Back to the booth

Print edition : February 09, 2007

October 13, 2006: Polling officials wait outside a booth at Vyasarpadi in Chennai as goondas do the voting inside.-M. VEDHAN

Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi asks 99 Chennai councillors to resign and seek re-election following a split verdict by a High Court Bench.

IN what is seen as a damage-limiting exercise, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi directed 99 councillors of the Chennai Municipal Corporation to submit their resignations and face fresh elections. The directive came after Justice F.M. Ibrahim Kalifulla, one of the two Judges of a Division Bench of the Madras High Court, ordered in a split verdict on January 12 that fresh elections should be held in 99 of the 155 wards, where reports of violence, booth-capturing and rigging were received during the elections held on October 13, 2006. The elections will now be held in February.

In a dissenting judgment, he observed that free and fair elections were not held in these wards. The Judge also identified the 99 wards in which re-poll should be held and directed the State Election Commission (SEC) to take back the certificates given to the winners. Mayor M. Subramanian of the DMK was elected from one of these wards - ward 140. The 99 councillors belonged to the DMK (58) and its allies - the Congress (25), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (13) and the Dalit Panthers of India (two).

It would be inappropriate if fresh elections were not ordered for the majority of the wards, Justice Kalifulla said, as "it was an extreme and extraordinary situation" which demanded an extraordinary remedy. He criticised the SEC, D. Chandrasekaran, for the way in which the elections were conducted, and the Director-General of Police, D. Mukherjee, and Chennai's Police Commissioner, Letika Saran, for their handling of the situation.

However, in a separate order, Justice S.J. Mukhopadhaya, the other Judge, held that the SEC could not stop the entire process of election on the basis of allegations. "Only when the authority arrives at a substantial satisfaction could action be taken to cancel the poll or to order re-poll," he said. The SEC's failure to exercise its powers could not become the basis for declaring the entire election ab initio void, his order said. There was a constitutional bar on entertaining public interest petitions in electoral matters, Justice Mukhopadhaya maintained.

The Judges gave their orders on a batch of writ petitions filed by various political parties seeking fresh elections to all the 155 wards.

The split verdict meant that the case would be referred to the Chief Justice for appointing a third Judge to look into the case. Since there is no predicting how the third Judge would give his verdict, Karunanidhi sought the concurrence of Congress president Sonia Gandhi in the matter before giving his directive. He also spoke to PMK president Dr. S. Ramadoss, who, after some persuasion, agreed to go along .

Explaining what prompted his decision, Karunanidhi said: "In this situation, although there are opportunities to wait for the verdict from the third Judge and we could also approach the Supreme Court later, it has been decided that the 99 councillors will resign to enable fresh elections to be held."

In Karunanidhi's reckoning, the resignations would create sympathy for the councillors and refurbish the party's image. Since there was no significant anti-incumbency factor at work, even if the DMK-led alliance lost about 10 seats in the re-polls, it could still recapture the corporation, he felt.

In well-planned operations on October 13, DMK supporters and henchmen terrorised voters and polling personnel by whipping out knives and swords, drove them out of the booths and stuffed the ballot boxes with ballot papers after "voting" for the DMK or its allies. In an audacious act, in a few wards goondas removed the ballot boxes from the polling booths to the road and stamped the ballot papers there before stuffing them into boxes. The magnitude of the rigging was such that several booths reported 100 per cent voting. Supporters of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who resisted these acts were assaulted.

A DMK legislator reportedly assaulted Devi, the CPI(M) candidate from ward 59. Devi was hospitalised until November. CPI(M) South Chennai district committee member K. Manikandan's fingers were chopped off when he resisted the violence (Frontline, November 3, 2006).

Former Chief Minister AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa and MDMK general secretary Vaiko demanded fresh elections in all the 155 wards. L. Ganesan, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), called the polls a farce. D. Pandian, State secretary of the CPI, said the violence was "a misguided adventure".

Although the CPI(M) is an ally of the DMK, it contested alone in eight wards as the DMK allotted the party only two wards. The CPI(M) took up the issue of rigging energetically and kept up relentless pressure on the DMK by organising protests and rallies, even as late as November 6 in Madurai. The Forum for People's Rights, Chennai, published a 38-page booklet, edited by Era. Sezhiyan, a former Lok Sabha member, a compilation of news reports and articles that appeared in different newspapers on the violence, his own speeches and the resolutions adopted at a public meeting in Chennai.

Eight parties, including the AIADMK, the MDMK, the CPI(M), the BJP and the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) headed by film actor Vijaykant, approached the High Court, seeking re-poll in all the wards. The SEC ordered re-poll first in 17 booths and subsequently in another 27 booths on the orders of the court.

The DMK-led alliance emerged victorious. The DMK was elected in 90 wards, the Congress in 38, the PMK in 17 and the DPI in two. Candidates of the AIADMK won in four wards, the MDMK and the CPI(M) in two each and the BSP in one.

In his arguments in the High Court, counsel for the CPI(M) N.G.R. Prasad told the Division Bench that the civic polls made a mockery of the electoral process. It was an extraordinary situation that called for extraordinary relief, he argued. The SEC's counsel argued that the petitions should be dismissed because of the constitutional bar in Articles 243 ZG and 243 O.

Justice Mukhopadhaya agreed with the contention that there was a constitutional bar to interfere with the election process as stipulated in Article 243 ZG. After the poll process was over, the power to intervene could be used only under Rules 118 to 126 of the Tamil Nadu Town Panchayats, Third Grade Municipalities, Municipalities and Corporation (Election) Rules, 2006. It was not possible for the court to determine whether the elections were free and fair, and it was unable to give any definite findings on their merits, he said.

Justice Kalifulla said it was unfortunate that the SEC did not even raise a finger although an extraordinary situation prevailed on October 13. He wondered how the SEC "can come forward with a simple denial and state that such incidents had been blown out of proportion" when there were serious allegations of snatching of ballot papers and rigging. The Judge described the stand of the SEC as a "highly irresponsible one" and observed that it did not protect democracy. He dismissed as "far from truth" the DGP's and the Police Commissioner's replies that the violent incidents took place sporadically. The police officials failed to perform their statutory functions, the Judge said. Every incident and the SEC's failure had led to an "extreme and extraordinary situation", the order said.

Reacting to the split verdict, Jayalalithaa demanded the resignation of Karunanidhi since the court had ordered re-poll in seven out of the eight wards falling in Chepauk, the Chief Minister's constituency. The Opposition leader also said Local Administration Minister M.K. Stalin should resign and the SEC and top police officials should be divested of their jobs. (The AIADMK has decided to boycott the re-poll.)

CPI(M) State secretary N. Varadarajan hailed the order as "a welcome development".

On January 23, the State Assembly passed the Chennai City Municipal Corporation (Amendment) Bill, 2007, which would enable the Mayor and the Deputy Mayor to get re-elected for the second time. Under the earlier rules, they could not hold office for a second term. The amendment, informed sources said, was to enable M. Subramanian to become Chennai Mayor if he got re-elected.

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