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Is cash still the king in TN polls?

By N Sathiya Moorthy
April 05, 2021 12:45 IST
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This time round, even ‘petrol coupons’ were reportedly distributed for those attending campaign rallies, especially those addressed by top leaders, cutting across party lines.

If this owed to the rising cost of petrol and diesel -- which is a poll issue this time -- there were the customary coupons for ‘quarter’ (liquor bottle size) and non-vegetarian biryani. Some media reports claimed that some of these ‘crowds’ attended more than one political rally on the same day in the last week, and at times for rival political parties in adjoining constituencies or districts, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami on the campaign trail. Photograph: Edappadi K Palaniswami on Twitter.

With the high-decibel campaign ending for Tuesday’s assembly polls in southern Tamil Nadu on Sunday evening, if there is one thing that does not seem to have changed over the past nearly two decades and more, it is the ‘cash-for-vote’ phenomenon for which the Dravidian state holds a national record of sorts.


In the past, the Election Commission’s poll-eve initiatives like deploying income-tax officials and paramilitary forces to check transfer of unaccounted moneys across the state had helped; this time round, the EC itself came up for sharp criticism for what the Opposition dubbed as ‘selective tax-raids’ aimed at hurting their chances.

At the centre of such allegations was the high-profile tax raids on the residence, offices and associates of V Sabareesan, the low-profile son-in-law of Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president and chief ministerial aspirant, M K Stalin, less than a week before polling day. It pushed to the shadows such other raids, including those on some ruling AIADMK personalities, including identifiable aides of incumbent ministers.

Opposition leaders from Congress’s Rahul Gandhi and CPI-M’s Sitaram Yechury said it was done at the instance of the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Centre, to demoralise the DMK cadres. Stalin himself, campaigning elsewhere, declared that the party had seen enough of it in his time, and he had bravely faced even Emergency and MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act), under which he was detained at the time.

His son and party youth wing leader, Udhaynidhi, in a less-than-matured way, stated the location of his Chennai home, when he was away campaigning, and challenged taxmen to raid him.

From a DMK political perspective, the Stalin-Udhaynidhi braveheart show was required to send out a message as much to their cadres as to their adversaries, both at the Centre and in the state, though the ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu did not have anything to do directly with the tax raids. They however were amused and anxious at the same time if the IT department would take Udhaynidhi’s challenge seriously, after the polling day passes on.

On the tax raid, DMK member of Parliamente S Bharathi declared later in the day that the authorities had seized only Rs 1.31 lakhs from Sabareesan’s home kept for family expenses, and returned the same after verifying the source. Until publication time, the IT department had not come up with the customary statement on the high-profile tax-raids, of which a few were conducted even after the announcement of polling day in the state and unassociated with political parties and their leaders.

There is however the unanswered question about the fate of such poll-eve raids, conducted when the EC commandeers taxmen, but had to release them once the poll process was over. Not only is the EC made statutorily aware of the post-raid course of individual cases, the authorities also do not publicise the final outcome, unlike the media glare that they generate at the time of the raids.

Learning from past experience, political parties and hopeful candidates had moved cash down to the village-level long before the announcement of the poll schedule, when alone the model code of conduct and raids and seizures would commence.  It is anybody’s guess what the EC could do to avert such happenings -- given the limited period within which alone its authority could run, whether in ordering tax raids or transfer of local officials, from DGP and district collectors downwards.

If there is one thing that the Sabareesan tax raids achieved this time, it’s to take the media glare and people’s attention away from the free flow of cash at the village and constituency-levels, all across the state. The Opposition candidates lament in private how they alone were being targeted while raids and seizures involving ruling combine candidates were perfunctory at best. This has also taken the seriousness out of the well-intentioned EC initiative, which has been causing eyebrows to raise for a long time now.

It is not just about cash-for-votes. There was also cash for every act of campaigning, which came under a closer glare with the post-Jayalalithaa R K Nagar assembly bypoll, which breakaway AMMK leader T T V Dhinakaran swept in 2018. This time round, even ‘petrol coupons’ were reportedly distributed for those attending campaign rallies, especially those addressed by top leaders, cutting across party lines.

