At noon on Sunday, campaigns for the bye-polls in North Chennai’s RK Nagar constituency were high in volume and vibrancy. Even though word had spread that the elections may not be held on the scheduled date of April 12 over allegations of a cash-for-votes scandal, the contesting parties showed no signs of slowing down their campaigns.
Late on Sunday night, the Election Commission decided to cancel the vote. The poll would be held only after “the vitiating effect created by the distribution of money and gift items to lure the electors gets removed with the passage of time, and the atmosphere in the constituency becomes conducive to the holding of free and fair election,” the commission said.
On Saturday, the Central Board of Direct Taxes submitted a report to the Election Commission, stating that the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam camp led by VK Sasikala had set aside at least Rs 89 crore to distribute as cash to voters of the RK Assembly constituency, earlier represented by former Chief Minister J Jayalithaa, who died on December 5.
On Friday, the Income Tax officials raided several properties belonging to Tamil Nadu Health Minister C Vijayabaskar, his close associates and other AIADMK leaders of the Sasikala camp and allegedly found documents suggesting that about Rs 89 crore had been distributed for votes. More than Rs 5 crore in cash was also recovered from properties of Vijayabaskar and his aides.
Though speculation was rife that the bye-poll may be cancelled over the allegations, on Sunday morning, there was no let-up in the enthusiasm of workers from all parties. Open mini-vans belonging to the Sasikala faction continued to hurtle down the main roads of RK Nagar, with politicians wearing white shirts and cowboy hats waving at the crowd. TTV Dhinakaran, Sasikala’s nephew, is her faction’s candidate from the seat.
Autorickshaws with loudspeakers blared praises of Deepa Jayakumar, Jayalalithaa’s niece, whose MGR Amma Deepa Peravai party is fighting its debut election from this constituency. At a prominent junction in RK Nagar, in a campaign video with a catchy tune was being screened by the AIADMK faction led by O Panneerselvam, who had briefly taken over as chief minister after Jayalalithaa’s death.
Shanmughasundaram, a party worker from the IT wing of Sasikala’s camp, denied that cash had been distributed for votes. Other party workers too said that money might have been given to poorer voters who had been campaigning alongside them, just as a gesture of kindness. “Every party gives money to the people in the constituency, not just ours,” said Shanmughasundaram.
Declaring that nothing except the voter’s own instinct could influence them to vote for any party, Shanmughasundaram blamed the recent developments on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Modi has interfered with this news now because he knows we have a good chance of winning, he said. “That is why he wants the election to get cancelled.”
“His main game here is to divide the AIADMK, which has happened,” he added. “He wants the BJP to take over in Tamil Nadu using the help of O Panneerselvam. Modi is the one who plotted everything.”
Other members of Sasikala’s faction presented more conspiracy theories about the corruption charge against them. “DMK members wore our party hats and went around distributing money in the locality,” said K Varalakshmi, a party member. “This has been captured by media and our faction is being blamed.”
Meanwhile, workers of the Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam were tight-lipped about the raids and refused to comment on bribery scandal.
In contrast, the cadres of MGR Amma Deepa Peravai were overjoyed that they were receiving any media attention at all. “None of the journalists are writing about how popular Deepa is,” they said. “We feel that they are being paid off by other parties, telling them not to report about Deepa Amma.”
Deepa Jayakumar’s party and O Panneerselvam’s faction – which has floated E Madhusudhanan as a candidate – declared themselves innocent of any malpractice. “All parties are giving out cash except us,” said the party workers.
Voters not surprised
The possibility of the election being cancelled over the cash-for-votes allegations came as no surprise to voters. Last year, elections in Thanjavur and Aravakurichi constituencies had been cancelled in the run up to the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections after it was found that both the AIADMK and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam were bribing voters.
“Only money speaks here,” said G Vadivelu resignedly, as the carpenter chipped away at a wooden block at his shop. “Nobody here will tell you that they will not take money.”
Vadivelu said that though he had not received any money, he had heard that Sasikala’s camp had planned to give out Rs 4,000 to voters, while the DMK had decided on Rs 2,000 per head. “People don’t feel guilty of taking money from these parties,” he said. “They might not accept it if it were someone’s hard-earned money or even government money. But they know all this is black money from corrupt practices by the party, so they are willing to accept it.”
Many voters said that they would accept money if it is offered to them, but vote for the party of their choice. S Chandrakumaran, an auto-rickshaw driver, said he and his friends had decided to accept money from Dhinakaran’s party but vote for Madhusudhanan.
But some voters said they are disillusioned with the parties and are considering choosing the NOTA – none of the above – option on voting day.
“It is better if the election is cancelled because the money has made its way to most houses,” said U Murugan, a hardware store owner. “People are not valuing this as an opportunity to exercise their democratic right or a way to make their country better. People do not rule here, only money does.”