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What prompts a voter in India to cast her ballot in favour of a candidate? Typically, her choice would be influenced by the candidate's identity, ideology, caste, performance or ethnicity.

Cash bribes to voters are also widely thought to influence the voting choices of the poorest and most vulnerable voters. Days before the recent polls in the southern state of Karnataka, authorities uncovered cash and “other inducements” worth more than $20m (£14.85m) in what was described as a “record-breaking” haul. One report claimed that workers had been transferring money to bank accounts of voters who had promised to vote for their candidate, and even pledged to pay more later if their candidate won.

Trying to buy votes with cash and other gifts in the run up to elections is rampant in India. One main reason is that politics has become fiercely competitive. There were 464 parties in the fray in 2014, up from 55 in the first election in 1952.

The average margin of victory was 9.7% in 2009, the thinnest since the first election. At 15%, the average margin of victory was fatter in the landslide 2014 polls, but even this was vastly lower than, say, the average margin of victory in the 2012 US Congressional elections (32%) and the 2010 general election in Britain (18%).

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Elections have also become volatile. Parties do not control voters as well as they once might have done. Parties and candidates are more uncertain about results than ever before, and try to buy votes by splurging cash on voters.

New research by Simon Chauchard, assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College, US, argues that bribing voters may not necessarily fetch votes.

Competitive elections prompt candidates to distribute handouts – primarily cash and gifts in kind, like liquor – for strategic reasons. While knowing that handouts are largely inefficient, argues Dr Chauchard, candidates end up facing a “prisoner’s dilemma”, when each prisoner’s fate relies on the other’s actions.

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