Undeterred by the ruling front's fusillades, the Election Commission goes all out to enforce its code of conduct.
WHEN Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi described Tamil Nadu as a challenging case, he was not exaggerating.
Apart from its outcome, the April 13 election to the Tamil Nadu Assembly will be remembered for three things the audacious distribution of money to buy votes and the Election Commission's (E.C.) gallant efforts to block it; Chief Minister and ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi's frequent outbursts accusing the E.C. of masterminding an undeclared emergency and wondering whether the Election Commission is running the regime; and the saga of Madurai District Collector U. Sahayam, who stood up to political pressure to make the Chief Minister fall in line.
If the Tirumangalam formula of bribing voters with cash and blandishments has made Tamil Nadu notorious in the eyes of the Election Commission, the State has no one to blame but itself. The art of buying votes with money was fine-tuned in January 2009 when a byelection was held for the Tirumangalam Assembly constituency, near Madurai. The DMK candidate, Latha Athiyaman, defeated the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) candidate by 39,266 voters in the election.
In the run-up to the 2011 Assembly elections, not only was the distribution of cash widespread but ingenious were the ways of reaching it to the voters. If the E.C.'s flying squad checked cars and trucks to seize illegal cash, ambulances and mortuary vans were used to ferry money. When this ruse was found out, trains were used to transport money.
There were curious incidents as well. On running into a checkpost in Nellikuppam town in Cuddalore district, men in a car drove away at break-neck speed and threw out bundles of notes (Rs.2.76 lakh) kept in bags. Out flew voters lists along with them. The policemen gave chase but could not stop the car.
On April 5, an E.C. flying squad seized several thousand banians with images of the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister M.K. Stalin on them at Teynampet in Chennai because they were being transported without the necessary permit. The police seized 2,000 liquefied petroleum gas stoves kept in five trucks in a godown in Kodambakkam in Chennai. DMK and AIADMK leaders traded allegations that the other party had planned to distribute the stoves to voters. In some places, tokens were given to voters to be exchanged for goods in select shops.
Astonishing was the discovery on April 5 of Rs.5.11 crore concealed in five bags under a tarpaulin spread on the roof of a private bus in Tiruchi town. The seizure was made after S. Sangeetha, returning officer for Tiruchi West Assembly, received a tip-off on her mobile phone. K.N. Nehru, Transport Minister in the DMK government and a candidate in the Tiruchi West constituency, denied television news reports that the money belonged to his relatives. There is no connection between the money seized and my relatives, he said in a statement.
Quraishi asserted that the E.C. would not close its eyes to the rampant malpractices in Tamil Nadu and that it would not dither in doing its sacred duty.
In an interview to the Press Trust of India published in The Hindu on April 9, he rejected the accusation made by the DMK and its ally, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), that the E.C. had created an Emergency-like situation in the State. He said he was surprised that the E.C. is attacked for doing what all the parties want it to do. Let this one be clear to one and all, Quraishi emphasised. In carrying out the Commission's sacred duty, assigned by the Constitution, we will not dither. It does not matter if there are no accolades; it does not matter [either] if there are brickbats. The E.C. will stay the course.
The E.C. has been enforcing expenditure control measures to check money power. Tamil Nadu has been a challenging case. But we are doing our best, and will not allow any let-up, Quraishi said.
Tamil Nadu's Chief Electoral Officer, Praveen Kumar, warned political parties that the E.C. was watching the situation closely and that it shall be constrained to take stern measures as may become necessary if cash and gifts were distributed.
Praveen Kumar said that from the day the election process began and until April 12, Rs.33.11 crore in cash and Rs.12.58 crore in kind was seized. About Rs.5.18 crore were returned after sufficient proof was provided.
Karunanidhi fired his first fusillade at the E.C. on March 31. Under the power that is available [to the E.C.], an undeclared and an unpublicised Emergency is prevailing in the State. These Emergency-like atrocities are aimed at breaking the DMK-led alliance and weakening its partners, he alleged.
The Chief Minister repeated his attack on April 2 and demanded that the E.C. should act impartially. When permission (from the E.C.) had to be obtained for his tours, I get a doubt whether I am the Chief Minister, whether the DMK headed by me is ruling Tamil Nadu or the Election Commission is running the regime? he said sarcastically.
He launched another broadside at the E.C. on April 9 at Cuddalore when the E.C. refused to let him stay at a government guest house. The Chief Minister slept at the party office. The E.C. did not allow the Chief Minister to present a cash award of Rs.4 crore announced by his government to the Indian cricket team for winning the ICC World Cup. Karunanidhi insisted that the Centre should take a stand on how to constitute the E.C., who should be its members and how its powers should be exercised.
