Assembly elections

The ‘M’ factor

Print edition : May 27, 2016

The parking shed at Ayyampalayam in Karur district from where election officials seized Rs.10.33 lakh on April 22.

The use of money to buy votes is expected to significantly influence the result of the Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, despite the Election Commission’s best efforts to thwart the practice.

ON April 22, Vandita Pandey, the Superintendent of Police (S.P.) of Karur, a town in Tamil Nadu known for its heavy vehicle body building industry, received confidential information from the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer that huge sums of money were hoarded on the premises of a highly influential businessman.

The operation that followed was so secretive that even top officials of Karur district’s revenue administration were kept in the dark. A police team and a multi-disciplinary flying squad of the Election Commission of India (ECI) rushed to Ayyampalayam, a Karur suburb, where the businessman’s house and a godown are located. Their initial raid yielded cash to the tune of Rs.10.33 lakh stashed inside a vehicle parked in the godown.

But what the raiders saw on the premises other than the cash bundles shocked them. An ambulance parked inside the godown had the insignia of the Union government and stickers of National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) pasted on all sides. Inquiries revealed that it was a fake ambulance with a fake registration number.

The team seized 12 currency-counting machines, empty corrugated boxes and rubber bands (possibly to bundle the cash), envelopes and also copies of electoral rolls in the godown. Apart from the fake ambulance, the godown had four high-end cars, a tractor and an SUV with the word ‘G’ indicating “government”. The seized articles, according to a police officer, were handed over to the Velayuthampalayam police station.

The ECI alerted the Investigation Directorate of the Income Tax Department, which in turn dispatched a team of senior officers to carry out raids on the house of the businessman in question, identified by now as C.P. Anbunathan, 46, a financier-cum-businessman who is also claimed to wield considerable clout with politicians of all parties, especially the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

The I-T team reportedly unearthed Rs.4.7 crore and several documents from Anbunathan’s house. “We seized the money and asked him [Anbunathan] to appear before us with supportive documents linking to the seizures. He is yet to appear,” said a senior I-T officer in Chennai on April 30. Anbunathan approached the Karur court on April 28 seeking bail, but his plea was rejected.

In the meantime, the Velayuthampalayam police registered cases against Anbunathan under Sections 420 and 484 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) read with Section 5 of The Emblems and Names (Prevention and Improper Use) Act, 1950. On May 3, Anbunathan filed a petition before the Madras High Court Bench at Madurai seeking advance bail. On May 4, he received conditional bail. In the petition, he denied the charges and blamed his business rivals for implicating him on false charges. He said he had nothing to do with the fake ambulance and the cash seized. He said he was a trustee of a school and a regular income tax assesee. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has sought an inquiry into the case by the Central Bureau of Investion (CBI).

On April 24, two days after the Karur raid, a search by I-T sleuths and ECI teams in a posh apartment at a high-rise in Egmore in Chennai yielded cash to the tune of Rs.4.72 crore. The flat was occupied by a few young men said to be relatives of a politician from Thanjavur. On April 25, the teams confiscated Rs.3.40 crore in cash and 245 gold coins from a private school in Krishnagiri, and Rs.50 lakh from a bus coming from Madurai to Chennai.

Cash seizures until May 6 amounted to a staggering Rs.82 crore, the biggest haul among all the States participating in the current round of Assembly elections and way beyond the Rs.25 crore seized from the State in the last parliamentary elections and Rs.35.53 crore in the 2011 Assembly elections. “It is just the tip of the iceberg,” said N. Gopalaswami, former CEC. Rajesh Lakhoni, Tamil Nadu Chief Electoral Officer, said: “We still have a crucial phase, two days before the actual polling date [May 16], when widespread distribution of cash among voters is expected.”

Cash alone is not what is on offer. Packets of biriyani, tokens for household articles, bundles of sarees, dhotis and cotton caps, silver anklets, mobile top-ups, and so on are on the list of things that are being used to entice voters. The election atmosphere is rife with allegations that police and government vehicles are being used to transport money.

Indeed, journalists in the field are well aware of the widespread prevalence of the ‘M’ (money) factor in the elections. The use of the expression “Thirumangalam formula” became popular during the Assembly byelection in Thirumangalam, Madurai district, in January 2009, referring to the use of cash to woo voters. But the practice of bribing voters started with the byelection in Sathankulam in Tuticorin district in February 2003. Sarees and utensils, apart from cash, were distributed, mainly among rural people. The AIADMK, which won the constituency defeating its nearest Congress rival, was in power.

The DMK was in power when the practice was apparently perfected in the Thirumangalam byelection, which recorded an unprecedented 90 per cent polling. The DMK candidate breezed through amid allegations that votes had been bought. Cash was slipped through doors and distributed with morning newspapers. Gopalaswami called it a shame on democracy. Though clinching evidence could not be obtained, poll-watchers claimed that the DMK and the AIADMK would have spent at least Rs.150 crore between them to buy votes in that byelection. The lion’s share allegedly came from the DMK.

With that election, the ‘M’ factor has become entrenched in the State. One analyst said: “The urge to remain in power that is ingrained in the political culture of the two major Dravidian parties, the DMK and the AIADMK, is the underlying reason for the desperate and unethical manoeuvres they make in every election. And money comes into play to provide the crucial edge in close battles.” Thus, it has become a vicious circle with money fetching power and power bringing money in a State where identity politics is closely intertwined with Dravidian politics. The M factor has percolated down to the last voter in remote rural habitations.