If this owed to the rising cost of petrol and diesel -- which is a poll issue this time -- there were the customary coupons for ‘quarter’ (liquor bottle size) and non-vegetarian biryani. Some media reports claimed that some of these ‘crowds’ attended more than one political rally on the same day in the last week, and at times for rival political parties in adjoining constituencies or districts.

Accordingly, some news reports blamed this easy money for the low turn-out at Covid vaccination centres during the period. People reportedly said that the vaccination could wait until after polling day, but their quick-earning would dry up before that. 

There is no denying AIADMK Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) exploiting the Covid lockdown to deny DMK’s Stalin the opportunity to travel but he himself doing so, in the name of reviewing administrative measures in every district and town, through the past year. His government also freely spent on massive media ad campaigns to promote him for weeks until the model code came into force.

Together, such initiatives showed up EPS as someone wanting to seen as doing something good for the state. Otherwise, the campaign gave him the kind of face-recognition that Stalin got through his nearly five decades in politics and public administration.

At the point in which the EPS ad campaigns were beginning to impact on the voter negatively, the code came in to force and he was spared the negative impact, if any, of the campaign. In contrast, the DMK’s video campaign for an equal period was watched or ignored for what it was worth, after which the EPS camp also did a similar thing.

Yet, the uniqueness of this poll is not on who contested, who all campaigned or even who would win. It was about many local Brahmin groups putting out video-footage of their meetings, with substantial woman voter participation, where they took a public declaration not to vote for any political party that was anti-god and anti-Hindu.

The reference was to the DMK, flowing from the propagated perception that the party was anti-Hindu and anti-god from the days of late patriarch Muthuvel Karunanidhi and ideological forebear, ‘Periyar’ E V Ramaswami Naicker.

In one case, the speaker even advised his audience and video-watchers that they would offer leaves, lotus flowers or mango from among fruits. The reference was to the ‘Two Leaves’ symbol of the AIADMK, the BJP’s Lotus and their PMK ally’s ‘Mango’ symbols.

In another such video, the tufted Brahmin administering the declaration had also included those ‘not respecting women’ as parties that needed to be shunned and shunted out. It was a clear reference to former Union minister and DMK Chennai district campaign head, A Raja, whom the EC barred from campaigning for 48 hours for making derogatory remarks about EPS’s late mother.

Purportedly, DMK social media campaigners sought to counter the anti-Raja campaign, in which EPS himself joined until the former tendered what read like a ‘qualified’ apology, by asking critics as to what they were doing when H Raja, the BJP candidate from Sivaganga assembly constituency, denigrated the mother of poet and film lyricist Vairamuthu’s mother over the ‘Sri Andal controversy’ in 2018. It did not have the same reach and impact.

IMAGE: The DMK's chief ministerial aspirant, M K Stalin. Photograph: MK Stalin on Twitter.

The Brahmin campaigns were a takeoff from, and a take on against, such community calls given by Christian and Muslim congregations across the state to vote for ‘secular’ parties. Incidentally,  independent of voting patterns, no other Hindu caste grouping has held such religion-centric poll gatherings in the state, now or earlier.

However, the voter felt like getting too much of it all, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his cabinet colleagues Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh and Smriti Irani and also UP Chief Minister Yogi Adiyanath and BJP president J P Nadda, all targeted the DMK through constant reference to the ‘Raja controversy’, all within 24 hours -- and after he had apologised. It remains to be seen if the high-voltage anti-Raja campaign ended up neutralising the perceived poll  advantage accruing to the AIADMK alliance, in which the BJP was a junior partner.

Even otherwise, PM Modi was seen as not getting the right kind of input, or correct information for him to take it to the voters. At a campaign rally, where he joined issue with the DMK’s up and coming leader Udhaynidhi, who took a dig at the BJP’s promise of an AIIMS hospital at Madurai, PM Modi promised one medical college for every three districts in the state.

