Praveen Kumar, CEO, Tamil Nadu

‘We tried to stop money transactions.’

Print edition : May 30, 2014

Chief Electoral Officer Praveen Kumar. Photo: J. Manoharan

Interview with Praveen Kumar, Chief Electoral Officer, Tamil Nadu.

PRAVEEN KUMAR, Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) and Principal Secretary Public (Elections) Department, Tamil Nadu, was in a relaxed mood. Polling for the 39 Lok Sabha constituencies in Tamil Nadu had passed off peacefully on April 24. “Not a single stone was thrown,” he said. The elections, he said, were free and fair.

The opposition parties did not agree with this assessment. On polling day, roads were deserted in most parts of the State and it seemed as if a curfew had been imposed, with people speaking in whispers and hurrying home after voting. The opposition blamed this situation on Praveen Kumar and accused him of “erring in judgment” and imposing prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) across the State on the eve of polling. This, they alleged, allowed the State’s ruling dispensation to distribute money freely to voters.

The law-enforcers, they claimed, remained mute witnesses to this “bribing” of voters, while the Opposition parties felt intimidated by the order.

Praveen Kumar admitted that he could not “stop” the money flow fully. But he justified the decision to impose Section 144, which he said played a significant role in “controlling” the money flow before polling besides ensuring the peaceful conduct of election.

In this interview to Frontline, Praveen Kumar explained the circumstances that led to the imposition of Section 144 and its efficacy. Excerpts:

What prompted you to invoke Section 144 of the CrPC all over the State before election day?

It all began when the Karnataka Chief Electoral Officer asked the Election Commission of India for advice on door-to-door canvassing conducted by the political parties 48 hours before polling. The E.C. clarified in a circular that there was no legal bar on door-to-door campaigning, but said that in order to prevent any untoward incidents and curb money transfer during the campaign, the respective Returning Officers [R.Os] could use their discretionary powers to invoke Section 144.

I sent the E.C.’s circular to the R.Os, the majority of whom are District Collectors, thinking that the invocation of Section 144 would have a deterrent effect on money distribution and help the law-enforcers to maintain a strict vigil and enable the election officers in the peaceful conduct of polls.

Political analysts claim that Section 144 has never been invoked for any elections. Selective use of this provision has been reported from a few disturbed areas in the country, primarily to maintain law and order.

Yes, I know. But some reports suggested the transfer of heavy and unusual volume of money before the polling day in Tamil Nadu. In order to check this, we clamped Section 144. The neighbouring [Union Territory of] Puducherry also imposed Section 144.

So the E.C. insisted on the imposition of Section 144 mainly to prevent polling-related cash flow.

No. We did not insist on the imposition of the preventive section. I just forwarded the E.C.’s reply to the Karnataka CEO’s query to all the R.Os and suggested that they “may” try this option to stop the money flow since the Collectors, as District Magistrates, alone are empowered to promulgate prohibitory orders.

They studied the ground situation and, after consulting their counterparts in the Police Department, passed the order. In fact, the elections in Tamil Nadu were very peaceful.

Does it not seem strange that all R.Os adhered to the ‘advice’?

No. There was nothing amiss about it. Our collective intention was to stop the money flow. Besides, if one R.O. decides to invoke the provision, others will follow suit nonchalantly. The exception becomes the unwritten rule. You cannot attribute an unwarranted motive to an action that was taken in good spirit.

But the reality is that the E.C. could not prevent the distribution of money. Various political parties accused you of remaining a mute witness to it. They allege that Section 144 was “misused” to permit the ruling dispensation to disburse money uninterrupted. It was not a fair election, they claim.

Let them say whatever they want. I do not want to answer such baseless speculation. Our intention was genuine. We tried to stop money transactions. In fact, at many places we could stop the “last mile” distribution. We seized sums ranging from Rs.10,000 to Rs.20,000 from a large number of people on a single day. We stopped the movement of the “big ticket” amounts, thanks to intense checking and patrolling.

We beefed up the security to a level four times higher than that in the last elections. The E.C. seized cash and other material, the combined value of which was estimated at about Rs.76 crore. Here, in Tamil Nadu, everything is politicised.

How would you evaluate the performance of the R.Os and their compliance with the E.C’s directives?

All R.Os had been proactive. They responded immediately and positively whenever I called them for any reports and clarifications. We will take up a review of their performance individually after the counting is over. Their performance charts will be evaluated after receiving the reports of the independent observers.

Do you have any regrets?

No. I received clear-cut guidelines from the E.C. and we implemented them and conducted the elections peacefully.

On election reforms, specifically on the issue of bribing voters, what are your suggestions?

Personally, we need to pep up the campaign against bribing voters. We have succeeded in making the electorate understand the importance of voting. We also launched a campaign against ‘cash for votes’. Voters should voluntarily reject those who offer them money for votes. The campaign against “bribery” should be strengthened.

Village-level youth committees should be formed to discourage voters from getting bribed. Voters should have the self-esteem to shun those who attempt to purchase their votes. It is their national duty to vote.

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