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All eyes on Election Commission in RK Nagar bypoll

April 06, 2017 13:40 IST

Will the EC would make an example of the RK Nagar by-election, either by ensuring free and fair polls or by countermanding the same, asks N Sathiya Moorthy.

Image: Workers readying the EVMs for RK Nagar by-poll in Chennai, on April 5, 2017. Photograph: R Senthil Kumar/PTI Photo.

Come April 12, and Chennai’s RK Nagar assembly constituency would have voted for a new MLA in place of late chief minister J Jayalalithaa.

Three days later, the votes would have been counted -- and the results known.

Today, Jayalalithaa is no more, and the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam she had headed to a second consecutive electoral victory in May 2016 also has the name and ‘Two Leaves’ election symbol frozen. The faction feud in the party, post-Jaya, has ensured as much.

The question now is not about the future of the party. That would have to wait until after the results of the RK Nagar by-election are known.

The immediate question is this: Will polling be conducted as scheduled, or will the Election Commission be forced to countermand the same, to be conducted another day? Should the EC be left with little option but to do so, it would be three in a row, after the countermanding of polling in two assembly constituencies when Jaya was around and active -- at Thanjavur and Aravakkurichchi last year.

The demands at the time was for a wholesale countermanding, or cancellation of polling across the 234 constituencies in the state.

The EC too does not seem to be in a mood to countermand polling for the heck of it at RK Nagar. But if it came to that, it looks as if the EC would not wait for demands from candidates and/or their parties.

It would go and do straightaway and do precisely all that needs to be done to uphold the integrity of the nation’s elections and democracy, which came under extreme stress under its ‘watchful eyes’ during the run-up to the May 2016 elections.

The greater test at RK Nagar is not for the candidates, or parties concerned, not even for the nation’s electoral process, per se. Instead, it’s an occasion for Tamil Nadu as a state, and the population as voters, to redeem their fair name, after the much-taunted ‘Tirumangalam formula’ of managing election campaigns and poll victories.

Though attributed to then ruling DMK, and party supremo M Karunanidhi’s controversial older son M K Azhagiri, the ‘Tirumangalam formula’ was only a poor cousin of the ‘Periyakulam formula’ and ‘Andipatti formula’ that the preceding AIADMK rulers had perfected in their time.

The Sasi faction candidate at RK Nagar, who is her nephew and political aide T T V Dinakaran, was the architect and executor of those formulae. He himself had won from Periyakulam.

Jaya won the Andipatti assembly by-election after the Supreme Court had acquitted her in the ‘Tansi land deal case’, close to a year after concluding the hearings in 2001.

Apart from Andipatti and Periyakulam there were Saidapet and Gummidipudi assembly by-elections, among others, that the AIADMK had won as the ruling party, adopting, or adapting the same formula.

When the EC and the national media suddenly awoke to the Tamil Nadu realities -- and not before, not afterwards, so to say -- then to Team Azhagiri should also go the credit of introducing the ‘token system’, for voters to produce the same in nearby shops to redeem as goods, including grocery items and white goods.

In the May 2016 assembly elections, there were unconfirmed reports of ruling parties (both at the Centre and the state), making ‘Aadhar-linked’ payments in voters in some places.

There were also reports of some candidates and parties (no prize for guessing) paying up annual fees of students, directly to their respective schools, and producing the receipts at the voters’ door-steps.

At RK Nagar, falling within metropolitan Chennai, acting on the opposition DMK complaints, the EC started off with shifting the returning officer (a rare instance even at the national level), who’s supposed to be the eyes, ears and brain of the commission at the constituency-level. The lady had been the target of candidates’ attacks after being the RO when Jaya had contested the 2016 assembly polls from here.

Soon, the EC changed the Chennai commissioner of police, S George, a DGP-level official, based on similar complaints that he was acting in a partisan way.

This has since been followed by the near-daily transfer of any number of state government officials, whether on election duty or not. This has been accompanied by the removal of middle to lower-level police officials attached to the RK Nagar constituency

Again on an unprecedented move, the EC has commissioned the service of 10 companies of paramilitary forces, that too a full 10 days ahead of polling, as against the normal five-to-seven days, that too for an urban centre where no security threat of the Naxalite kind had been predicted.

The paramilitary forces are already on the streets, and CCTV cameras too have been fixed at vantage points in the constituency, to monitor the use of ‘money power’, if any.

The EC has also set up 24-hour complaints cell, with mobile numbers, for people/parties to forward substantive visuals to check the ‘cash-for-vote’ menace.

Then, there are five, instead of the usual three, external observers and also the more than usual number of ‘expenditure observers’. Possibly for the first time again, the EC has also drafted the services of 30 Tamil-knowing middle-level government officials from neighbouring Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, to act as ‘micro-observers’.

At the highest level, Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi held an unprecedented video conference discussion with state chief secretary, Girija Vaidhyanathan, and DGP, T K Rajendran, among other officials, for close to one and a half hours, to discuss the preparations just for one by-election.

Earlier, Deputy Election Commissioner Umesh Sinha was in the constituency and met up with state officials, and to send out the clear message that the EC meant business this time.

All of it has had a saluting effect. But only up to a point, or so it seems. While none of them question the sincerity of the EC as an institution, or its Delhi heads, the Opposition candidates have taken exception to the continuing role being played or not played by officials, including ‘outsider observers’.

All of them are agreed that in the wee hours of April 5, the Dinakaran camp followers were caught on video freely distributing big money to almost every home across the constituency, but the observers did not even stir up, leave alone taking action. Dinakaran himself has described the video as a ‘frame-up’.

The less said about the local police, to whom some money distributors were handed over with lots of money in every case, all of them in the new, Rs 2000 denomination.

As Opposition leaders point out, this was the case also with the May 2016 elections, when ‘outside observers’ were seen as ‘observing’ it all but not doing anything whatsoever to prevent malpractices.

As they point out, even though the Supreme Court has upheld the Election Commission’s administrative control of all officials associated with elections, including by-elections, seldom has any action being taken against any ‘outside observers’ .

After Wednesday, however, they are even more unanimous about the impunity with which the Dinakaran camp was indulging in electoral malpractices of the highest order. Some of them have already demanded the countermanding of polls, but the Dinakaran camp says they flowed from their fear of losing the election.

As was only to be expected, they are shy of explaining the recovery of money and ‘gift items’ in raids on some known faction leaders and functionaries in the locality and neighbourhood.

At the end of the day, the question remains if the EC would seek to make an example of RK Nagar by-election, by still ensuring free and fair polls, or by countermanding the same.

Either of the moves would send out a clear message to the political class, and not just in RK Nagar or the rest of Tamil Nadu, either.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.

N Sathiya Moorthy