DMK’s Rajya Sabha member T K S Elangovan promptly recalled how Karunanidhi as chief minister in 1996, had promised one medical college for every district. What Elangovan did not say was Palaniswami’s last year declaration of having got central clearance for 11 new medical colleges at one go, so as to ensure that all 38 districts, including the ten that he had launched, at an equally fast pace, became possible only because of maintaining good relations with the Centre.

Though EPS and his party colleagues may have been embarrassed to correct the PM, BJP’s Nadda, who was Union health minister before taking over as party chief, recalled how they had cleared medical colleges in every district in the state. His speech came almost on the same day as PM’s promise of one medical college for every three districts in the state.

That way, there seemed to be greater cohesion among DMK alliance partners in planning and executing common campaigns, down to the cadre-level (which is not easy to achieve when the ‘Big Brother’ is leading the alliance). In comparison, at times through the harsh campaign, EPS seemed to be ploughing a lone furrow, for himself to retain his chief ministership, even as his second-in-command and three-time CM, O Panneerselvam (OPS) was seen as running a parallel, and at times, a negative campaign.

The same applied to the BJP, whose  front-line leaders were seen as focussing near-exclusively to ensure the victory of party nominees in as many of the 20 constituencies they were contesting, as if the AIADMK combine’s victory were a foregone conclusion. The reality was far from it, especially in terms of the BJP and the PMK allies campaigning together, from top to bottom.

OPS has had his own problems. Team OPS was convinced at one point that by signing in the PMK through the 10.5-per cent Vanniar sub-quota, and in their shared western and northern regions, EPS had dumped the party in the traditionally strong southern region. OPS belongs there.

Already, the OPS camp was peeved when EPS kept on asserting that there was no place in the party for V K Sasikala Natarajan, the live-in aide of Jayalalithaa who had spent four years in a Bengaluru prison for a corruption case involving Amma. Sasikala and OPS belong to different sub-castes within the larger, militant Mukkulathore community.

OPS also faced the music when the Mukkulathore and other communities in the region and elsewhere, felt cheated by the 10.5-per cent sub-quota from within the 20-per cent MBC quota, for Vanniars.

In recent times, OPS told media interviews that he had nothing against Sasikala and was for considering her admission into the AIADMK if she was ready to accept the post-Jaya realities (of her not being in a position to take over the party). He also declared that the Vanniar sub-quota was only a temporary arrangement. Peeved, PMK founder S Ramadoss joined issue and said, the quota may be increased after the commission appointed for the purpose comes out with the caste census in due course.

The assembly polls is mainly between the AIADMK and DMK combines, in each of which there are many political parties, national and regional, arrayed on either side. But there are other players, too, who can upset the apple cart in some constituencies -- actor Kamal Hassan’s MNM in urban centres and another actor Seeman’s NTK in rural areas, both coveting first-time voters and other youth in particular.

Then there is the AMMK, a breakaway faction of the AIADMK, whose leader T T V Dhinakaran has moved away from the limelight to contest in southern Kovilpatti constituency. Kamalahassan is facing tough competition from the BJP’s national woman wing’s head, Vanathi Srinivasan, in Coimbatore South while NTK’s Seeman is facing the voters in suburban Thiruvottiyur in Chennai City. 

Incidentally, the NTK is the only party to have fielded candidates in all 234 constituencies, and Seeman also started his campaign and candidates’ selection early on. Ditched by the AIADMK, actor Vijaykanth’s DMDK, once a party of the future a decade ago, had to belatedly settle for the AMMK alliance, while the MNM is sharing seats with another actor, Sarath Kumar’s All-India Samathuva Makkal Katchi.

Then there are disgruntled parties like the Puthiya Tamizhagam (PT) and individuals like ex-IAS man, U Sahayam, who have fielded candidates in select constituencies, mostly in the southern districts, independent of each other and of other parties.  They may not win seats, but in close contests, the PT particularly can  trouble mainline candidates.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist, political analyst and author, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.

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