As you drive into Chennai, what is striking is the conspicuous absence of posters, banners, hoardings in the city, even though campaigning is at its peak for the April 13 elections in the state.
Coverage: Assembly Elections 2011
This is in a marked contrast from the past elections. Tamil Nadu used to be known for its dominating, life sized cutouts of political personalities dotting the landscape at poll time. The 2011 election campaign has done away with all that, thanks to the tough stand adopted by the Election Commission of India.
A few days ago, SY Qureshi, the chief election commisioner, did not mince words when he called Tamil Nadu the most challenging of all elections. Even before the polls to the five state assemblies were notified, the CEC had felt that just as "violence" would pose the big challenge in West Bengal, in Tamil Nadu it would be money power.
A political WAG in Chennai summed up the situation pithily when he said, "In all aspects, this is the Election Commission's election, not the election of the Dravidian parties."
In villages also, it is mainly graffiti that is visible. The rules have always existedthat posters cannot be put up in urban areas and put up in villages only with the permission of the owner of a building. It is just that this time, the EC has enforced them very strictly.
So far, the EC's office has seized over Rs 40 crore in cash which has not been claimed by anyone. It has put into place squads, "flying"and "static", which rush to a spot when there is a tip-off from a member of the public.
The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has become so rattled by the EC's tough stand that the chief minister took the unprecedented stand of publicly attacking the EC for declaring what he termed as a "mini emergency" in the state, and the DMK's anti-EC rhetoric continues unabated.
Even Home Minister P Chidambaram lamented the absence of festivities in the state that an election brings. However, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who came to Chennai to release the Congress party's manifesto, skirted around the controversy, by saying that he did not want to comment on the functioning of the Election Commission, mandated by the Constitution to conduct free and fair elections.
In a state such as Tamil Nadu, to have an ordinary inspector of police stop the convoy of GK Vasan, senior Congress leader in Dindigul, because it had more than the permitted four cars, shows how seriously the State Electoral Officer Praveen Kumar and his team are taking their job, and even more important the extent to which they have managed to empower the officials to act independently.
The inspector who stopped the Congress convoy said he would have to be answerable to the EC if he allowed them.
The EC is going in for aggressive vehicle checking in the state and heroic stories of ordinary officials, doing their duty at considerable risk, are doing the rounds. This is because they can be booted out or transferred to lowly jobs afterwards.
Last week, in Tiruchy, a woman official, a revenue division officer, equivalent to a sub divisional magistrate in the north -- this was her first posting -- got a call in the dead of night, at around 1 am, about money transported in a bus. She immediately set out with her driver and peon, picking up a couple of police inspectors on the way, and the money was found in 5 bags on top of the a bus, adding up to Rs 5 crore.
There have been reports of the Chief Electoral Officer's car being checked!
The EC had obviously got its act together even before the notification of elections. It effected transfers of four collectors and 6 police officials, and changed the administrative team -- the collector, superintendent of police and others -- lock, stock and barrel in Madurai, where the clout of Karunanidhi's son MK Azhagiri is legendary. The new collector, for instance, did not think twice about entering the house of Azhagiri's lieutenant and checking.
Everyone talks openly about the "Tirumangalam" formula for winning elections. Tirumangalam was an assembly by-election, which the DMK won in January 2009, which saw the use of money in a big way, and this was allegedly repeated in the polls that followed.
Having done field tests in Bihar, the EC had put into place expenditure guidelines, and constituted new teams. As soon as elections were announced, squads were put into place.
There are the "flying" squads, one per constituency, comprising 4-5 persons, including a videographer, and the "static" squads, one per police station or around 4-5 in a constituency. These act like a dynamic checkpost, and can shift around.
All districts have a central control room to which all complaints are directed. As soon as a complaint is received, the flying squad rushes there, sometimes catching people redhanded.
The EC's squads may not have stopped the give and take of money -- which according to the stories doing the rounds, can be put between the folds of newspapers delivered to homes, or left in the letter box, or handed personally to the family in return for a pledge of support -- but it has created some fear, and is not as open as it might have otherwise been.
Two days before polling, the EC has warned that it may consider indefinite postponement of elections from where incidents of distribution of cash and gifts to lure voters are detected.
Many in Tamil Nadu are hedging their bets on who is likely to win in the southern state and one of the reason is that they are uncertain about the role money is going to play in the last hours before voting. The EC may be tough, as people point out, but it cannot be omnipresent.