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Catch them if you can: Tamil Nadu parties are buying up elections

Every election, politicians in Tamil Nadu find new ways of distributing cash to voters. Every election the EC only gets one chance to thwart them before they wise up. This year new technology has led to seizures in crores. But will that be enough? The moves, counter-moves in a very expensive cat-and-mouse game.

Tamil Nadu 2016 Updated: May 07, 2016 14:55 IST
Election Commission,Tamil Nadu,ED
Awareness campaigns in villages by ECI on not taking bribes to vote

In early April, at a press meet by the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of Tamil Nadu, restlessness was palpable. “When will you begin crackdown on the actual illegal cash sir?” asked one journalist. “So far the Election Commission Flying Squads have only been catching small businessmen and vendors with legitimate cash transactions,” he stated. At the time the cash seizures by the ECI amounted to Rs 25 crores. 95% of this was returned when its owners submitted legitimate documents. Rajesh Lakhoni, CEO Tamil Nadu smiled. “The Central teams are coming very soon,” he said, without further elaboration.

The Central teams arrived – senior officers of the Income Tax Department from all over the country, most from the Investigations wing. 32 teams of 10 officers were deployed, one team to a district.

The crackdown began in earnest. On April 22, the first big catch was netted, an amount of almost Rs 6 crores, most of it in a house belonging to one Anbunathan, alleged to have close links with a state minister. A vehicle, allegedly a government ambulance, was also caught transporting cash and confiscated by the ECI.

A truck load of chappals being seized for distribution to voters in Tirupparankundram.

On the same day, anonymous tip-offs to the ECI helped them pick up two passengers in a bus carrying over Rs 1 crore in unaccounted cash. On April 24, a house in Egmore, Chennai, was raided – close to Rs 5 crore was the haul in that dramatic search and seizure operation, featuring a desperate gambit by the resident --- throwing courier envelopes filled with cash out of the window. On April 25, following an anonymous tip-off, 245 gold coins worth Rs 3 crore were seized inside a school in Krishnagiri,.

Deputy Speaker of the state Assembly, Pollachi Jayakumar’s relative’s house and houses that belonged to friends of ministers were raided by IT officials. Drivers of ministers were raided without warning, derailing politicians. State buses, cars, trucks, all vehicles in fact, are stopped and checked thoroughly for cash as ECI teams set up checkposts at 10 kilometre distances along highways. Ambulances were not spared either, following complaints from Opposition parties that these were being used to transport money to voters.

The haul has been rich so far – a huge Rs 65 crore seized since the imposition of the model code of conduct, with close to Rs 30 crores seized in just two weeks since the IT teams arrived. Of this total amount, Rs 25 crore has been returned to those who have produced authentic documents.

Compare this with the seizures in 2011 and 2014 – Rs 35 crore and Rs 25 crore respectively, almost all of which was eventually returned to the rightful owner on production of legitimate documents.

This time round Tamil Nadu politician appears to have been caught off guard by the ECI’s aggression. “We have at least managed to put fear into the minds of politicians,” said a senior official in the Commission who did not wish to be identified. “At this rate, we can’t even campaign, it appears,” complained one DMK councilor in Trichy. “The Election Commission’s measures are too stringent.” They say you can’t please everyone. In Tamil Nadu, the EC can’t please anyone. A team of leaders from the DMK, the same party as the disgruntled Trichy councilor, met Prime Minister Modi last week and submitted a petition to him asking for intervention into what they alleged was the ECI’s failure to curb money distribution to voters. The Third Front’s Vaiko too lambasted the Commission in a statement. “The money has already gone to constituencies and state machinery is helping to distribute this money,” he stated.

The ECI’s new bag of tricks in 2016

In early 2016, top officials of the ECI had visited Chennai to meet with representatives of all political parties in the run-up to poll preparations. There was one resounding concern from all parties – stop cash distribution to voters somehow.

“Of course we too told the ECI that our biggest concern is cash distribution,” said Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) spokesperson TKS Elangovan. “State government machinery is being misused to transport money to all districts. Police are afraid to intervene. It is for the EC to ensure that this does not happen. It is their duty,” he stated. The DMK, in Opposition for the past five years, was worried that the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) would use money and state machinery to bribe voters. DMK insiders say the party could not match the money muscle of its key rival. Smaller parties had no money to pay to voters and they clamoured for a level playing field.

ECI officials went into a huddle. There had to be a way to curb illegal cash to a larger extent at least, than was done in previous elections.

