,000,” a Congress source said.

Voters have become too “individualistic”, he grumbled. “It doesn’t matter if the candidate paves the road with gold (does or promises development work). The voter will vote for you only if his family gets a job, or his daughter is married off.”

Fig leaf

Officially, all the people being fed are “party workers”, so that none can raise a finger. “When we hold rallies, we try and feed everybody,” a Congress official said.

But other sources gave the game away. They said the parties had realised that the old-style campaign methods — rounding up people and hiring buses for rallies, or even door-to-door campaigning in this heat — are too much hassle.

It’s easier to set up a cooking camp at a makeshift party office, spread the news that a “party workers’ meeting” is being held, and then welcome all who turn up.

“It keeps the party workers’ spirits up,” a BJP camp organiser said. “There’s no fixed budget for the maalpani. If 20 turn up they are fed; if 50 do, they are fed, too.”

The Congress official scoffed at that estimate. “The BJP is a daridra (poor) party (in Orissa),” he said.

So how do the Big Two — BJD and Congress — rustle up the funds? A source said: “Suppliers, contractors and businessmen pay up out of fear. Money comes automatically to the ruling and main Opposition parties.”

He said parties usually gave Rs 20 lakh to an Assembly candidate and Rs 1 crore to a Lok Sabha candidate (the Election Commission limits on expenditure are Rs 10 lakh and Rs 25 lakh). “But this is not enough; a parliamentary candidate usually needs Rs 5-7 crore.”

Apart from feeding and bribing voters, there’s the matter of hiring rallyists.

Labourer’s day

Orissa parties are offering day labourers money to shun their backbreaking work on fields and construction sites in stifling 42-plus temperatures. All they need do is “campaign” for them.

“I get Rs 150-odd for a few hours’ work,” a labourer at a BJP rally said. “I just have to wave flags and shout slogans.”

He is also beating the heat under the canopy, and once the rally is over, is a free bird for the day. “Our meals, too, are taken care of,” he said.

The minimum wage in the state is Rs 120 for unskilled labour, but thanks to the agents and contractors, the labourers often get much less.

Labourers are being hired also to plaster posters, buntings and banners — here the payment can go up to Rs 500 a day.

Even the labour contractors are paid a commission to ferry these people to rally venues — on trucks and mini-vans hired by the parties — so they don’t mind losing their workers for the day.

Some rural landowners do. “No one is available to harvest the groundnut and pulses crops,” a man from Talasuan village, near Konark, complained. Some fields are waiting to be cleared for the next rice crop in the run-up to the monsoon.

Owners of buses, taxis and even private vehicles are reaping the harvest of the elections’ below-the-radar economy, though. When the parties hire vehicles, they foot the fuel bill and pay the owner Rs 600 for three hours whereas the market rate is Rs 400.

No owner wants his vehicle requisitioned by the Election Commission, though. The commission pays official rates, which are well below the market rates, said Shankar, a local driver. “The commission targets big vehicles like Scorpios and Tata Sumos,” he said. “So the owner (of the car he drives) has hidden all his big cars that can be taken to distant areas. Only his smaller Indicas are on the road.”

The only one complaining is the common man who, in Orissa, travels on the roof of rickety buses as old as some of the Calcutta trams. With vehicles on Election Commission or party work, he has been left fending for himself.

• A part of Orissa voted on April 16 for the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections and the rest goes to the polls on April 23