Cash For Votes: EC’s Selective Interference Brings Its Neutrality Under a Cloud

From Vellore to Madurai, the EC has not been following a consistent policy in cancelling elections despite substantial evidence of candidates using excessive money power.

If symbolism is what matters, the rescinding of Lok Sabha elections in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, by the president on the recommendation of the Election Commission was perhaps intended to show that the EC is serious about ensuring free and fair elections.  

The EC’s refusal to rescind elections in other constituencies, despite overwhelming evidence of the role of money power by candidates and parties, should make one believe that the election atmosphere in those constituencies – in the eyes of the EC – was not as vitiated as in Vellore.  

But the facts suggest the contrary.

For one, during the last phase of the election, Dalit voters in Chandauli, Uttar Pradesh, complained that indelible ink was forcibly applied, and that they were paid Rs 500 each before the elections. The EC, so far, has not found it a sufficient reason to rescind the elections in the constituency.

Refusal to cancel Madurai election

On May 17, following allegations of the use of money power by a candidate, the vacation bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices Indira Banerjee and Sanjiv Khanna, while refusing to cancel Madurai Lok Sabha elections, held:

“We find no ground to interfere with the impugned order (of the Madras High Court refusing a similar prayer). There can be no question of any direction by this Court to the Election Commissioner to cancel or postpone the elections. The remedy, if any, of the petitioner lies by way of an Election Petition under the Representation of People Act, 1950.”

Earlier, on April 15, a two-judge bench of the Madras high court comprising Justices S. Manikumar and Subramonium Prasad, had dismissed a petition filed by K.K. Ramesh, an independent candidate from Madurai, Tamil Nadu, to cancel or postpone the election (held on April 18) due to what he alleged as a “heavy distribution of cash for votes”. 

The EC, through its counsel, told the high court that its flying squad or Static Surveillance Team (SST) visits places where there is a likelihood of corruption or corrupt practices, as well as places from where specific complaints have been made regarding the distribution of cash or any other consideration.

Ramesh had alleged that on April 7, the AIADMK conducted a political meeting near Pandi Kovil, Madurai Ring Road, where voters were given cash for votes ranging from Rs 500 to Rs 2,000. The EC submitted that on receiving his complaint, its flying squad visited the said place, but found no one there to substantiate the allegation.  

The EC’s counsel claimed that CCTVs have been installed, and in many places, flying squads/SSTs also made surprise inspections at the premises and offices of the candidates or their close associates, and also intercepted vehicles to prevent corruption or corrupt practices. 

Also read: The Reputation of the Election Commission Has Been Severely Tarnished

The EC had also submitted that on a complaint of Kathirvel, Tahsildar and member of Flying Squad Team A1, 192 South Constitution Assembly, Madurai, a case had been registered on April 2 on the file of Theppakulam Police Station, Madurai city under Section 171E, IPC, against one Gurumurthi. 

Considering the steps taken by the EC and similar averments, the high court had dismissed a similar petition on March 26. For the same reasons, the high court found it appropriate to dismiss the prayer for mandamus to cancel or postpone the Madurai Lok Sabha election. 

On May 17, the appeal against this order was dismissed by the Supreme Court’s vacation bench. 

The challenge to the EC’s decision in Vellore

Of all the Lok Sabha constituencies in the country, Vellore in Tamil Nadu is the only constituency where the EC found sufficient evidence to back allegations of use of money to influence voters, and therefore, recommended to President Ram Nath Kovind to rescind the election. 

Cash was reportedly seized at the homes of DMK treasurer Durai Murugan and his son, Kathir Anand, who was the DMK’s candidate in Vellore, on March 29 and March 30.  

DMK leader Kathir Anand. Credit: Facebook

On April 17, the Madras high court dismissed a writ petition filed by the AIADMK candidate challenging the countermanding of the election in Vellore by the EC on the grounds that the latter had no such power.  

The petitioner argued that the cancellation of the election on the grounds that one of the candidates violated the law infringed the rights of other candidates. The EC, on the contrary, submitted that it is for the EC itself to assess whether the environment for conduct of elections has been vitiated.

Also read: Lok Sabha Polls in Vellore Cancelled After Money Seized From DMK Leaders

When corrupt practices and illegality are prima facie found, the EC, which is a mandated by the constitution of India to conduct a free and fair elections, cannot be a mute spectator, the EC submitted.

The high court relied on the Supreme Court’s judgment in Mohinder Singh Gill‘s case in which it was held that Article 324 of the constitution gives power to the EC to act and pass orders even in the absence of a specific provision under the RP Act, 1951.

Rescinding a poll or ordering a re-poll for the entire constituency under circumstances, not specifically stated in the legislation, can still be recommended by the Election Commission of India provided it is necessary for the conduct of a free and fair election and the action/s complained of, are such, which have the effect of affecting the purity in elections, the Supreme Court had held in that case.

Posing a question to itself whether the EC should be termed as a combination of three wise monkeys – to close its mouth, eyes and ears, to whatever happens between the date of submission of the nomination till the declaration of the results – the high court said: “Our answer is a clear ‘no’.” Clearly, except in the case of Vellore, the EC’s responses to complaints of money power in elections cannot but make people think of the three wise monkeys.