“We discussed the problem at length,” said the senior ECI official. “The loophole was that the Flying Squads (so far in elections in the state) and the various other teams and observers consisted of state and Central police. They did not have the powers to enter into any premises and conduct searches for cash without a warrant. They could also only enter any premises if the owner or a relative was present. This was a major handicap,” he explained.

The solution was a simple one – deploy Income Tax officers, IRS officials belonging to the Investigation department, who have been bestowed the power to raid any premises for hidden cash without prior notice to the owner. 32 teams of 10 such officers would scour through each district, entering homes of people who were said to be hoarding illegal cash for distribution.

The allegation of soft-pedaling on the ruling party by state government bureaucrats and state police too was sidestepped using tech.

Flying Squads headING to the venue where illegal cash was allegedly being stored.

Rajesh Lakhoni, Chief Electoral Officer for Tamil Nadu explained how the system works. A dedicated mobile number to receive complaints solely via WhatsApp, a website to lodge complaints and other complaint numbers were set up. Complaints received would go as SMSes to the relevant Flying Squad and the Income Tax teams, bypassing even the CEO or the District Collector. Flying Squads, comprising of a mix of state and Central police forces and government officials, had vehicles fitted with GPS. These squads could no longer ignore any complaints without checking.

Flying Squads would head to the venue where illegal cash was allegedly being stored. Since these Squads are not authorised to enter without a warrant, they would simply monitor the entry and exit of the building until the Income Tax team arrived. The IT team would then raid the premises.

“Earlier it used to take three hours for complaints to be acted upon, since the call would go from the CEO’s office to the District Collector, who would then inform the Flying Squad,” said Lakhoni. “From three hours, we have now brought this process down to three minutes,” he smiled.

Large cash seizures in the state so far have been based on anonymous tip-offs, most likely from disgruntled party insiders, say ECI officials. “There was one anonymous tip off about a lady who was carrying cash in a bus,” said the senior ECI official. “We had accurate details about everything, from the colour and print of the saree she wore to her seat number and licence plate of her bus,” he chuckled. Close to a crore of rupees was seized on the basis of this tip-off.

The IT Department too is grinning from ear to ear. These raids have also unearthed a wealth of information on land records and other wealth owned by individuals which is likely to keep both the Department and the politicians concerned busy for months, possibly even years. “One Panchayat President whose house was raided was caught with land deeds worth Rs 2.5 crores,” said the senior ECI official. “He had not paid any Income Tax either. Though no cash was found in his house, this man is in soup with the IT Department,” he laughed.

The Beginning: 2009

It was January but Madurai was boiling. It was the heat of poll action in Thirumangalam, in southern Tamil Nadu. Voters of Thirumangalam were suddenly seeing stars. There was cash everywhere, suddenly. Many woke to newspapers which bore along with the news, cash (as much as Rs 5000) along with a small chit with the ‘Rising Sun’ symbol of the DMK party, then the ruling party in the state. Outside temples, smiling DMK men would hand out crisp notes, asking for votes.

The DMK won the Thirumangalam by-election by a huge 39,000 votes, beating the rival AIADMK’s freshly minted alliance. The architect of this victory was its leader M Karunanidhi’s elder son – MK Azhagiri. What would later come to be known as the infamous ‘Thirumangalam Formula’ was this Madurai strongman’s brainchild.

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” had been Azhagiri’s constant refrain at the time, even as the DMK staunchly denied allegations of cash distribution.

In 2011, though, The Hindu, accessed cables in the Wikileaks stash, where an American consulate official details conversations with a close aide of Azhagiri, a man called Patturajan, who admitted to the skullduggery. “It is no secret at all, Azhagiri (sic) paid Rs 5,000 rupees per voter in Thirumangalam,” Patturajan is quoted to have said in the leaked cable.

First Move: 2011

EC officials must have felt dizzy when they confronted the bare-faced effrontery of the Thirumangalam Formula. SY Quraishi was at the helm then and the focus was clear – shut Azhagiri’s money machine down, and ensure no repeat of Thirumangalam in the 2011 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections. The crackdown began in earnest in March 2011, when the EC sent a showcause notice to Azhagiri, then Union Minister of Chemicals, on an official visit to the state. Madurai Collector U Sagayam and Superintendent of Police Asra Garg clamped down on Azhagiri’s men, booking cases against them for attempting to bribe voters with cash.

Central security forces like the CRPF (Central Reserved Police Force) were deployed in key districts where DMK strongmen and ministers came from. Villupuram, Trichy, Dindigul and Salem and Madurai, saw the first batch of Central security forces. Central forces replaced state police in the security detail of ministers, in order to prevent any influence from the ruling DMK.

