NEW DELHI - Indian politician Chandulal Sahu, standing for the second time for a seat in parliament, was irritated but not surprised when he saw he was running against seven competitors who share his name.
Popular Bollywood actor Hema Malini, contesting in the holy city of Mathura, is up against two other Hema Malinis while veteran politician Amarinder Singh faces a similarly confusing challenge in northern Punjab. Even Narendra Modi, the election frontrunner for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), briefly faced a threat from a namesake in his constituency in the western state of Gujarat.
Far from a coincidence, these ‘dummy’ candidates are an age-old trick in Indian politics designed to fool voters who might mistakenly select the wrong person once inside the polling booth. The tactic might have reached its high-water mark in Sahu’s constituency in central Chhattisgarh state, which voted last Thursday during India’s huge multi-phased general elections.
‘What can one do? It’s a conspiracy by my rivals. But such gimmicks won’t work,’ Sahu told AFP. ‘Voters in my area are aware and I am confident they will vote for the right Sahu.’ Political parties often scout for namesakes and then fund their election expenses in order to pit them against rivals in constituencies where a few hundred votes could swing the result. The unknown candidate is given his or her party symbol, which is usually designed to look like the one used by the more famous rival.
A new anti-corruption party that shot to fame last year during state elections in New Delhi has seen one of its star campaigners shadow boxing against his namesake. Ashutosh, a former TV anchor who uses one name, is a leader of the rookie Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party whose symbol is a broom. The unknown Ashutosh uses a carrot which when shown in black and white on the electronic voting machines looks deceptively similar to the AAP logo. ‘Voters are bound to get confused because of two Ashustoshes,’ an Aam Aadmi Party spokeswoman told AFP.
Although it’s not illegal, of late the Election Commission has been trying to keep a tab on these dubious contestants. Delhi’s additional chief electoral officer Neeraj Bharati said the onus lay with the real candidates to expose the fakes.  ‘We put up a list of all contesting candidates next to their symbols outside every polling booth for awareness,’ he said. ‘But it really boils down to the real candidates. They must do good propaganda and expose the proxy candidate,’ he added.
Vinod Kapri, editor-in-chief of News Express TV network which recently exposed how dummies were set up, explained why it was worth investing time and money in the underhand tactics. ‘Even if the dummy manages to eat a little bit into the share of his namesake, the job is done as the victory margins are often narrow,’ he explained. ‘If you give him big money, he will do anything for you.’
The elections, the world’s biggest, end on May 16 when results will be published. The BJP is widely expected to sweep to power, ending a decade of rule by the left-leaning Congress party, with Modi tipped to become prime minister.
Modi faced a challenge in his Gujarat constituency of Vadodara from another Narendra Modi who is a member of the Congress party. The unknown candidate pulled out fearing reprisals.