Neighbors crowded around the cardboard box containing a color television, one of dozens recently distributed in this community of mud-floored huts 25 miles from the bustling city of Chennai. There's only one problem: Nobody can use them.
"The ruling party said they'd give us TVs if we elected them, but what use are they?" said V. Amutha, 32, dressed in a pink sari. "We're without electricity, which we've been awaiting for the past 40 years."
Political parties and independent candidates are promising freebies galore — gifts as diverse as blenders, laptops and sheep — if they win in Wednesday's assembly elections here in Tamil Nadu state.
Shah Jahan, an independent candidate in the South Salem constituency, is even offering needy families a Tata Nano, the $2,200 Indian-made car, along with a cellphone, generator and cable TV connection, if he's elected. "They can choose the car's color," he said. "But a stereo will cost extra."
Although these may sound like empty promises, the state's ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party delivered 16 million color TVs after the 2006 election at a cost of $900 million — funded from state coffers, not party accounts — creating a freebie arm's race.
"What's wrong with taking them?" said R.S. Devan, a taxi driver in Chennai. "Their TVs and mixers are low quality, and I already have better ones, but I take them anyway."
The state election commission has ruled that giveaways violate the law only if they are distributed before the election. The handouts in Tiruverkadu arrived four months ago, before this week's vote. But they were technically tied to the 2006 election.
The latest giveaways come as India battles multiple corruption scandals, capped by allegations that Tamil Nadu politician Andimuthu Raja underpriced cellphone spectrum while he served as telecommunications minister, denying the government as much as $39 billion in revenue. (Candidate Jahan said he would pay for the free cars out of any money recovered from the telecommunication losses.)
Tamil Nadu's appliance fixation doesn't mean that cash handouts, a common feature of Indian elections, are out of style. About $10.5 million in "unaccounted cash" has been seized statewide by the election commission in recent weeks, some of it neatly stacked in 100-rupee notes worth about $2.50 apiece, with voter lists attached. In theory, state candidates are limited to $40,000 in campaign spending.
Frederick Kaplan, a U.S. consulate officer in Chennai, explained the cash distribution system in a May 2009 diplomatic cable recently released on the WikiLeaks website: "Weeks before the elections, agents of the parties come to the neighborhood with cash carried in rice sacks," he wrote, with deliveries made between "2 and 4 in the morning when the election commission is asleep."
Election monitors have received dozens of complaints in recent weeks alleging that politicians arrange power outages after midnight so they can hand out cash without scrutiny.
R. Senthil, a local official in Tiruchi, has received more than 200 such complaints, he said. "Investigating is a day and night job," he said.
Election Watch, a civic group, said 18% of the 679 Tamil Nadu candidates it has analyzed face criminal charges, half involving serious counts such as murder and attempted murder. "These are not good signs of democracy," said A. Rangarajan, an election monitor.
Tamil Nadu's election handouts divert money from roads, ports and schools and raise questions about Indian democracy.
"It makes a mockery of our system," said Ram Puriyani, a professor at New Delhi's Indian Institute of Technology.
"Giveaways make people lazy," said Abdul Majeed, 65, a clerk.
Tamil Nadu, with its high literacy rate and relatively healthy finances, has a reputation as one of the best governed states in India. But analysts say there are tensions between its new economy and traditional socialist values. Although manufacturing and services account for 80% of output in the state, most of its people are still farmers.
"It is not that Tamils don't value integrity," wrote commentator Gurcharan Das in the Times of India. "They just don't expect it from their politicians."
Squaring off Wednesday to become the state's chief minister are the incumbent, former movie scriptwriter M. Karunanidhi, 86, and J. Jayalalithaa.
Karunanidhi has installed several family members in top posts and is credited with pioneering the hyper freebie strategy. "What is wrong in giving people what they need?" said his daughter, M.K. Kanimozhi.
Jayalalithaa, 63, with the main opposition All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, disapproved of excessive giveaways in the 2006 election and lost. Her party now matches the ruling party freebie for freebie, even as she criticized its bid to "purchase democracy."
"In the last three days, it has been raining money," she said.
The impoverished residents in the Tiruverkadu neighborhood of Nulambal said their free televisions are idle because they have been denied electricity for decades over a land ownership dispute involving powerful interests. Some use the sets as tables, hoping for power one of these years.
A mile away, in a ruling party stronghold with electricity, J. Naga switched on a free TV and pointed out a "Tamil Nadu Government" screen that appeared first.
"See, they don't want you to forget them," the 55-year-old widow said. "Who can trust these politicians? Still, if they offer something free, you'd better take it since they all forget you when the election's over."
Anshul Rana in The Times' New Delhi bureau and special correspondent Dhara Shah in Chennai contributed to this report.