When the final tally in Tamil Nadu’s Dr Radhakrishnan Nagar bye-election was anounced on Sunday, it showed that TTV Dinakaran had won with a margin of 40,707 votes. A rebel who defied the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam to run as an independent, Dinakaran is the nephew of VK Sasikala, the aide of Jayalalithaa, who was state chief minister until she died in December last year. RK Nagar was Jayalalithaa’s seat. Astonishingly, Dinakaran’s victory margin was greater than the difference of just over 39,000 votes that Jayalalithaa herself managed in the 2016 Assembly elections.

Does this mean Dinakaran is as popular and charismatic as Jayalalithaa had been? This would be a faulty reading of the results.

The official AIADMK candidate E Madhusudhan got 48,306 votes, while the Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was been pushed to the third position. Its candidate Marudhuganesh lost his deposit by polling just 24,651 votes.

Does this mean the people of Tamil Nadu think Dinakaran is a more viable alternative to the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam than the DMK? Again, a misreading.

Some in the Congress and the Left parties, who supported the DMK in the bye-elections, have gone on television debates claiming that this was a clear anti-BJP vote. They suggested that the ruling AIADMK has worked closely with the BJP, prompting some Tamils to denounce the party as a puppet of the Centre. This motivated voters to back Dinakaran to teach the BJP a lesson, these commentators have calimed. But this is also a misinterpreation of the verdict.

What has clearly been the decisive factor in the bye-elections is money power, keeping in line with a tradition that has brought ill fame to Tamil Nadu. The corruption was already evident in April, when the Election Commission cancelled the bye-election in this Chennai area. It said that the electoral process had 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”.

The anti-BJP theory

Since Sunday morning, when the trends became visible, many Opposition politicians claimed the results was a reflection of the dissatisfaction against the policies of the Centre – demonetisation, the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, the imposition of Hindi, the introduction of the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test for medical college admissions.

Dinakaran was the beneficiary of this anger, they suggested, because he has been the subject of a corruption inquiry by Central agencies controlled by the BJP over the 12 months. The victory was the way of lending him support against the wrath of the saffron party, these commentators suggested.

This theory discounts logic. If teaching the BJP a lesson was the pritority of the people of RK Nagar, their first choice should have been the Opposition DMK party.

The DMK has been a strident critic of the BJP since 2014. It has also been in alliance with the Congress, seen as the principal rival to the BJP nationally. Almost every anti-BJP force in Tamil Nadu – the Congress, Left parties, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, Indian Union Muslim League, Manithaneya Makkal Katchi and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam – threw its weight behind the DMK during the campaign. If there was a party that had projected itself as foe of the BJP in this bye-election, it was the DMK.

There is no reason to believe that voters aiming to fight communalism and the excesses of the Centre chose to ignore the secular credentials of these eight parties and go with Dinakaran instead.

TTV Dinakaran's aunt V K Sasikala. Credit: PTI

Money power

During the campaign, the Opposition constantly alleged that a huge amount of money had been paid out to voters. MK Stalin, the DMK’s working president, claimed early in December that at least Rs 100 crores has been distributed.

That money plays a significant role in bye-elections in Tamil Nadu is not a new phenomenon. The first signs of this were visible as far back as 2003, when bye-polls were held for the Santhankulam Assembly seat following the death of its legislator SS Mani Nadar. The ruling AIADMK won a landslide victory.

Ever since, bye-elections have been largely about money. Bye-polls are ideal for this strategy, given the small area in which they are held and that they involve fewer voters than a general election.

After the RK Nagar bye-poll was countermanded in April, the Income Tax department said that its raids had uncovered evidence that about Rs 89 crores was to be distributed to voters. However, there has been little progress in these cases since. Vijaya Bhaskar, the man considered the brain behind the distribution, continues to serve as a minister in Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK government.

Despite this, Dinakaran has maintained that not a penny was distributed. “When the police is under the control of the AIADMK, how could we distribute money?” he has frequently asked over the last few weeks.

Like Dinakaran, the AIADMK was also dogged by allegations that it was paying cash for votes. However, the party clearly had other problems, such as internal disputes over the choice of candidate.

DMK’s misreading

In a way, the results reflect the botched-up strategy of the DMK. It is nobody’s case that the party should have matched its rivals in doling out cash. On television, its leaders suggested that their party had decided not to buy votes. But this was never made a campaign point.

What then did the DMK bet on? Given the popular notion that voters were opposed to Dinakaran and his aunt Sasikala, who is in jail on corruption charges, the DMK seems to have taken Dinakaran easily. With his decision to run for elections against his party’s official candidate the DMK seems to have believed that it would be the sole beneficiary from the split in the AIADMK vote. This proved to be wrong.

The DMK clearly underestimated Dinakaran’s money power and his ability to convince voters that his faction of the AIADMK was the real one. The results show he had managed it quite efficiently by using multiple strategies, including the release last week of a video showing Jayalalithaa sipping a beverage when she was in the hospital last year. He later disassociated himself from the video.

Given the results, questions are bound to be asked in the DMK about the leadership and electoral strategies of Stalin. The party even failed to capitalise on the court verdict in the 2G spectrum case clearing senior leaders of corruption charges in the telecom scam, which was delivered on the day of the polling on December 21. This is the second election the party is losing under his leadership. In 2016 too, it was Stalin who led the campaign for the state assembly elections which failed to bring the DMK back to power.

Election Commission’s failure

One thing that is clear from the RK Nagar election is that the Election Commission of India has been unable to curtail money power in Tamil Nadu. During general elections, the commission could be cut slack for lacking the manpower to stop parties bribing voters with cash. But in a bye-election in a small geographical area, the commission should have used all its might to clamp down on corruption.

After it countermanded the bye-polls in April, it was supposed to hold the election within six months from the date of the seat being vacated on December 5, 2016, the day Jayalalithaa died. But in June, the commission said the situation in Dr RK Nagar was not conducive to meeting this deadline. When it announced the polling date of December 21, commentators wanted to know how the situation had changed to allow polls to be conducted honestly. They also wanted to know what special measures have been strategised to curb cash for votes. No answers were forthcoming.

Despite complaints over the past two weeks of money being handed out to voters, the Election Commission adamantly decided to go ahead with the polls, possibly fearing criticism that it was incapable of conducting a bye-election to fill a single Assembly seat.

The campaign in Dr RK Nagar shows is that votes have been converted into a commodity. The commission must quickly find a way to contain this problem.