Byelections in Tamil Nadu are usually listless affairs. The victory of the ruling party is a foregone conclusion like a fixed cricket match. But this one was made—and unmade—by lists. But for the Election Commission (EC) showing the red card at the last minute, the lists would have hijacked the RK Nagar byelection.
And as lists go, these should count as unique. They had the names of all the top ministers of Tamil Nadu, including the chief minister. Against their names were columns that showed number of voters under their charge and the amount to be distributed among them.
Any doubts about what the list was dispelled by one look at the top. There was a small photo of Jayalalitha next to the heading—“RK Nagar Assembly Bypoll 2017 candidate T.T.V. Dinakaran, deputy general secretary”—and below that “Election Committee”. When the income tax (IT) authorities chanced upon this list, they realised they had stumbled upon an unexploded bomb in Tamil Nadu’s well-entrenched “cash for votes” scam. “It was a tell-all about how the cash distribution machinery worked as another set of documents disclosed how much money would reach each polling booth,” says a senior IT officer.
The EC report, while cancelling the April 12 poll, puts it succinctly: “The income tax authorities have also informed that several complaints were received recently indicating that health minister Dr C. Vijayabaskar is the main person involved in bribing the voters in RK Nagar Assembly constituency, which is going to bypolls on April 12, 2017. Incriminating documents in the form of overall money distribution chart to several leading political executives and functionaries totalling Rs 89 crore for further distribution among the voters were found from the premises of Dr Vijayabaskar.”
Vijayabaskar had emerged as the lynchpin of the Sasikala camp, taking care of the expenses needed to ensure that they held on to power even after the revolt of O. Panneerselvam. The 15-day sojourn at a holiday resort near Chennai for Sasikala camp’s MLAs until the trust vote was bankrolled entirely by the health minister. The IT department and the Enforcement Directorate had also zeroed in on him after sand contractor Shekar Reddy named Vijayabaskar as his “silent business partner”. “That he tabulated how much money was given to whom only suggests he was handling too much of it and needed to keep tabs on them,” says a senior MLA.
A list showing money received and distributed by him
“Cash was always distributed in the state’s elections and byelections,” points out Siva Ilango, who heads Panchayat Iyakkam, an NGO campaigning for clean and accountable governance. “In fact, voters too had started demanding money from political parties. But what happened in RK Nagar was unprecedented as one candidate was hoping to win merely on money power. And he had the party network to deliver the cash to every household. The systematic way it was managed by the CM and his cabinet colleagues was proved by the list unearthed at Vijayabaskar’s house.”
If anyone wondered where so much money came from, a look at another list from the health minister’s home bared the loot that was happening in the name of postings, transfers and kickbacks from contracts. During just the first 10 days of November 2016, Vijayabaskar’s kitty had swollen by Rs 5.14 crore in cash. The bulk of it—Rs 2.38 crore is listed against transfers and postings and Rs 32 lakh against appointments of office assistants in MGR University—proving how endemic corruption had become in the state administration. “How can officials who pay so much to get a posting or transfer be expected to be clean? They, in turn, would fleece the common man who go to them for government work or services,” rues former IAS officer M.G. Devasahayam.
One curious entry in the minister’s collection list also showed one Dr P. Balaji having received Rs 5 lakh for expenses on November 1, four days after the government doctor had attested Jayalalitha’s thumb impression on Form B allotting the AIADMK symbol to candidates of four bypolls held on November 16. The doctor said it was money spent on the hotel bill of Dr Richard Beale during his fourth visit with his family members. If the doctor’s claim is true, it only confirms the other entries in the list, which was summarily disowned by the minister and other AIADMK functionaries as a fabrication.
That the EC, in spite of wholesale transfers and flooding the constituency with observers, flying squads and surveillance teams, could not choke the cash flow proved that the political system was too well-oiled to come to a halt. “The observers entered the field only by 9 am, but by then the cash had been distributed either during the night or along with the morning milk packets or newspapers,” points out an AIADMK functionary managing one of the segments. “Mobile recharges, medicines for the family, film tickets for the latest movie and even groceries for two weeks reached the voters when they needed them and the EC observers remained clueless about such goodies.”
According to former CEC N. Gopalaswami, no comprehensive measure can succeed in checking bribing of voters. Seeing little hope for the state in the near future and refusing to blame the EC alone, he says, “Unless and until the minds of the public and politicians change, Tamil Nadu would be subjected to this shame as the state’s politicians are well-trained in bribing voters.”
The cancellation of the bypoll has stopped Dinakaran, who was hoping to become CM once he won it, in his tracks. “He had to flood the constituency with cash as he was trailing a distant third behind the candidates of DMK and the OPS faction,” admits a close confidant. “A defeat would have finished him off politically, so his stakes were higher than the other candidates’. Only by winning could he keep the party and the government under his control.” True, for a population used to freebies, easy money in exchange for votes is hard to resist and Dinakaran was hoping to ride the cash wave in a last-minute surge.
Now, Dinakaran also needs to be wary of the ongoing FERA case in which he was fined Rs 28 crore, which he has not paid so far. A conviction could see him disqualified from contesting any election. “Delhi is tightening the noose around the Sasikala family, hoping to get them completely sidelined by the AIADMK,” says a senior AIADMK MP. “Once the family is out of the way, the two factions could reunite and continue governing the state under Delhi’s guidance. However, if Dinakaran revolts and refuses to buckle down, he and his sidekicks such as Vijayabaskar would start facing the heat from various agencies.”
Though there have been demands to have Dinakaran disqualified using the EC’s powers under Article 324 of the Constitution of India, some experts wonder if that would be feasible. “Having circulated a virtual indictment of Dinakaran and his supporters, the EC would look foolish if it fails to take punitive action against him,” says a former advocate-general, who believes the EC had adequate powers to act against Dinakaran. “If the EC is really serious about putting an end to this nefarious practice, it needs to come out clean and strong after this.”
An unfazed Dinakaran, however, asserts that the EC has only postponed his victory. “I have been saying there is a conspiracy by the EC because they knew I was going to win,” he told the media. “Stalin, OPS, the BJP, IT officials and even the EC have all come together for this grand conspiracy.” He said he would win when the election is eventually held. That may well mean another windfall for the voters of RK Nagar.
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai