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Tamil Nadu’s infamous tryst with cash-for-votes continues

Political parties level allegations and even file complaints, but, even when cases are registered, rarely are charge-sheets prepared. Once the elections are over, everybody forgets about the offences with virtually no conviction happening 

April 06, 2021 / 01:16 PM IST
Representative image: PTI

Representative image: PTI

As Tamil Nadu goes to vote today, the cash-for-votes accusations that are all too often heard, demands our attention. In a heated campaign that saw top contenders reach out to almost all the 234 constituencies armed with freebie-rich promises, the distribution of cash to bribe voters is a tipping point.

These accusations have been flying thick in all directions as the Election Commission of India (ECI) reported seizure of cash and precious metal such as gold worth Rs 428.46 crore in Tamil Nadu. Karur district topped in seizures, and was followed by Coimbatore, Tirupur and Chennai.

No matter how hard the top contenders — Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief MK Stalin and incumbent All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader and Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami — may have literally strived to convince voters, it is the ‘last minute connect’ with their constituents that is seen by their party leaders as holding the key to win.

Importantly, one must note that this practice of cash-for-votes was perfected during the era of stalwarts — M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa.

Just two days before the voting, Makkal Needhi Maiam founder Kamal Haasan was the only contender who asked the public to expose on social media members of political parties who distribute cash or freebies. The actor asked them to tag him in the post, adding that he would pay a visit to the house of the ‘whistleblower’ as a mark of honour.

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Allegations-Counter Allegations

But 12 hours before voting began, the AIADMK was on its feet, urging the ECI to countermand the elections in five assembly constituencies where top DMK leaders are contesting. The five are Kolathur (Stalin), Chepauk-Triplicane (DMK youth wing secretary Udhayanidhi Stalin), Trichy West (DMK principal secretary KN Nehru), Katpadi (DMK general secretary Durai Murugan) and Tiruvannamalai (former minister EV Velu).

A team of AIADMK office-bearers led by fisheries minister D Jayakumar filed individual petitions for each of these constituencies, alleging that money was distributed by the DMK and that elections in these constituencies should be countermanded. The AIADMK claimed that digital payment applications were used to distribute money.

On its part the DMK accused the AIADMK of collecting the mobile phone numbers of voters for disbursing money through digital payment applications. A video surfaced showing a person, said to be the secretary of the AIADMK’s minority wing, handing out Rs 500 currency notes to women who are showing their voter ID cards. Along with currency notes, the women are also seen receiving the party’s promotional material.

Tamil Nadu has been witnessing a flurry of income tax raids. Stalin’s daughter Senthamarai’s residence was raided by IT officials in Chennai on April 2, leading to top DMK leaders accusing the Centre and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of conducting these raids to intimidate political opponents.

As the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) officials maintained that the raids were conducted on the basis of “credible information” to check “political cash distribution”, a lot of attention turned towards the role of Stalin’s son-in-law Sabareesan whose role and influence as a key strategist has been a sour point among other senior DMK leaders.

No Convictions

Why do the parties feel the need to incentivise voters despite freebie-rich governance promised by them in their manifestos? Some have blamed the culture of freebies, as practised by the state’s two principal political parties while in power. The voters are made to see no difference in taking money from candidates as they have otherwise got used to receiving money from the government under one scheme or the other.

Even when cases are registered, rarely are charge-sheets prepared. Once the elections are over, everybody forgets about the offences with virtually no conviction happening.

In 2016 too, allegations of all kinds surfaced about distribution of cash to voters. An incensed Jayalalithaa got a case filed against MDMK general secretary Vaiko for his allegations that she had stashed at least Rs 2,000 crore inside a sprawling bungalow at Sirudavoor in Kancheepuram district.

In 2011, officials seized Rs 5.11 crore bundled in two bags found atop a private bus in an upper middle class locality in Tiruchi. The bus belonged to a relative of then DMK senior minister KN Nehru.

The Inglorious Trail

The most infamous episode was the coinage of the expression ‘Thirumangalam formula’ that found mention in a cable sent out by the United States embassy to the State Department in 2009. According to documents released by Wikileaks, the US embassy cable sent on May 13, 2009 quoted a close aide of former Union Minister MK Alagiri, son of Karunanidhi, as saying: “It is no secret at all, Alagiri paid 5,000 rupees per voter in Thirumangalam.”

The January 2009 by-election in Thirumangalam in Madurai district was a big challenge for the Karunanidhi government as Jayalalithaa had been waiting to cause a big upset. The DMK booth managers distributed money to every voter on the ECI rolls in envelopes inserted in their morning newspapers. The DMK won the by-election with a thumping margin, which was seen as a prelude to the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

DMK leaders, however, claimed that the practice of bribing voters started during the AIADMK regime when the by-election took place at Sathankulam in Thoothukudi district in February 2003. Sarees and utensils, apart from cash, were distributed, mainly among rural people. The AIADMK won the constituency.

In January 2017, a similar episode was seen in the RK Nagar by-poll. Following the demise of Jayalalithaa, the seat fell vacant, and TTV Dhinakaran, the nephew of VK Sasikala who was a powerful aide of Jayalalithaa, was the nominee. The voters were flooded with offers of ‘innovative’ gifts, such as prepaid phone recharge coupons, newspaper subscription, milk tokens, money transfer to no-frills bank accounts and mobile wallets. The ECI had to put off the by-poll until the end of the year. Nevertheless, Dhinakaran won the seat even he was an AIADMK rebel.

It was during the 2016 assembly polls that the ECI had — for the first time — decided to cancel polls to the Aravakurichi and Thanjavur constituencies, following reports of large scale distribution of money and gifts. In fact, the polls were postponed twice and then subsequently cancelled, before being held in November 2016.
Shekhar Iyer is former senior associate editor of Hindustan Times and political editor of Deccan Herald. Views are personal.

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