For the second time in a year, the Election Commission of India has countermanded elections in Tamil Nadu.

Late on Sunday night, the commission said it was cancelling the bye-poll to Dr Radhakrishnan Nagar constituency in Chennai, scheduled for April 12, due to large-scale malpractice by candidates and political parties. The seat had fallen vacant with the death in December of J Jayalalithaa.

In the order, the commission said:

 “...the Commission is fully satisfied that the current electoral process in the said Dr Radhakrishnan Nagar Assembly Constituency in Tamil Nadu has been seriously vitiated on account of unlawful activities of the candidates and political parties and their workers by bribing the electors and unlawfully inducing them by offering money and other gifts of consumable items to woo them in their favour. In the Commission’s considered opinion, allowing the current electoral process to proceed and conduct the poll in the constituency on 12th April, 2016, as scheduled, in such vitiated atmosphere would severely jeopardize the conduct of free and fair election in the said Dr Radhakrishnan Nagar Assembly Constituency.”  

In April 2016, during the elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly, the commission postponed polls in Aravakurichi and Thanjavur, after cash running into crores was recovered from sites belonging to persons close to the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

This move was seen as a warning to candidates bribing the voters. The commission was of the view that countermanding elections in constituencies where parties try to buy votes with cash would act as a deterrent against corruption. But given what has happened in Dr Radhakrishnan Nagar, it is clear that the strategy has failed. Not only have political parties distributed cash, they have done so blatantly, unmindful of the consequences.

What was more startling was some of the revelations made in the commission’s statement on Sunday night. A cabinet minister has been the coordinator of cash distribution, which had involved the top leadership of the ruling party. This apart, in a finding that has serious consequences to the very concept of secret voting, the corrupt party members seemed to have had a list of voters and their party preference in the last poll.

High-stakes contest

The Dr RK Nagar bye-poll was a high stakes election. After Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s death, the AIADMK split into two factions – one led by her close aide VK Sasikala, who is currently lodged in a Bengaluru prison after the Supreme Court convicted her in a disproportionate assets case in February, and another led by former Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, who rebelled against Sasikala.

Sasikala’s nephew TTV Dinakaran, who is also the deputy general secretary of the party, decided to contest the bye-poll. The rebel faction went to the Election Commission seeking the suspension of the “two leaves” AIADMK symbol and got a favourable order in. The two factions were contesting the polls independently with new symbols.

This was an all or nothing contest for Dinakaran. A loss would have jeopardised his control over the AIADMK and might have put the government at risk as it currently survives on a thin majority of 122 MLAs in the 234-member Assembly.

For the Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the poll was equally important as it was the first major election after its leader MK Stalin took over as working president in January.

Serious charges

In its statement, the commission detailed the measures it had adopted to control the cash flow. Central security forces were brought in. Multiple checking squads were put in place. The commission changed the Chennai police commissioner and transferred some 23 officials out of the constituency to ensure a fair contest.

But despite the preparation, the ruling party AIADMK (Amma) faction, led by Dinakaran, managed to flood the constituency with cash. Quoting an April 8 report by the Income Tax Department, the commission said searches were conducted in 21 locations in Chennai and 11 outside Chennai after information on large-scale cash distribution was received by the department. All these locations belonged to Health Minister C Vijaya Baskar, a Sasikala loyalist, and his aides.

Vijaya Baskar’s clout is evident from the fact that he was one of the very few ministers whose portfolio was never changed by Jayalalithaa between 2011-2016, even though the former chief minister had the habit of constantly shuffling her cabinet.

The Election Commission order said:

“The Income Tax authorities have also informed that  several complaints were received recently indicating that  Dr C. Vijaya Baskar is the main person involved in bribing the voters in RK Nagar Assembly constituency which is going to polls on 12th April, 2017. Some loose sheets were found with his accountant Mr Srinivasan indicating distribution of Rs. 89 crores to a number of politicians  for further distribution among the voters.  The premises of Shri Rajendran [former AIADMK MP]  were also  searched on receiving the input from a central agency that a huge amount of cash was brought there yesterday by particular vehicle, for distribution in R.K. Nagar constituency.  

In the searches, the IT department recovered cash worth Rs 5 crores. The efficient manner in which money had been distributed is startling. Charts were prepared ward-wise. About Rs 89 crores was divided between several prominent politicians of the AIADMK for further distribution to voters. These included ministers, who were given control of a certain number of wards.

Above all, those distributing cash seemed to have had knowledge about the political preference of each voter.

“Further, a lot of incriminating material including voters list marking against each voter either DMK or AIADMK and amount to be paid and paid in some cases, were also found and seized,” the Election Commission added in its statement.

How political parties got to know which party voters cast their vote to in previous elections is a mystery the commission needs to solve.

Impotent reaction

The events in Dr RK Nagar clearly indicate that merely countermanding elections will not rid the state of electoral corruption.

The Election Commission has restrictions on the action it can initiate. First, it has to depend on the police and the state prosecution to ensure that the culprits are punished. Once an First Information Report is filed, the responsibility for conducting the trial shifts to the state. Like most criminal cases, those for electoral malpractice take a long time to conclude. There are no special courts to deal with electoral violations.

In Aravakurichi and Thanjavur, two constituencies in which elections were countermanded in 2016, the same set of candidates contested the re-poll and won. There is no information on the status of cases against those arrested during the election. None of the political parties have been punished.

Even on Sunday, despite knowing that the top leadership of the AIADMK (Amma) faction was allegedly involved in bribing voters, the Election Commission chose to appeal to the conscience of the high command to put an end to the corruption, forgetting the fact that the candidate contesting the bye-poll was actually the high command.

“It is high time that they exert their moral influence and legal authority to reign in their erring candidates and electoral managers without loss of time, if democracy is to flourish and deepen its roots in our country,” the commission said.

Meanwhile, Dinakaran has denied all charges against his party and said he would contest the polls whenever the commission chooses to conduct them. He also criticised those demanding the disqualification of his candidature.

“How can they disqualify me without evidence?” he told a Tamil television channel. “These documents are all fake. It’s forged. Vijayabaskar met me yesterday. Nothing has been found at his residence. Let them have CBI, Interpol investigation. We have nothing to hide.”