Also read: Despite Demonetisation, Cash Seizures by EC Cross 2014 Levels Ahead of Polls

The Supreme Court, on April 22, refused to interfere with the high court’s decision on the ground that the elections in Tamil Nadu were already over.

On April 17, the Income Tax Department had seized Rs.1.48 crore in cash allegedly stashed to bribe voters in Theni district.  

The cash was packed in 94 packets and in envelopes on which the ward number, number of voters and the amount of Rs 300 per voter was written. The wards are within the Andipatti assembly segment, which was going to by-elections the next day. The cash was seized from a store belonging to a functionary of T.T.V. Dhinakaran-led Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam, and four AMMK supporters were detained, according to reports. 

Still, the poll was held, and not cancelled as it was in Vellore. 

The EC has not been following a consistent policy with regard to cancellation of elections when it finds evidence of candidates using excessive money power. What it shows is that the EC acts only if the candidates or their accomplices get caught hoarding money, and not otherwise. The fact that the EC found reason to cancel elections only in Vellore does not suggest that the excessive use of  money power is confined to that constituency. 

It only shows that in Vellore, the EC seized huge chunks of unaccounted money, and found evidence of its distribution among the voters, thus vitiating the election atmosphere. In other constituencies, it has not been so successful, or been inclined to take the extra effort to unravel the corruption.

EC has no clue about the results of its raids during the elections

On April 5, the Supreme Court bench of Justices N.V. Ramana and Mohan M. Shantanagoudar were surprised to know that the EC had no data about cases of prosecution, and the follow-up to the raids conducted and money seized by it during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.  

The EC washed its hands off the matter, saying that state governments are responsible for pursuing criminal cases registered during the course of elections. The bench, therefore, asked all the states and union territories to file their responses on the issue with data.  On May 10, the bench noted in its order:

“The affidavit filed by the Union of India (Central Board of Direct Taxes) does not provide us with the requisite information that we sought for, regarding the issue of preventing black money in the election process.

It has been brought to our notice by the learned senior counsel appearing on behalf of the Election Commission of India that on April 7, a letter was sent to the Ministry of Finance wherein it was stated that the Election Commission of India has to be intimated pursuant to conduct of raids.   However, no reply has been received so far from the Ministry of Finance.    Learned senior counsel also suggested that some guidelines should be framed to ensure fair election and to prevent the use of black money in the election process. “

The Centre claimed that it has prepared a scheme for collecting data about the prosecution, raids conducted and seizure of money during parliamentary elections. The bench adjourned the hearing of the case to August last week, as the Centre did not disclose details of the scheme. 

On May 7, the bench expressed its disappointment that the Centre had offered no assistance in the matter. 

“No affidavit is filed in the matter by them and rather some vague information of two pages, which does not give any particular of the case which we sought on the last date of hearing, was given to us. Necessary information which we sought has not been provided in any form of affidavit.”

The Supreme Court intervened to unravel the larger picture in a case in which Karnataka appealed against the acquittal of an accused, Prathik Parasrampuria, by the Karnataka high court’s Dharwad bench on February 12, 2015, in an electoral bribery case.

Also read: The Legacy of a Different CEC: When J.M. Lyngdoh Stood up to Modi

The petitioner’s counsel told the high court that no incriminating material linking him to any political party could be seized during the raid, and possession of cash by itself does not constitute offences under these provisions. The flying squad assumed that the huge quantity of cash kept at the premises of the petitioner was to bribe voters.

The high court found that there was not even an iota of averment in the complaint as to whom the accused intended to bribe and by what mode he had planned to bribe. It concluded, while quashing the FIR against the accused:

“It is not as if there was a complaint in this regard, either by the victim or by any other affected persons….The entire complaint allegation is whimsical and fails to make out any offence under any of the provisions of the IPC. The proceeding on such a fragile complaint is nothing but abuse of process of law and deserves to be quashed.”

It is this quashing of the FIR by the high court, which the Karnataka government appealed against in the Supreme Court, which ultimately led to the EC’s admission that it knew nothing of what happened to the raids it publicised during the 2014 elections.

The EC’s lack of interest in pursuing the cases of seizure of unaccounted money during the elections and take due action against candidates and parties which might be alleged to have vitiated the election atmosphere, necessitating rescinding of election, makes one wonder whether it is only keen on optics, rather than the substantive purification of elections.   

Also read: We Voters Did Our Duty but the Election Commission Failed to Do the Same

Therefore, the refusal by the high courts and the Supreme Court to make the EC accountable for its omissions and commissions during the course of the elections also appears to be a case of over-confidence by the higher judiciary in the EC’s so-called neutrality. 

Considering that there is inordinate delay in disposal of election petitions by the higher Judiciary after the conclusion of elections, resulting in the defeat of the very objectives of the petitioners, irrespective of their merits, there is a case for ensuring the EC’s accountability during the conduct of elections.