In the wake of widespread allegations of inducement of electors and amid revelations that senior ministers and party functionaries from leading parties were involved in the malpractice, the Election Commission (EC) on Sunday (April 9) rescinded the by-election to the Dr Radhakrishnan Nagar assembly constituency in Tamil Nadu, which had fallen vacant after the death of former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa.
The EC had received several complaints of systematic bribery of voters through the distribution of cash and gifts like prepaid phone recharge coupons, newspaper subscriptions, milk tokens, money transfer in no frill bank accounts and mobile wallet payments.
The by-elections were due to be held on April 12.
Electoral process ‘seriously vitiated’
In its detailed order signed by the chief election commissioner Nasim Zaidi and election commissioners O.P. Rawat and A.K. Joti, the EC said that it was “fully satisfied” that the electoral process in the R.K. Nagar constituency “has been seriously vitiated on account of unlawful activities of the candidates and political parties and their workers by bribing the electors and unlawfully inducing them by offering money and other gifts of consumable items to woo them in their favour.”
The EC also expressed its “anguish over the sordid state of affairs” saying “the innovative ways which the political parties and their leaders at the top echelons have devised to bypass the law enforcing authorities entrusted with the task of keeping an eye on the unauthorised and illegal expenses incurred in the conduct of election campaigns of their party candidates need to be dealt with [a] heavy hand.”
State health minister may have distributed Rs 89 crores
On April 8, the IT department told the EC that it had conducted search and seizure action at 21 places in Chennai and in 11 outside Chennai that belonged to state health minister C. Vijaya Baskar and his associates. Prominent among his associates who were searched were film actor and the president of Samathuva Makkal Katchi Sarathkumar, AIADMK leader and former MP Rajendran, and S. Geetha Lakshmi, the director of health services and the vice chancellor of Dr. MGR Medical University.
The IT authorities, the EC said, informed it that “Several complaints were received recently indicating that Dr C. Vijaya Baskar is the main person involved in bribing the voters in R.K. Nagar assembly constituency which is going to by-polls on 12th April, 2017. Some loose sheets were found with his accountant Mr. Srinivasan indicating distribution of Rs 89 crores to a number of politicians for further distribution among the voters.”
The EC said, “The premises of Shri Rajendran were also searched on receiving the input from a central agency that a huge amount of cash was brought there yesterday by [a] particular vehicle, for distribution in R.K. Nagar constituency,” adding that “Rs 5 crore was seized from the confidantes of Dr C. Vijaya Baskar and from his native place.”
Further, it said that “a lot of incriminating material, including voters list marking against each voter either of DMK or AIADMK, and amount to be paid and paid in some cases, were also found and seized.”
Thus, it said that the search and seizure action by the income tax authorities had led to “unraveling a huge and systematic design to distribute money to voters in order to induce/bribe them to influence their voting behaviour”.
‘Top leaderships of parties cannot feign ignorance’
“Some of the states have particularly excelled in innovating more and more subtle ways to circumvent the statutory provisions enacted by parliament to curb the menace of money power in elections,” the EC stated in its order, adding that “the top leaderships of the parties cannot feign ignorance about such illegal activities being indulged in by the candidates set by their parties, and also the managers appointed by their parties to oversee the election campaigns of their candidates.”
Accordingly, the EC ordered that under Article 324 of the constitution read with sections 150, 30 and 56 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 and with section 21 of the General Clauses Act, 1897, the assembly election shall stand rescinded.
The EC also noted that as the Model Code of Conduct came into force with the announcement of the by-election on March 10, it constituted nine flying squad teams, nine static surveillance teams and two video surveillance teams to ensure its enforcement.
Soon, complaints pertaining to electoral malpractices began coming in. The Election Commission said that enquiries were conducted on various complaints received relating to inducement and bribing of voters.
Considering the large number of complaints, it said that apart from the regular teams, 70 mobile parties on two-wheelers were also deployed on April 6. The EC also deployed ten companies of the Central Armed Police Force. It said that in order to prevent any violence before and during the polls, 195 people were bound under the Criminal Procedure Code and 94 non-bailable warrants were executed.
With additional observers being deployed, it said this was “the highest deployment of central observers to any assembly constituency”. However, as the data suggests, the presence of a large number of observers appeared to have limited impact.
The EC said that several complaints were received on electors being induced through the distribution of cash and gifts. It said that while transactions in bank accounts were monitored by a surveillance team, the inducements through top up of postpaid plans, newspaper agents and milk vendors were monitored electronically or otherwise to prevent misuse of such channels. Also, it said teams of the sales tax department were pressed into service to immediately verify sale of goods through tokens.
Thirty-five FIRs registered, large amount of cash, gifts seized
Until April 7, the EC said that a total amount of Rs 18,80,700 along with various items such as lamps, t-shirts, silver plates, mobile phones and sarees had been seized, and 35 FIRs had been registered.
On April 5, the EC said that after complaints were received about cash being distributed in the wards, the commissioner of police was directed to inquire into them.
There was another complaint that “large number of hats/caps/scarfs were being distributed by AIADMK (Amma) party at various places in R.K. Nagar constituency,” the order said, adding that the expenditure observer looked into the matter and reported that although the representatives of AIADMK (Amma) candidate T.T.V. Dinakaran informed that they had made a one-time investment of Rs 30,000 for 1,000 hats, the inquiry revealed that the shopkeeper whose address was mentioned in the bill had supplied 10,000 hats per day to the party. “Hence, the cost of 10,000 hats i.e., Rs 3 lakhs as added as suppressed expenditure in the shadow observation register”.
The EC said there were also some complaints of distribution of goods like sarees, lamps known as kuthu villaku and household articles, and 12 FIRs were registered after enquiry. In all, it said 35 FIRs were registered on complaints of cash or gift distribution.
Noting that “the election law seriously frowns upon the acts of ‘bribery’ at elections” and holding out that in the light of the principles of purity of elections and to save the elections from the pernicious effect of money power so as to maintain their sanctity envisaged under the constitution and as upheld by the Supreme Court, it had become imperative on its part to ensure that these principles and the sanctity were maintained and preserved at all costs.
The EC said, therefore, allowing the current electoral process to proceed and conducting the poll in the constituency as scheduled would severely jeopardise the conduct of free and fair elections.