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Vote and violence

Print edition : Oct 27, 2001 T+T-

The local body elections, marred by unprecedented violence, produce results that provide the main political alliances in the State reasons to rejoice.

CAN the results of any election satisfy the two principal contenders? Yes, it appears, going by the results of the October 16 and 18 elections to the local bodies in Tamil Nadu. The ruling front, led by the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and fractured since its landslide victory in the Assembly elections in May, has managed to keep much of its base intact. This, despite the "anti-incumbency factor" working against it. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-led front too has reason to rejoice. It has recovered substantial ground despite some of the alliance partners leaving the front since its defeat in the Assembly elections.

The AIADMK's performance appears a big leap forward compared with the results of the 1996 civic elections, when the party was in low spirits following its debacle in the Assembly elections six months earlier.

In the mayoral elections to the six municipal corporations, the AIADMK's performance has been impressive. While it wrested the post in the Coimbatore, Salem and Tirunelveli corporations from the DMK, the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), its ally, retained the mayorship of Tiruchi, which it had won in 1996 with DMK support. The DMK retained the mayorship of Madurai. Counting progressed slowly in Chennai, where the party's youth wing leader and party president M. Karunanidhi's son M.K. Stalin is seeking to retain his mayorship. He complained that AIADMK workers had barged into the counting centres and stalled the counting with a view to distorting the people's verdict in the elections to the corporation councils held along with the mayoral election. DMK general secretary K. Anbazhagan sent a memorandum to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Union Home Minister L.K Advani and Tamil Nadu Governor C. Rangarajan in this regard.

While the Congress(I) left the AIADMK-led Front and formed a third front with some small parties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) opted to go it alone after parting ways with the AIADMK over the issue of seat-sharing. The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) led by Dr. S. Ramadoss joined the DMK front, while the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) of Vaiko remained unattached to any front. Both Karunanidhi and AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa kept away from the campaign.

The AIADMK-led front, comprising the TMC and the Communist Party of India (CPI), and the DMK-led alliance, consisting of the PMK and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) among others, shared the honours in the elections to 102 posts of municipal chairmen. In the 9,023 town panchayat wards, the two fronts were almost equally placed.

The results also indicate the spreading influence of the BJP; it has won the chairmanship of six municipal councils spread over different districts.

Elections were also held on a non-party basis to fill 1.17 lakh positions in the three-tier panchayati raj institutions. A clear picture of the power equations at the rural level, where caste plays a crucial role, will emerge only after the results of these elections are out. But the slow pace of the counting, which began on October 21, irritated a group of party workers. They allegedly threw stones at and gatecrashed into a counting centre in Thanjavur. In the resultant police firing, six persons were injured.

POLITICAL violence and electoral malpractices on an unprecedented scale marred the polling in Chennai on October 16. The city went to the polls along with Coimbatore, Salem and Tirunelveli and scores of municipal towns and village panchayats. Booth-capturing, intimidation of voters and polling officials by armed goons, stuffing of ballot boxes, prevention of voters from exercising their franchise, mass deletion of names in voters' lists, inaccuracies in ballot papers and incidents of police firing, lathicharge and teargassing were reported from different parts of the State.

In Chennai, booth-capturing, intimidation of poll agents and snatching of ballot papers were reported from a number of polling stations. In several areas, including Tiruvanmiyur, Velachery and Purasawalkam, the few voters who turned up at the polling booths amidst mounting tension found them closed, apparently by scared polling officials. Armed hirelings of political parties, particularly of the ruling AIADMK, moved about in cars and vans and resorted to rigging. Whoever came in their way was brutally attacked. Mediapersons were also not spared. In many places the incidents happened in the presence of police officers. In one place an AIADMK legislator reportedly took control of a polling booth for about 15 minutes as the police and the polling officials watched. These incidents apart, warnings by television channels of large-scale violence and the meteorologists' forecast of a cyclonic storm kept most voters indoors, resulting in just 36.11 per cent voting in Chennai.

Violence and rigging marred the polling in other parts of the State, too, but not to the same extent as in Chennai. At Veeracholan village in Virudhunagar district and at Thalayanpalayam village in Thiruvallur district the police fired in the air to disperse violent groups. In Dharmapuri district, the police lathicharged people who intimidated voters.

