It was close to 5 am in the morning on Wednesday, when Divya* was startled awake by her ringing cell phone. In a sleepy haze, the 25-year-old noted that it was her tenants from the 38th ward of RK Nagar calling, before she answered groggily. Shaken awake by the urgency and excitement in their voices, the corporate employee quickly rushed to the rented apartment, cellphone in hand.
She arrived at the apartment just in time to spot the men in lungis at the door. Holding her phone surreptitiously to the side, she managed to start filming as they handed over Rs 4,000 each to the residents of the constituency heading to polls on April 12.
What Divya claims to have recorded, is a practice that Tamil Nadu has become notorious for â€“ the â€ścash for votesâ€ť policy.
â€” Hari Prabhakaran (@Hariadmk) April 5, 2017
(The video that Divya shot)
With the battle between the two AIADMK factions, DMK and BJP reaching fever pitch in RK Nagar, reports say that close to Rs 50 crore of cash has allegedly been earmarked to bribe voters.
Within just four hours on Tuesday night, the election flying squad seized Rs 14 lakh in cash and arrested 28 persons in the constituency, in an effort to curb this malpractice. When we visited RK Nagar on Wednesday however, it became clear that even the police and the Election Commission were out of their depth this time around.
It had been close to three weeks since this reporter last stepped into this North Chennai constituency and the change in energy was startling. Quiet and sleepy lanes with little to no activity were now buzzing with people. In the 38th ward, where money had allegedly been distributed, every third person on the road is dressed in a white shirt and dhothi, and they all seem to know each other.
55-year-old Pavitra, a flower seller in Korukupettai, had an explanation. "They are all TTV's (TTV Dhinakaranâ€™s) men. They have arrived from across the state to help with the campaigning. But what is the use, none of these candidates will do anything they promise. It is all an eyewash," she laments.
But are these candidates offering voters money? Pavitra* leans in and says in a whisper, "They have been distributing money here the last few days. A lot of money has changed hands. But it is only to people who they know will vote for them."
Who is 'they'? The flower seller looks both sides, before lifting her hand and cupping it inches away from her head. "Thoppi (hat)" she mouths.
Before we could exchange another word, a drumroll begins. The 'thud' of footsteps match the beat of the drums and out emerged from a narrow street, a column of CISF jawans. Joining the column at the rear end was Sub Inspector G Balu.
"This is worst election I have seen in my 33 years of service," the Sub Inspector says exasperatedly. "We are all exhausted from the constant surveillance. The workers of these political parties are just looking for a chance to sneak in and give money to people when we are not looking," he explains.
Then shouldn't the patrol be more discreet about their surveillance. "No, the drums are a warning. We are hoping we can induce fear into those taking the bribe if not those giving it," he says dejectedly.
Cash confuses loyalties
Multiple media reports over the last month have explained the ingenious manner in which voters are being paid off. From the use of e-commerce websites for purchasing gifts to recharging the phones of those who promise to vote in their favour, parties have allegedly stretched all creative limits to buy voters over. The result of this illegal flow of cash is evident in the confusion on the faces of these residents.
What was an overwhelming roar of support here for O Panneerselvam three weeks ago, has now been tamed into a hesitant mewl. Residents walk hastily into their houses when asked questions, and suspicious glares followed us as we made our way through the dusty lanes.
Gathered in the porch of one of the small houses, are O Panneerselvam supporters, the shamiana over their heads the only protection from the blazing sun.
"Nobody here is going to talk to you," declares Venkatachalam, a former MLA and now a part of the OPS camp. "Money is being distributed door to door and people are accepting it. Even the DMK and the BJP have cash to dole out," he alleges.
"You can't blame them or get them into trouble," he adds. "They are poor and in desperate need of money. Why will anybody say no when politicians are ready to offer cash? They will take, but not say a word about it to anyone," he claims.
The ex-MLA was right but only partially.
41-year-old Latha, was talking to her husband and child, sitting on a bike, when we approached her. 'What are you looking for in the candidate that you will vote for?' we ask to begin with.
But it is her husband who answers the question. "She will vote for whoever gives the most amount of money," he says, laughing, before starting his bike and leaving a very alarmed wife behind.
"Come in," Latha says hurriedly. "We can't stand on the road and talk," she adds before leading me through a narrow passage to the foyer of the apartment and calling her relatives down.
51-year-old Bhavani who descends the stairs, vehemently denies taking money from any party, even before we can complete our question. "We are only hearing about bribes from you. We have no idea this is happening," she claims.
When asked about the bribes, Latha says, "They seem to be giving money in the area but nobody has come to our house yet..." But she is interrupted by Bhavani, who widens her eyes at Latha and repeats, "But how do we know that? We don't know anything about the money."
But what the residents of RK Nagar won't admit, the political workers will.
"Nobody here is innocent"
"We are from Thanjavur. I am a district Joint Secretary of the advocate wing for AIADMK," says Madhiezham, who belongs to the Sasikala faction. He proceeds to rant against O Pannerselvam's team without much prodding.
"How is he any better? Panneerselvam became CM because Chinnamma chose him. People here know that there will be no development if he becomes MLA because only the ruling Government has the resources to bring about change," he claims.
But what about these allegations of bribing voters? Madhiezham smiles enigmatically and says, "Everybody gives money. There is nothing new in it. Those with a big heart will be ready to give people money. Do you think the OPS camp is not bribing voters?"
But is it not illegal to expect votes in return for cash? "Those who give money to voters are not bad people and those who do not are not good people," he claims, before walking away.
Ponn, the shopkeeper across the road, has his two cents to contribute. "These people are all happily taking the money now. It is obvious that they are getting bribed because the spending power in the area has suddenly increased," he says as he packs pakoda for one customer. "Hotels are packed, juice shops are overflowing and even I have so many customers this week," he adds.
"Today they swoon for money but tomorrow when there is no water in our taps and no electricity in our homes, these men who come with folded hands will not even take the time to look at us," he says defeatedly.