The Municipal Corporation Council elections are marred by violence and rigging on an unprecedented scale.
CHENNAI is not new to violence during elections, but what the city saw during the Chennai Municipal Corporation Council elections on October 13 was unprecedented on many counts.
In a precisely planned operation, supporters and henchmen of the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) captured polling booths, drove out poll officers and party agents at knife point, and ` the ballot boxes with ballot papers after voting for their party candidates. Candidates of the rival All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) or even an ally like the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who resisted, were assaulted.
The violence cost the DMK a lot of goodwill from two of its allies, the CPI(M) and the Communist Party of India (CPI). D. Pandian, State secretary of the CPI, called it "a misguided adventure" while G. Ramakrishnan, CPI(M) State secretariat member, described the incidents as "a planned operation".
The CPI(M) contested on its own in eight out of 155 wards in Chennai after it fell out with the DMK over seat-sharing. The CPI also contested on its own in the Chennai and Madurai Municipal Corporations and in the local body elections in Cuddalore district.
The poll violence exposed the ineffective functioning of the State Election Commission (SEC) and the willing compliance of the police force.
Eight parties including the AIADMK, the MDMK, the CPI(M), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) approached the Madras High Court for a re-poll in all the 155 wards. AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa, MDMK general secretary Vaiko and DMDK founder Vijayakant demanded that the re-poll be held with the help of the Army. The CPI(M) also insisted on re-poll in all the wards where rigging took place.
The High Court on October 17 berated SEC officials and policemen who were on election duty. Justice S.J. Mukhopadhyaya and Justice F.M. Ibrahim Khalifulla said: "We may order re-poll to the extent we are satisfied. It may be 55 wards or 100 wards." The SEC which had earlier announced re-poll in 17 booths in five wards, told the Division Bench that it was prepared to consider re-poll in more wards and that the counting of votes would not start on the scheduled day, October 18. The High Court allowed the SEC to conduct re-poll in 27 more booths in 12 other wards and begin the counting on October 20. The AIADMK, MDMK, DMDK and others boycotted the re-poll.
If the then ruling party, AIADMK, resorted to violence and rigging in the October 2001 Chennai Municipal Corporation Council elections, the DMK outdid it this time. In booth after booth in wards such as Vyasarpadi, Sharma Nagar, Pulianthope, Perambur, Purasawalkam, Triplicane, Mylapore, Mandaveli, and Tiruvanmiyur, the modus operandi was the same. About an hour or two after polling began at 7 a.m., armed goondas, supported by DMK men, stormed the booths and stamped the ballots in favour of DMK, Congress or the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) candidates. In several booths, polling became such a farce that the voting percentage was more than 100 per cent. In several booths, the gates were closed around 11 a.m. and policemen told voters that polling was over for the day.
K. Elango, a voter in ward number 144, said: "I reached the booth around 2 p.m. and voted for the candidate of my choice. When I asked the poll officer to mark the ink on my index finger after I voted, he asked me to get out of the place. Ten persons stood around in the booth. One of them took the ballot papers from the officers and affixed his thumb impression on all of them while others took the ballots from him and voted for the Congress candidate. The police were begging the men not to make themselves conspicuous by coming in such a big group, they asked them to come in pairs, and quietly execute their mission and go."
Vasantha Thavamani, an AIADMK candidate from the 86th ward, alleged that rowdies entered the nine booths in her ward soon after 7 a.m., drove out the booth agents and polled about 60 per cent of the votes. She has gone on a "fast-unto-death" demanding re-election in her ward.
Cadre of the AIADMK retaliated in several places. After the DMK men stuffed ballot boxes, the AIADMK men went into the booths, seized the ballots boxes, and scattered the ballot papers on the road. AIADMK and MDMK cadre, jointly conducted dharnas and blocked traffic.
G. Ramakrishnan alleged that a DMK legislator assaulted Devi, the CPI(M) candidate from the 59th ward. A party supporter who tried to ward off the knife-attack on her received serious injuries on his right hand. In ward number 130, CPI(M) South Chennai district committee member K. Manikandan's fingers were cut off when he tried to resist.
In a strongly worded statement, N. Varadarajan, State secretary of the CPI(M), called the incidents "shocking" and charged that some DMK candidates and legislators led "armed, professional rowdy groups" to capture polling booths. False cases under non-bailable offences were booked against CPI(M) district committee leaders like Devi. Complaints to SEC officials were of no avail. The elections were also "remarkable" for the variety of blandishments offered to voters by candidates. They included gold nose-rings, gold coins, saris, dhotis, hard cash, a wet grinder if a family had 10 voters, and an emergency lamp or wall clock if a family had five voters.
What distinguishes this year's local body elections is that Municipal Corporation Mayors, Deputy Mayors, Municipal Chairmen, District Panchayat Presidents and Panchayat Union Presidents are not elected directly.
They will be elected by the elected councillors/ward members at a meeting of the respective local body on October 28. The AIADMK, the MDMK and the DMDK have objected to this, arguing that indirect elections would lead to horse-trading (Frontline, October 20).
Right from the start of the campaign, Jayalalithaa, Vaiko, Vijayakant and D. Pandian had predicted DMK-sponsored violence in Chennai, based on definitive information they were receiving. Criminals lodged in prisons were let out on parole to create violence, they claimed. Their party supporters were being pressured to "run away" from Chennai and return only after the elections.
Chief Minister and DMK president M. Karunanidhi in turn alleged that the violence in Chennai was "planned" and "instigated" by the AIADMK and that there was a "conspiracy" behind the provocative speeches of Jayalalithaa when she warned that "the day of slaying of Narahasura is not far away". He said the violence was much less compared to the one unleashed by the AIADMK men in 2001. He said the DMK men were attacked by the AIADMK men on October 13 and they were receiving treatment in hospitals.
Jayalalithaa tried to capitalise on the row between the DMK and the Left parties by claiming that a political "realignment" was on the cards. But Karunanidhi moved in quickly to cement the "cracks".
Pandian said the violence in Chennai and elsewhere " will not have any impact on the [DMK-led] front in Tamil Nadu." Ramakrishnan also said there was "no chance of a political realignment".