“There will be no more Thirumangalam model of elections in Tamil Nadu,” crowed Quraishi on TV then. Little did he know that in future elections, all of Tamil Nadu would turn into another Thirumangalam.

Second Attempt: 2014

At streetside political meetings and in tea shops in Tamil Nadu, one hears a common observation, invariably followed by a chuckle. “Thi Mu Ka kodu potta, Anna Thi Mu Ka roadu poduvaanga.” In Tamil, this means that if the DMK cuts a pathway, the AIADMK will lay a highway – what the DMK does, the AIADMK does bigger.

Jayalalithaa and her AIADMK swept to power on a massive mandate in 2011. 150 out of 165 seats contested by the party (5 of these contested on the AIADMK’s two-leaves symbol by an ally), along with 53 seats won by allies, ensured that not only did the alliance take the seat of power but also the role of main Opposition in the state, decimating the DMK to a mere 23 seats out of 234. The highway, began to be paved.

Following howls of protests from the DMK in various bypolls held after 2011, the ECI decided to try one more new strategy as it readied for the 2014 general elections.

“Section 144 will be imposed across the state in an effort to prevent money distribution,” announced then Chief Electoral Officer Praveen Kumar, a senior Tamil Nadu cadre IAS officer, to a room full of stunned journalists in Chennai. Section 144 meant a prohibitory order that limited groups of more than five persons from forming. This would be enforced in the hours after campaigning came to an end. This, he explained, was a move by the ECI to ensure that no cash distribution takes place in the last few days before polling in 2014.

This backfired and how. What happened though, was door-to-door distribution of cash for votes, largely by the ruling AIADMK but also in a smaller measure by the DMK. Voters from different parts of the state were visited at home by ‘booth in charges’ of either party, allegedly in a bid to canvass for votes. Every ‘booth in charge’ is responsible for 100 votes in any given area, with this task split amongst them according to voting booths. Section 144, in hindsight, allowed for more organised distribution of cash, since these ‘booth in charges’ traveled either alone or in twos. In effect, the entire state, street by street, had been mapped out by politicians of these two parties – into houses that were AIADMK voters, DMK voters and the fence-sitters.

“The Election Commission can only be successful once,” said former Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami. “The first time you do something, it is a surprise and you are likely to be successful. But after that people find a way out” The anonymous ECI official, agreed, “In 2011, we managed to curb cash flow because politicians did not anticipate our moves. In 2014 they knew our strategy and circumvented it.”

This Summer

This May the stakes are sky-high. 92-year-old Karunanidhi, leader of the DMK, is desperate to become the Chief Minister one last time. Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK is equally determined to keep her throne. A semblance of a Third Front has formed for the first time in Tamil Nadu’s political history and is expected to split votes, and thin margins for the big parties.

The ECI is determined to give politicians a much harder time in cash distribution for votes. But problems do remain.

512 complaints later, there have only been 50 seizures. And after the initial burst of high value cash seizures, the numbers have dwindled. Politicians, lament ECI officials, have gotten wise. “Politicians have also started using uneducated and illiterate couriers for transporting cash,” said the senior ECI official. “We do not get any information from them about who the money belongs to,” he said.

Experts feel that this is a game that simply cannot be won by the Commission, no matter how hard they try. “When people and politicians are complicit in this game, how can the Commission stop it?” asked Gopalaswami. “The only thing that may work is if the EC decides to shock and awe. Take courage in both hands, cancel a few elections. But it is a million dollar question whether anyone will do it,” he added.

In the last leg of campaigns, the ECI’s 21,300 pairs of eyes will kick in for the first time, in every village of the state. Handpicked youngsters, whose identity remains known only to select ECI officials, living in villages, will inform the Commission of any attempt to bribe or manipulate voters.

“We have formed village vigilance committees, with 21,300 people on our rolls,” said CEO Rajesh Lakhoni. “Each village has 10 people who inform the Returning Officer about any distribution of cash or gifts either by a phone call or WhatsApp,” he said. These youngsters have met with ECI officials and been given a talk on what comprises ethical voting practices. Their calls and messages go to exclusive ECI numbers, so that their identity is not compromised. This is the final attempt by the ECI to ensure that they are in the loop when the actual distribution takes place on the ground. A candidate dropping a Rs 10 note into an ‘aarthi’ plate will not go unnoticed by these informers in villages across the state.

Tamil Nadu will vote on May 16 with counting scheduled for May 19. In a few weeks from now, the state will breathe a collective sigh of relief when it is over.

This story has been published with per mission from GRIST Media.

First Published: May 07, 2016 12:52 IST