NEWSA, India — Lakhan Sahu, a rice farmer, is running for a seat in India’s Parliament. But on a recent afternoon, three days before the election, he was napping bare-chested outside his mud hut instead of campaigning.
Asked what he thinks are the big issues in the national election, he paused. Then he said: “The pond in my village has run out of water.”
The rice farmer is not the only Lakhan Sahu running for the Parliament seat from Bilaspur district in the central state of Chhattisgarh. There is also Lakhan Sahu the lawyer, Lakhan Sahu the construction contractor, Lakhan Sahu the mason and Lakhan Sahu the day laborer. That’s right: Five of the 35 candidates in Thursday’s vote are named Lakhan Sahu.
The long roster of Sahus is part of a wacky yet disturbing trend in India this election season. People with the same name as a prominent political opponent are sometimes asked to also run for the seat, in an effort to confuse citizens and split the vote.
Political observers say many of these “dummy” or “clone” candidates are poor or unknown individuals who are paid to compete in the national election, which is being held in stages through mid-May.
Dirty tricks are nothing new in Indian campaigns. In the past, political party workers have stealthily distributed alcohol and cash the night before elections to influence voters. Some parties have even paid off candidates to withdraw from races.
Since 2009, the Election Commission of India has urged its officers to monitor clone candidates. But the trend has proliferated this year, with cases reported across central, northern and western Indian states. One ballot has 10 candidates with the same name.
“This practice is a sign of how intense the political competition is in many areas, and of how established politicians try to fool the poor voters and manipulate their voting decisions,” said Manisha Priyam, a scholar on Indian elections with the London School of Economics and Political Science. “The namesakes also use this to bargain for money for themselves.”
As Sahu the rice farmer enjoyed his afternoon siesta, his namesake from the national opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was sweating it out across town in 112-degree heat, traveling in an SUV to villages where he accepted marigold garlands and gave short speeches.
“I am aware there are four others with my name. They have no conscience and are propped up by my rivals to confuse people,” said this Lakhan Sahu, a criminal-defense- lawyer-turned-politician. “But I am the real Lakhan Sahu, and I always remind voters to not just read the names on voting day but to also look for the lotus button, which is my party symbol.”
Election officials say that the practice of dummy candidates is difficult to curb. They say they cannot bar citizens from running for office in the world’s most populous democracy.
Karuna Shukla, the candidate from the governing Congress party, says it is a “mere coincidence” that so many candidates in her race have the same name as her chief opponent from the BJP. But one Congress party worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter is sensitive, said that the practice is growing and that dummy opponents can give one party an edge in closely fought elections.
The winner in the last election in Bilaspur five years ago triumphed by a margin of just 2.61 percent of the total votes cast.
Residents in the district with all the Lakhan Sahus said the phenomenon is troubling because it preys on voters who are not well-informed.
“Many poor, ignorant people may get confused and vote for the wrong Lakhan Sahu if they are not wearing their spectacles, or if they are in a hurry ,or if the voting booth is dimly lit,” said Sita Ram, a carpenter. “This is cheating the voters. The votes of my candidate can shrink in this deceptive game of dirty politics.”
Ram said he is confident that he will not make any mistake when he goes to vote. He is a supporter of the BJP and will look out for the lotus symbol, he said. In India, political parties have a symbol printed by their names on the ballot to help the country’s millions of illiterate voters identify their candidates.
Not far from Newsa village, yet another Lakhan Sahu, the building contractor, grew indignant at the suggestion that he might be a “dummy” candidate.
“Who can say I am not the real Lakhan Sahu? It is the name given by my parents. I am as real as anybody else,” he said. “I may get 50 votes or 5,000 votes. Who knows, maybe the doors of my destiny will open and I will hit the jackpot.”
As for the rice farmer Sahu, the betel-chewing, eighth-grade dropout — who has no bank account, no vehicle and half an acre of farmland — was vague about how he got into the race.
“My interest in politics started on the fourth of April,” he said, the date he filed his papers as an independent candidate.
His campaign has consisted of hiring an SUV for eight hours one day to visit a hilltop temple — which was in another district.
He appeared bemused when asked about what he would do if he wins. “Factories, dams maybe,” he replied.
But what kind of factory?
“I don’t quite know yet,” he said. “I will decide later.”