The Election Commission of India on Monday cancelled the bye-election to Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvarur Assembly constituency a week after announcing that it would be held on January 28. Its decision followed criticism from Opposition parties and protests by local residents.

Tiruvarur was the seat of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M Karunanidhi, who died in August. It was severely hit by Cyclone Gaja in November. The announcement of the poll date meant that the model code of conduct kicked in, which led to the discontinuation of the distribution of relief materials in the constituency.

The poll body cited continuation of relief work as the reason for its decision to rescind the bye-election. But this point had been flagged before it by the state’s chief secretary in December. On Monday, Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa told Thanthi TV
that the announcement of the poll date was “not an error of judgment on the part of the Election Commission”.

There are 20 vacant Assembly constituencies in Tamil Nadu. The poll body’s decision to announce bye-elections only in Tiruvarur had left observers perplexed. Its decision to rescind the poll is also being viewed with suspicion by Opposition parties, which believe the initial announcement was made to help the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

Street talk

There is speculation in the state that the Election Commission announced the bye-election in only one of the state’s 20 vacant constituencies at the behest of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-run Tamil Nadu government, which wanted to test the strength of its main rival, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, before the Lok Sabha polls due in April or May.

Though keen that the bye-election not be held in the first place, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam had announced their party candidates, and the Communist Party of India had declared its support to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

Political observers say that the AIADMK’s decision to defer the announcement of its candidate made it clear that the party was informed in advance that the Election Commission would call off the poll.

‘Not ready for poll’

Cyclone Gaja swept through Tamil Nadu more than 40 days ago, leaving a trail of destruction in nearly 10 coastal and delta districts.

In Tiruvarur, one of the worst-affected districts, both power and the drinking water supply are yet to be completely restored and people in some of its remote villages are still awaiting relief materials.

It was clear that the district administration, immersed in relief and rehabilitation work, was not prepared to conduct the bye-election so soon.

But the Election Commission of India announced the poll date without consulting the state machinery. It did so despite a letter from the state’s Chief Secretary in December expressly asking it not to hold the bye-poll in Tiruvarur constituency before April as the district was still limping back to normal after Cyclone Gaja.

“Tiruvarur district is one of the main districts which bore the brunt of the cyclone and it will take at least three months for life to return to normal in the district,” wrote Chief Secretary Girija Vaidyanathan in the letter dated December 3. Vaidyanathan also requested the poll body not to conduct bye-elections in Tamil Nadu’s other vacant Assembly constituencies just yet.

Subsequently, on December 28, the Election Commission wrote to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs about holding bye-elections in the state. The ministry responded, saying that the Tamil Nadu government would be in a better position to assess the time required to complete the relief and rehabilitation work. But despite this communication, the Election Commission went ahead and announced the date for the Tiruvarur bye-poll on December 31.

After the poll announcement was received with criticism by Opposition parties, the District Election Officer in Tiruvarur called all recognised parties in the district for a meeting on January 5. At that meeting, both the ruling and Opposition parties requested that the election be deferred in view of the ongoing relief and rehabilitation work.

On Monday, only one state leader seemed to be miffed at the cancellation of the bye-poll. “On the pretext of considering the opinion of people and political parties, the Election Commission has called off the bye-election,” said TTV Dinakaran, leader of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam, on Monday. “This is making a mockery of democracy.”

Lavasa said on Monday that elections to all 20 vacant Assembly constituencies in Tamil Nadu will be conducted within 180 days.

Corrections and clarifications: This story has been updated to correct Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa comment, made to Thanti TV. An earlier version of the story suggested that he had said that the commission had made an error of judgement. Instead, he said there was no error.