Today the ECI is constrained to deploy considerable manpower and expertise to thwart election bribing. A 60-year-old farm worker near Gingee in Villupuram district told Frontline that the entire hamlet, with 1,500 votes, had chosen to vote for the AIADMK in the last general elections since “they gave Rs.200 per vote”. This time, too, the village residents, the majority being Vanniyars, a Most Backward Class community, are waiting for election payouts. If the same rates apply, then a family of five will get Rs.1,000, apparently equal to two days’ wages requiring hard labour under the scorching sun. The farm worker said: “After the elections, the winning political party will offer “koozhu” [rice gruel] to the village temple, which will also be distributed to us.”

Many feigned ignorance of the fact that accepting cash to vote is illegal. The practice clearly influences the battle of the ballot, putting candidates and organisations that cannot or do not pay at a serious disadvantage. It is also claimed that “oor panchayats” (forums of village elders) in many villages and hamlets, especially in the southern districts, issue “diktats” to village residents to cast their votes in favour of a particular political party after taking over the responsibility of distributing cash among voters. Liberal donations by candidates to village temples are also part of the game.

No level playing field

D. Ravikumar, a senior politician of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi who is contesting from the Vanur segment in the Villupuram district, said: “How can you expect us to fight the might of money?” The VCK is part of the People’s Welfare Front, a rainbow coalition that includes the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Tamil Maanila Congress, the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Its aim is to provide a credible alternative to the Dravidian giants that have been alternately ruling since 1967.

While the bigger and richer parties buy votes with money, the smaller players struggle to meet election expenses. The VCK’s candidate in the Kunnam segment, Aloor Sha Navas, is crowdsourcing funds while Ravikumar has posted desperate appeals for funds on social media. “At least a minimum of Rs.50,000, which is a conservative estimate, is needed to meet a day’s basic expenses, such as providing water and food to volunteers, printing and distributing pamphlets, buying fuel for vehicles, etc. We will not be able to spend half of even the ECI-permitted amount of Rs.28 lakh per constituency for the elections,” Ravikumar said. “Only those who are rich can contest. Where is the level playing field here?”

Gopalaswami told Frontline that the chances of having a level playing field in elections were remote in the near future unless an effective crackdown could stop vote-buying. “The sinister nexus between political funding and black money has to be ruthlessly eradicated. Can you expect the ECI to exercise its limited powers to control this serious menace whenever elections are held?” he asked.

The ECI, though, is doing its best to ensure a level playing field. It has been implementing a slew of stringent measures to neutralise the money factor. Rajesh Lakhoni said, “As the bad money seeps into the deep rural pockets, we have taken the initiative of roping in about 22,000 rural youth to alert us on suspicious transactions. We are getting positive results. Also, for the first time, we have deployed Income Tax officials in all districts to monitor cash movement and strengthened flying and static squads, which include officials from Central agencies” (see interview).

That the ECI is taking a serious view of the problem is evident in its recent decision to bring in cash seizures during elections under the purview of the enforcement agencies such as the Income Tax Department and the Enforcement Directorate. The seizure of large amounts of cash during the Bihar Assembly elections and in the previous Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu spurred it into taking a pro-active role to thwart the practice.

Accepting money to vote for a candidate is an offence under Sections 171 B and E and 123 (1) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, and is punishable with imprisonment of either description for a term that may extend to one year, or a fine, or both. In many cases, with no clinching evidence, both those who give and those who take money get away with it. “It is tough to prove that the cash seized is meant for buying votes, though if a candidate is found purchasing votes, he or she could be disqualified and imprisoned for up to one year,” a senior officer said. Seizures being brought under the IT Act could discourage widespread distribution, since to reclaim the money the party in question has to reveal its sources. “Thus huge sums that remain unclaimed have been deposited with the Government Treasury,” he noted.

The problem came to the fore with renewed force after Rs.19 crore, suspected to be money from hawala operations, was seized during the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections. The ECI deliberated with the Central Board of Direct Taxes, a statutory authority that is responsible for the administration of direct tax laws through the Income Tax Department, to formulate a standard operating procedure to involve the investigation wing of the IT Department in election-related operations.

This yielded some results. The IT Act is inflexible and those who are on the wrong side of the law with dubious transactions of money during elections are wary. Through a circular to all Chief Electoral Officers dated April 4, the ECI has re-issued the SOP for follow-up action by the flying squads on receipt of complaints relating to the storage of cash or other valuables on any premises.

On receiving such complaints, the Complaint Monitoring Cell must inform the expenditure observer, who in turn will alert the Income Tax Department. Neither the expenditure observer nor the members of flying squads should enter the premises before the arrival of the IT team though surveillance can be maintained until its arrival. Rajesh Lakhoni said: “It has instilled a sort of fear in the minds of those who bribe.”

Many South Asian countries face this problem of bribing during elections. The ECI, in association with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), an intergovernmental body, unveiled the New Delhi Declaration–2015, on Political Finance Regulation in South Asia. The declaration contained guiding principles to be adopted to strengthen the mechanism of the regulation of political finance. In the current elections, however, the flow of freebies and cash is expected to be a major factor in deciding the result.

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