As Tamil Nadu Votes, Cash Seizures are a Reminder of Where Real Power Lies

In Tamil Nadu, it is the Election Commission, and not the political parties, that is providing the nail biting finish to election season


Trucks laden with cash, under guard after an EC flying squad chased them down. Credit: PTI

Chennai: On May 14, 2016, the last day of campaigning, an Election Commission surveillance team caught cash worth Rs. 570 crore being transported in three container trucks in Tirupur district. Soon after, Tamil Nadu chief election commissioner (CEC) Rajesh Lakhoni said that the State Bank of India claimed the cash was its own and was being transported from its branch in Coimbatore to Vishakapatnam on orders from the Reserve Bank of India. Pending confirmation from the RBI and given several unexplained factors, the issue is under investigation and the trucks have still not released.

In Tamil Nadu, it is the EC – and not the political parties – that is providing a nail biting finish to election season. Following seizure of more than 6 crores in cash and other inducements, the commission has even deferred voting in  Aravakurichi and Thanjavur to May 23 – the first time ever that polls in two constituencies have been postponed hours before polling day due to cash distribution.

Few voters or political parties themselves seem to believe the bank’s claim. On Sunday afternoon, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief M. Karunanidhi, whose party members have also been caught with bundles of cash in other instances, asked the burning question: Whose money is it? Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) chief ministerial candidate Anbumani Ramadoss demanded a postponement of polls and deputation of independent returning officers, who administer polls in each district.

A teacher deputed as polling officer in Mylapore constituency in Chennai said she was proud to do this duty until the cash seizure. “Now I feel, am I just another clown in this circus?” As a family of eight tearing into a fish fry at Marina beach discussed whom to vote for, Kris Balakumar, a first time voter, said, “I wish my first election was a cleaner one – all the parties are crooked and I don’t have any information about independents. I have no idea who to vote for.”

SBI claim and public disbelief

After SBI chief general manager Ramesh Babu said the movement of Rs. 570 crores was an official “internal transaction”, the bank released a statement, calling the EC seizure “erroneous”. “To address a temporary cash shortage in Andhra Pradesh, the RBI has authorised transfer of Rs. 570 crore from our currency chest in Coimbatore main branch to our special currency administration branch in Visakhapatnam,” it said. “As per RBI instructions, our Coimbatore main branch released the treasure to the authorised SBI personnel, duly escorted by a team of Andhra police.”

The immediate reasons for the widespread disbelief in the SBI claim are some of the unanswered questions around the shocking seizure:

  • When the EC flying squad tried to intercept the three container trucks, why did the trucks escorted by three cars give chase, instead of stopping? It was only several hours later, when the trucks stopped for refuelling, that the EC team was able to catch them.
  • Why were the security guards accompanying the trucks – Andhra police according to the SBI statement – in plainclothes, and not in uniform? An EC official said this was one of the reasons for the surveillance team to suspect the trucks.
  • Why were the containers not sealed properly, or transported in special vans, as per bank norms?

Even after the SBI confirmed that the cash was its property, CEC Rajesh Lakhoni told reporters that investigations will continue. “The additional documents have been examined and preliminary enquiry revealed that the money belonged to the SBI. But the security guards didn’t carry original documents but only photocopies,” he said on Sunday.

In the campaign for the 2016 assembly election, the EC has seized more than Rs. 100 crores. On May 10, it recovered more than Rs. 4 crores in Chennai. A flying squad arrested five AIADMK party members for distributing cash to voters in Cumbum. On April 22, the income tax department found Rs. 4.77 crores in a Karur district parking shed belonging to a realtor, along with incriminating documents with notings showing proximity to prominent ministers of the TN government and the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). It also seized several currency counting machines and unregistered ambulances suspected to be used for transporting the money. The next day, they found Rs. 1.98 crores in the home of DMK candidate for Aravakurichi constituency KC Palanichamy and his son KCP Shivaraman, again at Karur. A person distributing cash fled when the EC arrived to act on a complaint, leaving behind Rs. 68,000. In addition, in a poll centred around alcohol prohibition, 429 litres of liquor were seized. Thirty-three complaints of money distribution have been registered in Aravakurichi alone. Late on May 15 night, after the EC seized huge sums of cash and received reports about large-scale distribution of money to voters, it deferred election in the second constituency, this time Thanjavur.

Another reason for the disbelief around the SBI claiming the Rs. 570 crores is the long history of parties giving cash for votes in Tamil Nadu. Across the state, several voters, especially in rural areas, admit having been offered between Rs. 500 to 5000 depending on the area and income level in the community. In Tiruchy, a hotel security guard, Diwakar (surname withheld) said that in his hometown Tiruvannamalai, local AIADMK functionaries had approached his four-member family with Rs. 2000 per voter. “They wrote our name down in a long notebook, which was half filled already, and gave us a rough voucher. My father refused but I took it. I’m voting for Vijaykanth – the former actor and chief ministerial candidate of the People’s Welfare Front – because I’m in his fan club, but I need the money,” said Diwakar. The functionary had apparently said the money would be paid on May 15, when the EC was busy with preparations for poll day on May 16.

In Chennai’s Saidapet, cab driver Veermani said a man known to be a DMK cadre had hinted obliquely at the possibility of Rs. 1000 per voter after poll day. “Why should they do this? We suffered in the floods. We’re not going to vote for AIADMK anyway,” he said, adding that the offer made him lose his respect for the DMK as well. A neighbour commented that the amount was relatively low for Chennai, “perhaps because DMK has a good chance in flood-affected areas and doesn’t need to shell out too much”. On being taunted by their eight-year-old daughter – “she sees the Election Commission advertisements that ask kids to stop their parents from selling their vote” – Veermani’s wife, Fiona called the EC helpline to make a complaint, and even sent an SMS, but didn’t follow up if they took any action.

Parties innovate

With more than 6000 flying squads, the Tamil Nadu EC has tried to stop political parties from using money to win over votes. The parties, however, are resorting to innovative ways of bribing voters – through electronic phone data and talk-time recharges; mysterious, brief power cuts at night in Chennai reportedly for quick cash distribution; and the classic Thirumangalam Formula of cash envelopes with the morning newspaper in every home, created in the nineties by DMK’s southern strongman and Karunanidhi’s son MK Azhagiri. In Bangalore, migrant workers from Dharmapuri district got calls about overnight buses waiting at several points in the city to ferry them to their voting booths. “The ticket was free, and one guy gave us Rs. 500 each,” said Pugazhendi, a fruit seller in Bangalore who will vote in Harur constituency, but refused to reveal which party did this. The most successful methods seem to be the ones that are universal, like the newspaper trick, going to every voter in the area, removing the possibility of the voter’s embarrassed or ethical refusal.

Many voters in rural Tamil Nadu – like Madhushree Bhagyaraj in Karur, the sand mining belt and central district always home to some of the biggest cash seizures – justified it as a practical, perversely democratic way to corner benefits in a corrupt system. Many others are disgusted, which a senior election officer guessed would eat into the voter turnout or feed NOTA. “I’m fighting the urge to hit NOTA,” said 31-year-old Pradeep, eating dinner at a Chennai biryani shop. “But who knows what I will press when I’m standing before the voting machine.”

Perhaps it is the combined effect of a super vigilant election commission unearthing the deep corruption in the campaign process, a palpable exhaustion with the two big Dravidian parties that have held power by turn for five decades, and an undecided election with multiple new players but no real alternative. Whatever the reason, voter morale in one of the largest, ideologically creative, and politically vibrant states appears to have hit rock bottom.