In Tamil Nadu, record cash has been seized even as some candidates are deploying innovative ways to bribe voters. But EC is not far behind on the learning curve
Shivani Chaturvedi | May 14, 2016
C Thirunavakarasu, a member of the election surveillance team (called ‘flying squad’) on duty at Thiruvanmiyur in Tamil Nadu’s Velachery constituency, looks worried. He believes complaints coming in from people about distribution of cash or goods to voters may go up as the polling day comes closer. Yet, at the same time, he draws satisfaction from the fear among politicians as the election commission’s stringent measures to cleanse the poll process takes effect.
His anxiety is understandable. Tamil Nadu in particular and south India in general have a history of poll candidates trying to bribe voters. The practice was documented even in the diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks in 2011. A US diplomat had this to report based on his talks with leading politicians: “Bribes from political parties to voters are a regular feature of elections in south India. From paying to dig wells to slipping cash inside the morning newspaper, politicians admitted to violating election rules to influence vote.”
As Tamil Nadu goes to polls on May 16, the election commission has made extra efforts to curb the practice. By May 11 officials had seized '98 crore in cash – a record-breaking figure that can go up in the few remaining days.
Thirunavakarasu is on election duty from 6 am to 2 pm. He recalls that last month, on a tip-off, the team reached Velachery. They were told that money had been kept at a home for distribution. But nothing was found. “Though only 2 percent of the phone calls turn out to be true, the flying squad would act on any tip and the response time on complaints is three minutes,” he says.
Yuvaraj is on duty at a toll-free call centre for election located at the secretariat. He says that currently the call centre receives 13,000 calls per day from all over the state and the number of calls is just going up as the election nears. “The condition is such that there are 25 to 30 calls waiting per minute. Most of the complaints are against money or liquor distribution. On receiving information, we immediately inform the flying squads,” he says.
There is a bit of fear in the minds of the politicians and they are not doing things so openly like in previous elections, says Sangeetha, the returning officer of the Egmore constituency in Chennai. “But the use of money power is not yet curbed. It is still on.”
Some political parties, ahead of the curve, are devising innovative ways to distribute cash for votes. It was way back in January 2009, during the Thirumangalam by-election in Madurai district, that workers of then ruling DMK resorted to ingenious ways to distribute money. DMK activists reportedly hoodwinked security officials and workers of rival political parties, giving birth to the term ‘Thirumangalam formula’.
Now, parties are doing finer and finer planning, says Sangeetha. She talks about ‘AIADMK Task Force’, formed by about 100 college students who support the ruling party. They even had identity cards with their name, photo and ‘AIADMK Task Force’ written on it. “Politicians were trying to reach out to voters through these youngsters. On a tip-off, we reached the place where a woman, who was ex-BLO (booth level officer), was briefing these youth. This woman was with a ruling party functionary who fled by the time we reached the spot. An FIR was lodged against this woman,” says Sangeetha.
“We were not aware of such micro-level planning of the political parties until such incidents came to our notice,” she says, expressing helplessness.
Sangeetha also talks about a recent seizure operation carried out in Egmore, which has been identified by the EC as an ‘expenditure-sensitive’ constituency.
“The tip-off came as a complaint to the control room. The control room informed my flying squad following which we reached the spot in Egmore. We located the flat where cash was packed in boxes. At first we found around '2 crore. We called the income-tax department officials for further search following which a total of '4.94 crore was seized,” she says.
According to police, the house belongs to Vijay Krishnan, an MGR Mandram office-bearer affiliated to the AIADMK.
EC’s measures to clean up polls
But then the election commission is also taking equally innovative measures to catch politicans, says Rajesh Lakhoni, chief electoral officer for Tamil Nadu.
This is the election in which surveillance is the most automated in the country, he says. Complaint redressal is critical. Complaints like money distribution cannot wait so “we have automated the whole thing”, says Lakhoni. “Now, one can call me, or the call centre, or register the complaint on the web portal or on WhatsApp. The moment the complaint is made, based on the address it will automatically map the person who will be the redressal officer,” he adds.
