Money isn't gonna buy my vote. That is the strong message that the people of Tamil Nadu sent out to M Karunanidhi and his son MK Alagiri. And in election 2011, the sentiment cut through demographic and class divisions.
Take P Meena, 30, a housewife in Thiruvottiur, on the outskirts of Chennai city. It is a constituency that has the uncanny ability to pick the party that will form the government every time. This time too, self-help group members like Meena voted for the AIADMK. It did not prevent her from pocketing the R500 distributed to self-help groups by DMK workers. Did she think it was improper to accept money and vote for the other side? Meena doesn't think so. "It is our money looted by the ruling party members and if they are giving a fraction of it, there is no harm in taking it," she declares, parroting the lines dictated by CM designate J Jayalalithaa during the election campaign. "When it came to voting, I did what I'd been wanting to for many months: Press the voting machine button to oust the DMK."
In Freebie country
On the campaign trail, it was evident that the anger of the people wasn't any different even in Alalgiri country, in the villages around Madurai. S Duraiswamy, 52, is a scheduled caste farmer in Keela Urappanur, 5 km from Tirumangalam, near the epicentre of the cash-for-vote formula worked out by Alagiri in the January 2009 by-elections. It was later replicated in the region with prices as high as R5,000 per vote, in the 2009 parliamentary polls.
Duraiswamy, like many others in the village, got a small plot and a R75,000 loan to build a house - of course after paying the customary cut to the local DMK man. He also got a colour TV. Duraiswamy, or for that matter R Venkat, a 41-year-old motor mechanic, or M Kavita, a 30-year-old tea-stall owner, all took the money from DMK workers. But all of them were brave enough to admit that they would vote for Amma. "We don't care who the candidate is, all we want is to kick out the rowdies."
Outside the famous Madurai Meenakshi temple, as electioneering picked up, people began to lose the fear they had of Alagiri and his henchmen. They were seen speaking openly about voting out the DMK, to put a stop to lawlessness, land grab and extortion.
Some of the credit for the people's confidence should go to Election Commission officials - Madurai collector U Sahayam and rural SP Asra Garg - who put the fear of the law among politicians. Garg would dash to any spot, night or day, to check complaints about cash being transported. Roadblocks at every four kilometre, video-graphing of vehicle search operations, seizure of unexplained cash and booking people, regardless of political affiliations, made distribution difficult.
Cash seizures made regular news, but the one by assistant returning officer S Sangeetha from the rooftop of a private bus in Tiruchy made the world sit up - she had stumbled upon R5.11 crore of unclaimed cash. Investigations revealed links to people close to the local DMK leaders. In all, a sum of R60 crore in cash was recovered and seized by election commission officials.
But the voter had the final laugh by rejecting the vote-buying formula lock, stock and barrel.
"The ordinary Tamil Nadu voter has given an extraordinary message to the nation: no political party can wash away its sins by offering money to voters," said political analyst Cho Ramaswamy.
The DMK thought it could win elections by bribing people with freebies and hard cash, openly flouting election commission guidelines. This led to a further revulsion among the people and the results are there for all to see.
"Terror of money power contained in TN. Tamil honour vindicated. Thanks to EC. Bravo", read an SMS sent out to friends by M G Devasahayam, convenor of civil society group Forum for Electoral Integrity, as soon as the news of Jaya's landslide victory came in on Friday.
Devasahayam says the landslide has sent the people's expectations soaring. "For starters, they may start asking for the freebies Amma has promised -a mixie and a grinder along with a fan." The more things change…