Less than a year after the Election Commission's unprecedented decision to postpone polls in Thanjavur and Aravakurichi, Tamil Nadu faces yet another embarrassment. The EC has rescinded the RK Nagar bye-poll after strong evidence emerged yet again of money being used to influence voters. The poll panel's report on violations by political parties in the constituency, has now raised questions on the lack of a solution to this recurring malpractice in the state.
According to the documents seized by the I-T officials during their raids in Chennai on Friday and published by some media houses, the price of one vote in the by-poll bound RK Nagar constituency was Rs 4,000. Reports suggested that the Sasikala-led AIADMK faction had given over Rs 89.5 crore to seven Ministers for distribution among R.K.Nagar voters, and they were given a target to distribute cash to 85 per cent of the voters, numbering 2,24,145. With such large scale corruption coming to light, experts believe the Election Commission which is supposed to ensure free and fair elections, has failed in its duty.
“Shame on the Election Commission for being forced to postpone the poll. Their inefficiency and incompetency has been exposed,” says M.G Devasahayam, a former bureaucrat whose complaint to the EC led to the censuring of the AIADMK for offering freebies in its manifesto in 2016.
“Even now, they have merely rescinded the elections instead of pinning responsibility and working towards debarring guilty candidates. An inquiry should be initiated into the matter and monitored by the poll panel,” he adds.
The former bureaucrat claims to have further sent multiple message to the Election Commission through the course of the campaign, on the need to take immediate action to curb malpractices. “It is the Election Commission's duty to ensure free and fair elections, but despite their constitutional powers, they behave like a bureaucratic office," claims Devasahayam.
The Election Commission for its part, however, says it made elaborate arrangements to ensure law and order is maintained. According to its report, a total of 277 persons in 61 teams were operating round the clock to enforce the provisions of the model code of conduct, particularly to stop distribution of cash or gifts in any form. In addition to this, transactions of bank accounts were monitored, mobile top-ups scrutinised, local vendors kept a check on and sale of goods verified.
"The panel has done what it can within the powers granted to it by the Constitution," says former Chief Election Commissioner, N Gopalswamy. "There are limitations to the body's power. The commission can only file a complaint, the police and courts have to take up the matter from here. Change must come in the form of fast track courts, that ensure political cases are dealt with immediately because otherwise, political parties and people will not fear the law," he adds.
The AIADMK in 2016, won in Thanjavur and Aravakurichi when polls were held later that year, despite charges of the party having bribed voters in the area. "Letting parties get away with such corruption has only made the EC seem weak. The commission already has a strong case against the AIADMK. Section 16(A) of the model code of conduct allows for the derecognition of the party, but the panel has failed to resort to this," says Devasahayam.
But legal experts claim the Election Commission does not have the legal powers to take further action against parties or candidates. "There is clearly an anomaly in the system. The Election Commission has done its duty but now the investigation will have to be conducted by the police. The problem here is that the police is under the AIADMK government that has been accused in the case," says lawyer Ramalingam. "The government will obviously not direct the police to take action. So, no further steps can be taken," he explains.
So, should the EC be granted the legal power to curb this rampant corruption?
"No, the Election Commission can't be given too much power as well. Uncontrolled power will lead to a dangerous situation," warns the lawyer. "What we need is for people to change. We shouldn't allow politicians to reduce us to beggars who are not even self-sufficient to have our own opinion. That is the only way to stop this disease in Tamil Nadu," he says.