These days David Soren frequently gets invitations to “hang out” with friends and friends of friends to share treats – crispy pork and branded liquor.
Such after-hours meetings happen in youth and sports clubs, makeshift electoral camps, party supporter’s houses or eateries in the remote villages of Kokrajhar district in the northeastern state of Assam.
Amid the merrymaking, which involves drinks, smoke, gossip and music, he is tipped on which party symbol to choose on poll day.
“It is very common for alcohol to be available during elections, even for municipal ones in tribal areas,” Soren tells Al Jazeera.
Gone are the days when people were won over with country brew. Standards have gone up, he says. Now, shiny bottles of foreign brands wrapped in newspapers are up for grabs.
“They don’t expect you to get drunk and vote, but they try to bribe you with cash, food and unlimited alcohol. These low-key feasting starts a few months before elections,” Soren says.
Dhananjoy Nath, secretary of the local press club, says that such events have become more discreet in recent years. Candidates never directly distribute bottles.
“No one reports these events to the police because the free flow of booze during polls is as common as drinking water with your meal,” he says.
But liquor store owners are complaining.
“The election commission has made life hell for us,” says Monalisha Sharma, who owns a wine shop in Kokrajhar.
Since elections were declared on March 5, she is allowed to sell only 30 percent of what she sold on the same day last year. During the festival of Holi last year, she sold liquor worth around $1,327 (Rs 80,000). This time the number came down to only about $381 (Rs 23,000).
On account of the elections in neighbouring West Bengal state on April 17, a dry day (ban on sale of alcohol) was imposed in Kokrajhar 48 hours ahead of the polling. This coincided with the harvest festival of Bihu, another loss.
“People think liquor shops make bumper profits around elections but we suffer. It is the illegal traders who gain,” Sharma says. Once she reaches the daily quota, she closes her shop to avoid getting a notice against “bulk sale”.
CCTV cameras have been installed and she is required to submit daily reports to the concerned government officials.
“Our relationship with customers is being damaged. Often they have weddings or birthday parties and we have to say no,” Sharma says.
According to PK Dash, who leads expenditure monitoring at the Election Commission of India, they have seized 2.12 crores litres of liquor, cash worth $4.5m approximately (Rs 272 crores) and 1.69 lakh kgs of drugs and narcotics across the country so far.
Buying votes with liquor is an age-old ruse. Indian politicians are also known to distribute freebies, including laptops, bicycles, goats, cows, and provide subsidised movie theatres, breakfast and mineral water as Al Jazeera reported.
In many places instead of bottles, the local leaders give away tokens, which can be exchanged for liquor at the stores
The election commission, an independent body, has issued strict instructions to curb vote buying. It shows 40 ways “black money” can be used in elections – cash envelopes are placed in newspapers, milk pouches or under banana leaf during community feasts; money is given to ladies who perform Aarti, a prayer ritual for candidates, funding mass marriages along with distributing liquor and poppy husks.
State officials are in charge of monitoring liquor movement district-wise. For example, the election commission in the western state of Rajasthan has set up helplines for people to report the transfer of illicit liquor.
Subramanya Rao, the deputy commissioner (excise) in the union territory of Puducherry, says the department has identified 64 “sensitive shops” out of 345 retail and 88 wholesale stores.
Puducherry is famous for quality liquor, Rao says. “There is more choice, 700-800 brands and they are cheap because of low taxes.” Any sudden increase in sales is watched very carefully, he says.
Dry states conundrum
In India, alcohol consumption is prohibited in the western state of Gujarat, the northeastern states of Nagaland, Mizoram and parts of Manipur, and in the union territory of Lakshadweep. However, alcohol is bootlegged and easily available in these states, despite the ban. Spikes in the seizures of liquor around polling season are a common phenomenon.
According to the chief electoral officer of Gujarat, Anita Karwal, more than 900,000 bottles of liquor has been impounded till date.
In Mizoram, polls for the lone seat were conducted on April 11. Pu Lalhmunsanga, the commissioner of excise and narcotics department, says they have seized Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), beer and country liquor worth around $32,300 (19.5 lakhs rupees), arrested 181 people and conducted 623 raids.
Lalhmunsanga explains how confiscated liquor is disposed under the prohibition law: The court destroys bottles deemed unfit for consumption. Then the rest are taken to an excise departmental store, which are sold to “card holders” – people who are prescribed alcohol for medicinal purposes.
“All the liquor comes from Assam. We intensified surveillance near border check points and caught many trucks with liquor hidden under cement bags or bricks,” he says. Liquor is also moved in water tanks or bottles.
Alcohol has been banned from open markets in Nagaland since 1989, so the election commission rule is not very relevant, says Sentiyanger Imchen, the chief electoral officer.
“Seizure of liquor is a regular event here,” he says.
In poll season, allegations and counter-allegations against candidates and parties are commonly made about doling out liquor to tempt voters. In this melee, the Aam Aadmi Party or Common Man Party (AAP) has adopted the role of a vigilante.
In December, on the eve of the state assembly polls, AAP released a video titled “Delhi elections: Liquor distribution by other parties caught by AAP“.
For the ongoing elections, they have “upped the vigil” to check illicit liquor, with more focus on the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, says Prerna Prasad, party spokesperson.
“Our volunteers across the nation are keeping an eye on other parties’ activities,” she says.
Volunteers call local election officials or they inform AAP’s central team in New Delhi, which forwards complaints to the election commission. They are asked to collect photographs and videos as evidence.
AAP has received 40 complaints till now. Prasad says parties target lower middle classes and the poor in the slum areas and shantytowns, where liquor is distributed on the eve of elections.
“In many places instead of bottles, the local leaders give away tokens, which can be exchanged for liquor at the stores,” she adds.
The Model Code of Conduct also asks parties and candidates to abstain from serving or distributing alcohol on polling day and 48 hours preceding it, during which a dry day will be declared. Along with the Flying Squad and Liquor Monitoring Team, a State Surveillance Team (SST) is set up within each police station.
SST includes three-four police personnel, one magistrate and one videographer to check movement of liquor, cash and gift items. All distilleries and warehouses are put under round-the-clock CCTV monitoring.