No party admits to offering bribes to voters, even though it is common knowledge that they all do. In the just-concluded elections to 38 Lok Sabha constituencies and 18 Assembly seats in Tamil Nadu, cash seizures alone added up to around ₹215 crore, almost 10 times the haul during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. While some activists blame the ‘freebie culture’ in the State, others call for an overhaul of the legal framework to rid the poll process of the menace

A month ago, when election authorities in Tamil Nadu began receiving complaints of cash distribution by major parties ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, the Election Commission told two judges of the Madras High Court, in unambiguous terms, that “cash for votes” was a major problem.

A few days later came ‘Operation Vellore’. Between March 29 and April 1, the authorities conducted “search and seizure operations”, initially at the residence of DMK treasurer Durai Murugan and his son Kathir Anand, the party’s candidate for the Vellore Lok Sabha constituency. Later, the premises of close associates of Mr. Anand and their relatives were searched. The operation on All Fools Day yielded a total cash seizure of ₹11.48 crore. The poll process in Vellore was subsequently cancelled.

By the time the poll process was over in the remaining 38 Lok Sabha constituencies in Tamil Nadu, cash seizures alone added up to several tens of crores of rupees. As on April 25, the value of cash seizures was around ₹215 crore, almost 10 times the cash seized during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Even though not all the cash seized is meant for bribing voters, the seizures this time around only underscore the gravity of the problem, which has a long history in Tamil Nadu. Video clips have also emerged showing political party functionaries distributing money to voters in some places and publicly discussing how to take the money to voters without being caught.

No recent phenomenon

Complaints of cash for votes surfaced even in the 1962 Assembly elections. The Congress was accused of buying voters in Kancheepuram, a charge that it denied. Eventually, in the temple town, DMK founder C.N. Annadurai lost to the Congress's nominee, S.V. Natesa Mudaliar, a fleet operator, by a margin of 9,190 votes.

The amounts spent by political parties on elections has only grown over the years. On record, none of the parties concedes that it bribes people, even though it is common knowledge. Only the rates of bribery vary from one party to another.

“This time, they were anywhere in the range of ₹200 to ₹3,000 per voter. Of course, the higher amount was in the case of Parliamentary constituencies where Assembly byelections also took place,” charges Jayaram Venkatesan, convenor of Arappor Iyakkam, an anti-corruption body. He adds that money or freebies bring about a swing of 6% in favour of a particular candidate, as per a recent survey conducted in the State by the New Delhi-based Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR).

Paradigm shift

The qualitative difference between the Thirumangalam byelection, held in January 2009, and others is the combination of money and muscle power.

Asked to distinguish Thirumangalam from the bypolls of Kancheepuram and Gummidipoondi in May 2005, Naresh Gupta, who was the State’s Chief Electoral Officer on both occasions, replies that muscle power was not as evident before and after Thirumangalam.

“Of course, the scale [of money power] was considerably higher,” he says. (The AIADMK was in power in May 2005 and the DMK in January 2009.)

The “Thirumangalam formula” has come to symbolise the role of money power in elections.

Both the DMK and the AIADMK were accused by the Left and the BJP of having resorted to “the formula” during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and February 2015 Srirangam bypoll. Today, the Left is an ally of the DMK and the BJP, a friend of the AIADMK.

EC intervention

The 2016 Assembly elections saw a new trend with the Election Commission going to the extent of rescinding the poll process in two Assembly constituencies. The poll body, which had first postponed polling in the two places before cancelling it, had to say virtually in exasperation in its order of May 2016 that it “had hoped and expected that the postponement of poll in the two constituencies would have a sobering effect on the illegal use of money power in the election process, but that hope has been dashed to the ground as the unlawful activities of the candidates and political parties to offer allurements to the electorates continued unabated.”

When the elections in the two seats took place five months later, V. Senthil Balaji and M. Rengasamy, then in the AIADMK, against whom the Election Commission had earlier entertained complaints, were elected from Aravakurichi and Thanjavur. Even now, they are in the fray but as nominees of the DMK and the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam.

Letter of the law

Many activists have expressed shock and concern over the Commission allowing such persons to contest in elections. Mr. Venkatesan says that at least during the pendency of the case they should be temporarily disqualified. But, Satyabrata Sahoo, the present Chief Electoral Officer, pleads helplessness and says there is no such provision in the existing electoral laws and rules. “Some people are expecting us to act immediately. But, we can go only by the due course of law,” he points out.

The 2017 R.K. Nagar byelection became infamous for a variety of reasons. One of them was the offer of “innovative” gifts such as prepaid phone recharge coupons, newspaper subscription, milk tokens, money transfer to no-frills bank accounts and mobile wallets.

Over the years, only the manifestation of the problem changes. But, the fault lies with the people, feel some activists. M.G. Devesahayam, civil servant-turned-activist, blames the culture of freebies, as practised by the State’s two principal parties while in power.

The people see no difference in taking money from candidates as they have otherwise got used to receiving money from the government under one scheme or the other.

Unholy nexus

Sudarsan Padmanabhan, ADR trustee and Tamil Nadu Election Watch coordinator, says an “unholy nexus” is growing between the parties and the voters as the former feels justified in giving money to the latter on account of their “inability” to convince the people through their welfare schemes or the strength of their manifestos.

A senior police officer, handling election work, laments about how ineffective the legal provisions are with regard to bribery in elections. Rarely are chargesheets prepared, after first information reports are filed. Once the elections are over, the focus diminishes on offences with virtually no conviction happening. To address the issue, at least in the future, bribery has to be made a cognisable offence with a minimum of two years’ imprisonment. In the R.K. Nagar case itself, the FIR was quashed by a single judge with the Election Commission not even being aware of it.

Mr. Devesahayam calls for a fresh law to replace the Representation of People Act, 1951, which, he says, has outlived its life. The new law should incorporate all the suggestions made by the Election Commission over the years, including what former Chief Election Commissioner T.S. Krishnamurthy had proposed 15 years ago, and panels such as Law Commission and Parliamentary committees.

E.M. Sudarsana Natchiappan, former Union Minister who headed a committee of parliamentarians on the reforms, is emphatic in saying that the Election Commission should have its own machinery to investigate and prosecute offenders of electoral laws.

There has to be special election committees to go into complaints and objections levelled against prospective candidates before acceptance of nomination papers and returning officers should go by what the committees decide.

If the suggested changes see the light of day, the “system” of cash for votes, activists hope, will soon become a relic in Tamil Nadu.

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