The tension is palpable outside a mustard-coloured building at Nagappan street in Chennai’s RK Nagar. Policemen have surrounded the house and even as they push themselves through a narrow passage way, women in green sarees have begun celebrations outside. Their hands held high to show the two leaves symbol, they dance even as they yell expletives, the loudest being – “You pressure cooker dogs, we know you have money inside.”
This abuse would have made no sense outside this constituency but with RK Nagar set to host bye-elections on Thursday, allegations of bribing voters is being hurled by every party that has a stake. Here the 'pressure cooker' that is being referred to is AIADMK(Amma) candidate TTV Dhinakaran's election symbol.
(Money was allegedly being distributed inside this building at RK Nagar)
The Election Commission on Sunday announced that the total amount of money it had seized in connection to alleged bribery was Rs 30.29 lakh. The police, meanwhile, have filed 95 FIRs related to poll code violations so far, and remanded 15 people in custody.
And outside house no 5, AIADMK supporters are certain that we are about to witness yet another bust. "This TTV's men are giving money to everyone, they need to be caught," says 50-year-old Kumari Narayanan, a member of the AIADMK. "You just see, they will bring out stacks and stacks of Rs 2000 notes from inside," she adds.
(150 women supporters of AIADMK clad in green sarees canvass for votes in RK Nagar)
Kumari's prediction, however, turned out to be false. While police dragged away some party men by the collar, they confirmed that they found no money inside.
"This drama is going to continue till December 21," says 27-year-old Kavitha, a resident of the street. "This used to be such a quiet street. We are scared to even send our children out now," she says.
Who is her family going to vote for?
"We haven't really decided yet. The present government has done nothing to solve our problems, be it drinking water or better roads. But the alternatives which is pressure cooker and the DMK are not very appealing either. This election is difficult to judge. Nobody knows what is going to happen," she adds.
Confusion and cacophony
If there is one word to describe the political campaigns that have taken over the streets of RK Nagar, it is 'cacophony'. A multitude of flags and banners occupy all streets. Politicians walk in one after the other to explain why they deserve the people's votes, even as police officers stationed at every lane look on silently.
Standing on top of a van on Naidu street is Tamil Nadu Congress Chief Thirunavukkarasar with its ally the DMK's candidate Marudhu Ganesh. In the crowd of around 50 people, flags of the Congress mix in with the DMK's black and red props. Thirunavukkarasar speaks forcefully, as Maradhu Ganesh looks on with folded hands. But not once does he address the issues that Kavitha had lamented about.
Instead, the state Congress chief says, "People won't fall for this money trap that the ruling AIADMK are laying out. Stalin is set to become the next Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and let this government loot money till then. But the people of RK Nagar are clear about what they want. They won't take the money AIADMK is offering."
A quick visit to the Manikanadan Tiffin Centre near the spot of this campaign made it clear that the Congress chief was only partially right. In the small 10x10 space, residents of the constituency are eating lunch in a hurry, to get back to their jobs. But bring up the impending elections and they laugh.
(AIADMK supporters ask for votes for E.Madhusudhanan)
"Each one of us has earned close to Rs 20,000 in this election alone," says 33-year-old Kumar*, a jewellery box retailer. He proceeds to list out the rates offered by every party, "Cooker is giving us close to Rs 10,000, Two leaves is giving Rs 6,000 and DMK is giving Rs 2000," he alleges.
The 32-year-old owner of the stall, however, interrupts Kumar's joyful rant. "It doesn't matter if people take money because that is no guarantee that they will vote," he says. He is certain that he will not vote for the ruling party. "We want someone who can voice our concerns in the Assembly. DMK's Marudhu Ganesh will definitely talk for us because he is from this area and knows our difficulties. But the government has deleted the names of several DMK supporters from the voting list. This election is anything but fair," he adds.
Kumar, who was listening to this conversation, adds cynically, "People will only vote for those who give them money. And even the police here can't stop the exchange of bribe."
Increased surveillance of no use?
On Monday, the Election Commission told the Madras High Court that they had put in place unprecedented arrangements to curb electoral crimes in the constituency. Justice K Ravichandrabaabu in turn, had said, “Needless to say that, in this case, the phrase 'once bitten, twice shy,' is squarely applicable to the Central Election Commission.”
The judge was no doubt referring to the cancellation of the bye-polls in April following allegations of bribe given to the voters, to the tune of Rs 89 crore.
The Additional Solicitor General G Rajagopalan had submitted a brief note stating that 36 flying squad teams, 15 static surveillance teams, 20 video surveillance teams, 225 surveillance cameras and 36 check point duty teams had been deployed in the constituency.
But on the ground, members of the flying squad tell TNM that they are helpless and can do very little to stop illegal activity.
(Flying squad vehicle parked on a street a RK Nagar)
"We are not able to keep track of people due to the sheer number of party workers being brought in from the districts," says an official under the condition of anonymity. "We get complaints from local informants but by the time we get to the spot, they get rid of all the money. In some instances, they take the people to other constituencies to give them money. What can we do?" he asks.
Leaders from opposition parties, meanwhile, allege that the police is hand in glove with the ruling party.
"The money is being brought in police vans to the constituency," alleges Kamaraj, a TTV Dhinakaran supporter from Tanjore. "They simply watch as people take money and do nothing about it?" he adds.
And what about the allegations against his party?
"Whatever goodwill we have is from the campaign we conducted last time," he says cryptically. "We are low on funds this time around," he adds.
'Cancel the elections'
On the other side of the railway gate in RK Nagar, stands Korukkupet. If the common man was not aware of the bye-polls, he would assume that a carnival was in progress. Women carry pressure cookers on their head as they walk on the street. Loud music blares from vehicles of different parties, arriving at your ears as a jumble of words. Balloons and flags decorate every street.
(TTV Dhinakaran supporters carry pressure cookers on their heads)
In one such lane, in this area, we meet 52-year-old Selvi*, who runs a local business and her husband, a 55-year-old government employee. The family has traditionally voted for the DMK. But ask them, what they expect this time around and the reply is prompt, "These elections need to be cancelled."
"It is shameful for the people of RK Nagar. We have all been branded as people who take money and cast our votes. Should such an election even happen?" asks Selvi. "As residents we need to take a stand and refuse to accept money. If ten of us say ‘no’, this nasty business will stop," she explains.
And did Selvi say ‘no’ when offered money?
"I took it of course," she laughs. "What is the point of me fighting alone?"