Two days before Tamil Nadu casts its vote in assembly polls on Monday, a truck chase in Tirupur on Saturday and Election Commission's decision to postpone elections in Aravakurichi constituency reflected the fear that the cash-for-votes phenomenon had undermined the voting process in the state.
The Election Commission said it had decided to moved the poll date in Aravakurichi constituency to May 23 from May 16 because the electoral process "has been seriously vitiated on account of unlawful activities of the candidates and political parties and their workers in bribing the electors and unlawfully inducing them by offering money and other gifts of consumable items to woo them in their favour”.
The drama in Aravakurichi began on April 22, when the Election Commission seized unregistered ambulances transporting money. A resulting raid on the home of a man said to be close to at least two ministers of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam yielded Rs 4.77 crores in cash as well as 200 saris and dhotis meant for distribution to voters.
A number of currency counting machines were recovered too. The total value of the haul was close to Rs 6 crores.
The Election Commission's statement confirmed it had recovered “incriminating documents which revealed a number of notings showing proximity to some prominent Ministers of the Tamil Nadu Government and belonging to the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam”.`
The AIADMK candidate for the seat is Senthil Balaji, former state transport minister and a powerful local leader in the Karur area. Balaji, who managed to retain his transport portfolio for four years ‒ one of the very few AIADMK ministers who was not shuffled at will by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa – was suddenly sacked from ministership and party posts in July 2015.
No official reasons were given by the AIADMK government or the party, although speculation was rife that this move had come on the back of serious allegations of corruption in postings and transfers within the heavily bleeding transport department.
Other rumours doing the rounds was that he was actually sacked because he dared to give an interview to a Tamil television channel without Jayalalithaa’s permission.
Despite this, Balaji was given a ticket – but with a catch. Instead of his native Karur constituency, he was handed a ticket for Aravakurichi, to take on the might of KC Palanisamy, a powerful leader of the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. AIADMK leaders were not available for comment on this decision.
KC Palanisamy too has contributed in large measure to the postponement of polling in Aravakurichi. On May 10, the Election Commission raided his home and that of his son KCP Sivaraman in Chennai and Karur, recovering a total of Rs 1.98 crore. The DMK was rather vexed at this seizure. “Some of our workers got carried away since the AIADMK is distributing enormous money all over the state,” said DMK spokesperson TKS Elangovan. “They panicked and thought the only way to counter this cash distribution was to do it themselves."
He added: "As a party the DMK is against distribution of cash for votes.”
But his words do not ring entirely true. Reports have been coming in over the past few days of amounts ranging from Rs 500 to Rs 2,500 per vote being distributed by both the DMK and the AIADMK across the state. This currency is being handed out in the dead of night, by party cadre visiting homes of voters. Scroll.in has already detailed the mood of voters prevailing just ahead of polling day.
The Election Commission's suspicion of widespread corruption finally seem to have been vindicated on Saturday, with the seizure of Rs 570 crores in three container trucks in Tirupur early on Saturday. These trucks did not stop when flagged down by Election Commission officials at a checkpost. Their teams gave chase and finally caught up with the trucks accompanied by three Innova cars, about 7 km away when they were fueling up.
The trucks were purportedly carrying the cash from State Bank of India’s Coimbatore branch to its Vishakhapatnam branch, but documents in the possession of the drivers did not seem to match those allegedly issued by the bank. Besides, the security guards accompanying the consignment were in plain clothes.
Almost eight hours later, the confusion was partially resolved, with the State Bank of India issuing an official statement claiming that the money was indeed theirs.
“In order to address a temporary cash shortage in the state of Andhra Pradesh, RBI as per their currency management policy authorized transfer of Rs 570 crores from currency chest at SBI Coimbatore Main branch to SBI Special Currency Administration Branch Vishakhapatnam. We reiterate once again this movement of currency is duly authorised by Reserve Bank of India and has all necessary approvals."
The vehicles have not been released. A 15-member team of the ECI is poring over the voluminous set of documents to ascertain that the money does indeed belong to the State Bank. Several questions have emerged. Why was cash being transported in regular container trucks instead of in armoured cars? Why were security guards not in uniform, especially when such a large sum was being moved?
Election Commission officials told Scroll that State Bank Vishakhapatnam had requested the sum from State Bank Coimbatore on May 5. Correspondence from State Bank Coimbatore shows the cash had left the branch on May 11. These trucks were caught barely 70 km from Coimbatore on May 14, three days later. These are questions that Election Commssion officials are likely to ask of the bank.
What has become irrefutable though is that the cash for votes phenomenon has reached huge proportions in Tamil Nadu. “This is a highly urbanised state in great decay,” said RK Radhakrishnan, a senior journalist and political commentator. “People asking for cash from politicians for their vote is not new. It has been happening since the days when Rs 20 was given as a token gesture to voters by politicians. But this organised large-scale money distribution is quite something else.”
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