Late on Sunday night, the Election Commission announced another surprise in Tamil Nadu. Polling in a second constituency was postponed. Thanjavur would go to polls later than the rest of the state, the commission said, because large-scale cash distribution by political parties to voters had “vitiated the atmosphere” and inhibited the conduct of free and fair polls.
On Saturday, it had announced the postponement of elections in Aravakurichi for the same reason.
The Election Commission said it had made its decision about Thanjavur after a squad on Friday seized Rs 5 lakhs from the terrace of Muthu Lodge in the town. “Many rubber bands were found lying there, indicating distribution of huge cash,” the commission said in a press statement.
Following this recovery, the search of a suspicious car on Saturday yielded documents that allegedly showed how a candidate of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had paid Rs 500 per vote in 13 wards out of the total 51. The total cash distributed, as per the Election Commission report, was Rs 1.4 crores.
“It indicates that despite of all the possible efforts taken by the Election Observation machinery, more than Rs 6 crores were distributed by a single candidate in the constituency,” said the commission. “It is very painful to report that only about Rs 21 lakhs were seized during the election campaigning despite of the sincere efforts of the undersigned with the available resources.”
However, some political observers believe that the decision by the Election Commission is too drastic.
“Postponing elections is taking place for the first time after 23 years and this is for reasons other than the death of a candidate,” said R Mani, a journalist in Chennai. “Cash distribution is proving to be very challenging for the ECI [Election Commission of India]. But they have come down much tougher on the cash issue than they have ever before.”
Representatives of smaller parties with much to lose, like the Pattali Makkal Katchi’s Anbumani Ramadoss, demanded that the elections in all 234 constituencies of the state be “postponed until the effect of the money wears off”.
The Left parties have also petitioned the commission to postpone polls in the entire state for the same reason. In a petition to the commission after the postponement of polls in Aravakurichi, G Ramakrishnan, state secretary of the CPI (M) in Tamil Nadu, argued that conducting elections in one constituency after the results of the rest of the state were out would “unduly influence” voters in that constituency into voting for the victor. “There will be no free and fair election,” he argued in his petition.
But some former officials of the Commission believe that this is the right decision. In fact, they recommended even sterner action by the Commission.
“In these circumstances you can only jump to conclusions,” argued N Gopalaswami, former Chief Election Commissioner. “In this kind of a thing, no one will give you evidence on a platter. Everyone knows money has been distributed and I wish the Commission takes the next step. They should issue notice to all parties and countermand elections.”
The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam treasurer and heir apparent MK Stalin said his party wanted a Central Bureau of Investigation enquiry into the allegations of large-scale cash distribution in the state. “The ECI’s action in postponing polls in these two constituencies should have come much earlier,” he said. “They have not taken enough measures in the rest of the state to curb cash flow.”
The chief electoral officer of Tamil Nadu, Rajesh Lakhoni, did not respond to queries on the issue.