On a muggy night last week, this reporter was on the campaign trail of AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) candidate KA Sengottaiyan in Gobichettipalayam, in Tamil Nadu’s Erode district, along the foothills of the Western Ghats.
Leaving my car locked and parked near a temple in a village called Kodivery where the candidate was campaigning, and went on foot. A few minutes after the candidate finished addressing the crowd, there was a power cut, so I trudged back to my car.
To my shock, I found some people rummaging through it. When I went closer I found that they were officials of an Election Commission appointed Flying Squad. I asked them how they had opened a locked car. “We received information that as soon as the power got cut, cash would be distributed,” confided one member of the squad who did not wish to be named. “So, when we came here all the cars took flight and only one car remained. Since your car registration clearly shows it is from another area, we started our search,” he said.
This, in a nutshell, encapsulates the kind of intense crackdown being carried out by the Election Commission in Tamil Nadu, in its hunt for illegal cash.
With just two weeks to go for polls in Tamil Nadu, the Election Commission is cracking down in an unprecedented manner to stem the tide of illegal distribution of cash for votes.
Over Rs 65 crore has been seized so far, with around Rs 25 crore being returned on submission of proper documentation for the same, as per ECI data. Big ticket seizures have taken place in the past two weeks, with over Rs 6 crore being found stashed in a single house in Karur.
“In the last two weeks, a whopping Rs 25 crore of cash has been seized in Tamil Nadu and this shows the trend here,” said retired IAS officer MG Devasahayam. “12 cash counting machines were found in one place. Imagine how much cash there would have been to need 12 counting machines. I don’t know where all this money was sent after counting,” he added.
Devasahayam is referring to a raid on a house in Karur district, where ECI officials found Rs 6 crores of cash from the residence of one Anbunathan. Following this seizure, raids by ECI teams have intensified in the western districts of the state.
Flying Squads and checkposts are seen not only in major towns but also on the roads and highways linking them. At every 10 kms, the Election Commission teams conduct searches of vehicles.
Between Pollachi and Coimbatore alone, a distance of 36 kms, there are three Flying Squad teams conducting searches all through the day and night.
No one is spared by the ECI, especially leaders of the ruling party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and their relatives. On 27 April, simultaneous searches were conducted on leaders, friends and relatives of the ruling party in districts like Coimbatore, Pollachi, Madurai and Erode. Assembly deputy speaker and Pollachi AIADMK candidate V Jayaraman’s relative Dr Mahendran’s farmhouse was raided for a full day. The ECI later clarified that nothing was found in these raids which went on for over seven hours.
Chief Electoral Officer Rajesh Lakhoni told Firstpost, “There have been lots of complaints from all political parties regarding cash for votes. We have formed a team with Election Commission officials, police and Income Tax officials. There is a special team to follow up on the complaints from the public. Within three minutes of receiving the complaint, they are in action,” he said.
The Election Commission has tried to innovate this time in the state, deploying Income Tax officers to all districts, who have the power to conduct searches for cash legally. This power is not possessed by local or Central police forces, who have so far been deployed in teams during election time.
“Every party distributes cash, chicken biriyani, liquor, clothes and gold coins for votes,” argued MG Devasahayam. “What the Election Commission has seized will not constitute even 10% of the money already out there,” he added.
While the crackdown on cash is much more severe this year, with a focussed thrust on Tamil Nadu, among all five poll bound states, experts feel that this may not be enough to curb the menace of illegal distribution of cash.
“Democracy is dead in Tamil Nadu,” said Devasahayam. “And the elections can never be conducted in a proper manner due to such illegal cash distribution. It is better to nullify the election,” he said, echoing the sentiments of a number of experts.