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 actress Hema Malini, contesting in the holy city of Mathura, is up against two other Hema Malinis, while veteran politician Capt Amarinder Singh faces a similarly confusing challenge in northern Punjab. Even Narendra Modi, the election frontrunner and the prime ministerial candidate for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), briefly faced a threat from a namesake in his constituency in 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, which voted last Thursday on one of the largest phases of the polling schedule.
"What can one do? It's a conspiracy by my rivals. But such gimmicks won't work," Sahu said "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.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has seen one of its star campaigners shadow boxing against his namesake. Ashutosh, the former TV news anchor who uses just one name, will use the AAP's symbol, the broom, against his name. The unknown Ashutosh uses a carrot which, when shown in black and white on the electronic voting machines (EVMs) looks deceptively similar to the AAP symbol.
"Voters are bound to get confused because of two Ashustoshes," an AAP spokesperson said.
Although it's not illegal, of late the Election Commission (EC) 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.
The chief editor of a prominent news channel 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."
Modi faced a challenge in his Gujarat constituency of Vadodara from another Narendra Modi who is a member of the Congress. The unknown candidate pulled out fearing reprisals.