It was around 11pm on Wednesday when the power tripped, plunging the Chennai neighbourhoods of KK Nagar, Virugambakkam, West Mambalam, Ashok Nagar and nearby areas into darkness for about an hour.
“We all came out of our houses expecting to get money from party cadres,” S Maheshwari, a resident of a slum in Ashok Nagar, told Scroll the next morning. “In our area, everyone was waiting for the money but nothing came.”
Across Tamil Nadu, there is feverish anticipation in the air in the build-up to Monday’s Assembly election. Over the past decade in particular, voters have come to expect that cash will flow in the week leading up to polling.
The practice has become so widespread that the Election Commission has been receiving complaints alleging that the state power utility has been deliberating turning off power supply to enable distribution of cash by ruling party workers.
Chief Electoral Officer of the state, Rajesh Lakhoni, has issued a notice to power discom Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation in this regard.
“We were told by the local party people that we would get tokens, which we could then exchange for cash,” said Ayesha Mohammad, a resident of MGR Nagar. “A lot of my neighbours have gone to their ooru [village or native place] just to get the cash. I am sure they will come home and give the tokens to us.”
Therein lies the election watchdog’s headache in Tamil Nadu – the eager complicity with which voters shield politicians to accept bribes.
Raids by the Election Commission’s teams of income tax officers have thus far yielded a haul of Rs 100 crore and counting. Of this, around Rs 40 crore havr been returned to their rightful owners on submission of suitable evidence.
At times, the catch has bordered on the bizarre. Last week, EC teams seized a truckload of chappals in Thirupparankundram near Madurai that was meant for distribution to voters.
Envelopes containing Rs 250 and a slip bearing the “two leaves” symbol of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam were found in the possession of party cadres, who were then arrested.
Close to Rs 4 crore was found last week in the corporate office of SNJ Distilleries, a liquor company owned by the family of former Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam MP Jegatratchagan.
The Election Commission’s rich haul, however, is seemingly only the tip of the iceberg. Reports from across the state suggest that the two main parties – the Karunanidhi-led DMK and the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK – have been distributing cash to voters.
Kaliaperumal, a 29-year-old resident of Thirukovilur, told Scroll that the DMK had paid him Rs 1,500 – Rs 500 for each member of his family – in exchange for their votes.
“When Ponmudi’s [DMK candidate in the constituency] men came to our house, we told them we don’t want money,” said Kaliaperumal. “They forced us to take it, saying we don’t even need to vote, just take the money.”
Ponmudi could not be reached for comment on the matter.
In Chennai’s Anna Nagar constituency, AIADMK candidate and sitting MLA Gokula Indira was left red-faced when a few party cadres were found distributing Rs 250 to voters. “We were not distributing any money,” she argued. “We were only looking at the voter lists as we were campaigning. This is a ploy by the DMK to defame us.”
According to AIADMK insiders, the party has mapped constituency-wise every lower income and middle income household for cash distribution. Voter IDs, said one insider, had been matched with households and the head of the family identified. Tokens have already been issued with a unique number per head of the family in some areas, the insider added. These tokens may be exchanged for hard cash before May 16.
With shallow pockets, the smaller parties are crying foul and demanding a level playing field. “This is a ‘note for vote’ culture where money earned through corruption is being openly distributed,” S Ramadoss, leader of the Pattali Makkal Katchi said on Friday. “Election officers, police and local government officials simply pretend that nothing has happened when complaints come their way. The EC says they have seized Rs 100 crore. I will add two zeroes to that.”
Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam and Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam too have been attacking both Dravidian parties for distributing cash to voters.
More than 6,000 teams of income tax officials, state and central police, state government officials as well as paramilitary forces have descended upon the state over the last couple of days. Aware that political parties will up the ante over the weekend before the state goes to polls on Monday, they want to make one last aggressive push against cash distribution.