The moment one logs in and submits the complaint, automatically an SMS goes to that redressal officer that this complaint has been registered on money distribution at a certain place or money has been stored at a certain place. The redressal officer has to get into action immediately and his movement is monitored by GPS. So response time has been reduced drastically, says Lakhoni.
The communication time has come down to three minutes. Earlier it used to take three hours to act on a complaint, as the call would go from the chief electoral officer’s office to the district collector, who would then inform the flying squad, he says.
“Wherever a complaint is registered in the state, it goes to the same portal and we have enabled all kinds of complaint modes like email, WhatsApp, and SMS. The complaint is tracked. So money seizure is possible because of this initiative only. This system also removes discretion. The flying squad is a heterogeneous body comprising state and central government employees. They don’t have discretion. With multiple departments, they cannot really decide [on their own],” he adds.
Complaints directly go as SMS to the relevant flying squad and do not come to the chief electoral officer or the district collector.
As part of the effort to cleanse the electoral system, the income-tax department has for the first time created teams in each district and authorised them to search houses. They have the power to raid any premises for hidden cash without prior notice to the owner.
Acting on a tip-off, a flying squad reaches a spot, but it cannot enter private premises without a warrant, so it informs the income-tax department team who then raids the premises. As many as 454 people from the income-tax department are on election duty. There are teams comprising 10 officers in each district.
Additionally, village vigilance committees, comprising 10 to 15 youngsters, have been formed in each of the state’s over 12,500 villages. Their identity is known only to select election commission officials. These young villagers inform the commission of any attempt made to manipulate voters.
Then there are ethical voting and awareness campaigns by the commission. On May 10, one crore people across the state took oath to not accept money and inform the commission if they come to know of cash distribution in their villages or in the vicinity.
Also, one Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer in each assembly constituency has been deployed to keep an eye on money distribution.
In another first, close to the day of election, around 150 IPS officers will be posted in the expenditure-sensitive constituencies. They will accompany the flying squads.
Since it has become so difficult to bribe voters with hard cash, some enterprising candidates have turned to other modes, for example, recharing the ubiquitous pre-paid mobile phone for select voters. So, the poll panel is tracking the trends in mobile recharge via websites. “We are tracking it pincode-wise to see if there is an abnormal increase, since there were complaints that people [candidates] are doing online top-ups,” says Lakhoni.
There were reports that some candidates were paying up for voters’ one-year newspaper subscription or for year-long milk supply through tokens of milk vendors like Aavin, the trademark of Tamil Nadu Co-operative Milk Producers’ Federation Limited. So, at the constituency level, returning officers held a meeting with milk suppliers and news agencies to curb the practice. Trader associations have been asked not to issue or receive tokens.
“We are tracking every cash withdrawal of '1 lakh and above from any bank,” Lakhoni adds. “Daily we are tracking liquor sales online. All liquor shops’ sales commission is tracked, so that if there is an increase of 30 percent than the normal, we inquire,” says Lakhoni.
A case of bad governance
Former chief election commissioner N Gopalaswami says that the situation is just going to get worse over a period of time. After the Thirumangalam by-election things have deteriorated a lot and it is shameful that people also demand money, he adds. Such a practice is manifestation of bad governance. Transparency in governance may help bring down such practices, he says.
He feels, as of now, nothing much can be done by the election commission to stop this practice. Politicians anticipate the election commission’s moves and they would have already disbursed money, he adds.
Former bureaucrat MG Devasahayam, convenor of the Chennai-based Forum of Electoral Integrity, says 20 percent of voters will continue to take money. However, as the election commission is aggressively running awareness campaigns, candidates will have difficulty in giving cash to voters.
(The article appears in the May 16-31, 2016 issue)
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