S. Ramadoss, PMK founder, and K.V. Thangkabalu, president of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee, joined Karunanidhi in accusing the E.C. of acting in a biased manner. The E.C. has lost its balance and turned one-sided; it does not resort to such acts in West Bengal, Kerala and Assam, Ramadoss said. He accused the E.C. of having brought the entire State machinery under its control which, he said, was against the basic tenets of democracy.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) hit out at the DMK, with K. Varadarajan, Polit Bureau member, alleging that Karunanidhi was intimidating the E.C.. The ruling party is angry because the E.C.'s stern measures stood in the way of its implementing the Tirumangalam formula, its serving biriyani and providing liquor to voters, he said. The E.C. has imposed similar restrictions in Kerala, West Bengal and Assam, but the parties there have not pounced on it, Varadarajan pointed out.
G. Ramakrishnan, CPI(M) State secretary, also attacked Karunanidhi. The Chief Minister, who addressed election meetings at Tiruvarur, Thanjavur and Tiruchi, did not speak a single word about people's problems or finding a solution to them. But he alleged that the E.C. was trying to transform the opposition into a ruling party. This allegation was made with ulterior motives, Ramakrishnan said.
On April 1, the Madras High Court declined to curb the E.C.'s powers to prevent the distribution of money to voters. It ruled that the standard procedure be followed for dealing with cash and valuables that were not accounted for and that these operations should be videographed. For curbing large-scale crimes, extraordinary security measures should be taken until the election results are announced, and the safety and security of the flying squad shall be taken care of, the First Bench comprising Chief Justice M.Y. Eqbal and Justice T.S. Sivagnanam said.
The spotlight turned on U. Sahayam, the no-nonsense District Collector and District Election Officer of Madurai, after a series of allegations were made against him not only by the DMK but also by a subordinate of his. In a petition to Praveen Kumar, DMK leaders Pon. Muthuramalingam and K.S. Radhakrishnan said on March 30 that Sahayam is openly speaking in support of the AIADMK in his speeches and while addressing certain forums.
Sathiyavani of Munthiri Thoppu, Anna Nagar, Madurai, got into the act next when she filed a petition in the High Court seeking Sahayam's transfer. She alleged that the Collector, while addressing students in colleges during the election awareness campaign, had spoken in favour of a change of governance in the State.
M.K. Alagiri, Karunanidhi's son and Union Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers, fired the next salvo at Sahayam when he alleged that the E.C., Sahayam and the District Superintendent of Police, Asra Garg, would be responsible if any harm were to accrue to him. The police protection given to his house was withdrawn with an ulterior motive because he had alleged that Sahayam had suggested that a regime change should come about, Alagiri said.
Drama and tension broke out on April 1 around 4 p.m. when Alagiri, Deputy Mayor P.M. Mannan and other DMK leaders, including V. Ragupathi and M. Thirugnanam, went to offer worship at a temple at Ambalakaranpatti, a suburb of Madurai. Since more than five people had gathered, the E.C.'s flying squad, including P. Kalimuthu, tahsildar and Assistant Returning Officer for Melur Assembly constituency, and a videographer, reached the temple and started filming the group. This angered Alagiri and others. The videographer was roughed up and his camera was damaged. Kalimuthu gave a complaint to the Keezhavalavu police who registered a case against Alagiri, Mannan, Ragupathi and Thirugnanam under the Indian Penal Code for obstructing government employees from doing their work. Members of the Tamil Nadu Revenue Officers' Association (TNROA), who demonstrated in front of the collectorate, threatened to boycott election-related work if the accused in the case were not arrested on April 2. Their threat looked real.
A few hours later, the Returning Officer of Madurai East Assembly constituency, S. Suhumaran, entered the picture. He faxed a handwritten complaint to Praveen Kumar that Sahayam was mounting pressure on him to foist cases against Alagiri and P. Moorthi, the DMK candidate for the constituency.
Suhumaran, who released to reporters copies of his complaint, alleged that Sahayam had threatened, harassed, intimidated and demeaned him when he refused to file cases against the DMK leaders. Suhumaran, who claimed that he was mentally affected by the Collector's pressure, was admitted to a hospital.
Sahayam called Suhumaran's allegation utter lies and pleaded that he should not be painted with a political brush.
Subsequently, P. Kalimuthu performed a somersault. He denied Alagiri had heckled him. Kalimuthu said it was Sahayam who asked him to prefer a complaint (against Alagiri and others) with the Keezhavalavu police and that Sahayam said he would speak to Garg about this.
The E.C. ordered the transfer of Suhumaran and later suspended him until disciplinary proceedings initiated by the Commission were over. It also asked the government to begin proceedings for a major penalty against him. The High Court threw out Sathiyavani's petition for Sahayam's transfer with the First Bench holding that the message that he wanted to convey was about free elections.