In Madurai district, there were numerous complaints of omission of names en bloc from the voters' lists. At Palamedu polling was suspended after a mob torched police vehicles. Voters also pointed to errors in the ballot papers, such as incorrect names and wrong symbols. The districts, however, recorded polling percentages ranging from 66 to 75.

Leaders of various parties, including DMK president M. Karunanidhi, Congress(I) secretary Ramesh Chennithala, CPI(M) State secretary N. Sankariah, Congress Jananayaga Peravai (CJP) president P. Chidambaram and PMK founder Dr. S. Ramadoss, criticised the ruling party for the violence and the rigging. State Finance Minister C. Ponnaiyan denied the allegations and Home Secretary Naresh Gupta said polling was peaceful barring "minor" incidents.

Director-General of Police B.P. Nailwal claimed that there were only 28 incidents of violence, as against 146 at the end of the first phase of polling in the 1996 civic elections. It is "a blatant lie," retorted Karunanidhi. A memorandum presented to the State Election Commissioner (SEC) by 'Misa' R. Ganesan, chief election agent of Stalin, demanded repoll in 353 booths in Chennai. The DMK and its allies also presented a memorandum to Governor Dr. C. Rangarajan alleging violence and malpractices by the AIADMK with the connivance of the police. The Congress(I) urged the Governor to declare the October 16 elections void and order fresh elections. The SEC ordered repoll in 43 booths in Chennai and 231 in the rest of the State. He directed the police to ensure peaceful polling in the second phase, by even resorting to firing if necessary.

The second phase of polling involving the Madurai and Tiruchi corporations and many towns and villages also witnessed violence and electoral malpractices. Three cases of police firing were reported; three persons were injured. At Thenkarai in Thiruvannamalai district people who blocked traffic in protest against the shifting of a polling station were teargassed.

The SEC ordered repoll in 32 booths involved in the second-phase polling, along with 274 identified in the first round. Another 200 booths, including six more in Chennai, were later added to the repoll list. "The ordering of repoll in more than 500 booths is unprecedented," said Karunanidhi. This, he said, only showed the extent of damage caused to the electoral process by the ruling party with the connivance of the police.

THE principal political parties blamed each other for the violence, which was aimed at disrupting the poll process and distorting the people's preference. The violence perpetrated on Dalits by caste-Hindu groups in many remote villages had a similar purpose - to subvert Dalits' right to participate in the electoral process.

Elections could not be held in four village panchayats reserved for Dalits - Pappapatti, Keeripatti and Nattarman-galam in Madurai district and Kottakkachiyendal in Virudunagar district - because no nominations could be filed in the face of threats from the dominant caste-Hindu group in these villages. In Pappapatti and Keeripatti, panchayat elections have not been held for the last five years. C. Saraswathi (45), widow of a police constable and mother of four children, who attempted to file her nomination for the panchayat union membership election at Pappapatti now lives in fear. She has been threatened with expulsion from the village, along with about 200 others, including three who tried to file their nominations for the panchayat president elections.

At Marukkalampatti village in Alapuram panchayat in Dharmapuri district, Thangadurai, a Dalit, refused to pull out of the contest for the president's post. On polling day the supporters of his caste-Hindu rivals waylaid Dalit voters and prevented them from voting. They also raided the Dalit colony and attacked the residents.

Dalits were also prevented from casting votes in some villages in Madurai and Tirunelveli districts. At Velliampakkam near Acharapakkam in Kancheepuram district, the police assaulted and arrested a Dalit woman candidate and her husband. Dalit Panthers convener R. Thirumavalavan told Frontline that a number of such instances in Madurai, Kancheepuram and a few other districts had been brought to his notice.

At Sithampatti village in Madurai district, Dalits were attacked because a Dalit woman sought to contest the panchayat president election defying the "warning" of the dominant caste-Hindu community of the village. The community had "auctioned" the post to a caste-Hindu aspirant for Rs.4 lakhs. Describing the auctioning of seats (Frontline, October 25) as "anti-democratic", Thirumavalavan demanded that the elections that followed such auctions be nullified and fresh elections ordered.