Over the years, Tamil Nadu’s politicians have refined the method of bribing voters. A close scrutiny of the May 2016 Assembly election by Frontline finds that the two major Dravidian parties distribute money in an organised, business-like fashion and in an atmosphere of mutual trust. By R.K. RADHAKRISHNAN
IF you are a voter in Tamil Nadu, your vote has a price, depending on your constituency and the ruthlessness of the electoral battle. The price ranged from Rs.100 to Rs.1,500 in the 2016 Legislative Assembly election held on May 16.
An investigation reveals that while most of the six constituencies of Kanyakumari district remained by and large free from the cash-for-vote menace, almost all the other 228 constituencies in the State witnessed large-scale, organised distribution of cash to voters.
Gone are the days of targeted vote buying, a phenomenon that goes back to the 1962 Legislative Assembly election in which C.N. Annadurai was defeated. Aware that money was being distributed to ensure his defeat, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) founder-leader, who went on to become Chief Minister five years later, even made it a point to speak about it and appealed to people not to take money.
Later on, certain sections of voters were targeted for vote buying. Dalit colonies, minority groups, labourers and party cadre were given cash for their votes just ahead of the voting day. This continued until 2009, when the DMK, enthused by the cash-for-votes experiment in Karnataka in 2007, came up with the “Tirumangalam formula”. Money was allegedly distributed across the constituency in Madurai district which had a byelection that year, in the first recorded case of mass voter bribing. The age of mass cash distribution had arrived in Tamil Nadu.
A total of 3,776 candidates, including 975 from recognised national and State political parties, were in the fray for the 234 seats this time. There were 66,007 polling stations. The State had single-day polling on May 16, and the votes were counted on May 19. The findings of three independent analysts who were closely following the election across the State for different reasons and had set up teams at district headquarters and other places, interviews with voters and representatives of all political parties, and first information reports (FIRs) filed by the police and officials of the Election Commission (E.C.) prove that large-scale money distribution took place before the election.
The investigation, which began in January, found that money or gifts were distributed to voters by prospective candidates. The E.C. had not begun monitoring the election at that stage as the model code of conduct had not come into force. Gifts were given to winners of “kolam” (traditional floor drawings) competitions for women, festival-eve competitions for men, women and children, and cricket, volleyball, kabbadi and even football tournaments for men. This correspondent is aware of a prospective candidate stocking 1.5 lakh sarees in his constituency, which, according to one person involved in the “operation”, were distributed after the competitions. “The distribution of gifts began in January itself when there was no model code,” said a person who was involved in and handled the distribution of multiple products such as kitchen ware, sportswear and sports goods. “The list [of gift items] is endless and depends on what people want,” he said. Organised distribution of cash was done only just ahead of the election. In some areas, there was only a single “infusion” of cash; in others voters were given cash at least twice.
As many as 101 FIRs were filed by the police and E.C. officials in 98 constituencies on May 10, 11 and 12. None of the FIRs related to violence or any other untoward incident. Almost all of them related to bribing of voters with cash, coupons, gift items and alcohol (see table).
In 40 cases recorded on these dates, representatives of both the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the main opposition DMK were caught red-handed distributing money to voters.
The E.C. seized unaccounted cash amounting to Rs.105 crore, of which Rs.47 crore was returned after relevant documents were produced. The remaining money is said to have been meant for distribution to voters. By all accounts, the cash seized by the flying squads of the E.C. was only the tip of the iceberg.
“There are ways of circumventing the Election Commission officials even if they are somewhere in the vicinity,” said a candidate who won the election. “My men will not wear party colours; there will be no indication as to which party they represent. Besides, if an individual is not carrying a huge amount of money, the officials can’t do much,” he said.
The art of bribing
Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, who was the Pattali Makkal Katchi’s (PMK) chief ministerial candidate, said: “Both the AIADMK and the DMK have mastered the art of bribing voters by methodically reaching money to every single voter across the State. The votes that we received came despite this” (see interview).
Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) leader Thol. Thirumavalavan said: “I lost by a minuscule margin [87 votes]. It’s heartening to note that despite the huge amount of money that my opponents distributed, I garnered so many votes.” Thirumavalavan contested from Kattumannarkoil (see interview).
The Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s T.K. Rangarajan said: “Parties and candidates see an election more as an investment that gets them fabulous returns. You pay [someone high in the party hierarchy] to get a seat, and you pay to get votes.”
The exhaustive study carried out by this correspondent in the run-up to the election and after May 16 provides abundant proof that candidates of leading political parties directly bribed voters in almost all the constituencies. The names of smaller parties—such as the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the PMK and the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK)—did crop up in an odd constituency during the study.
Anbumani refuted allegations that local-level PMK leaders distributed money in view of the civic body elections which are coming up in October. According to one political source, Rs.300 was paid in the name of the MDMK in some pockets of Madurai South constituency. The MDMK candidate, M. Bhoominathan, polled only 19,443 votes and lost his deposit. The AIADMK’s S.S. Saravanan was elected from the constituency with 62,683 votes. This correspondent has confirmation from multiple sources in the AIADMK, the DMK, the PMK, the VCK, the MDMK, the DMDK, and the Left parties, and independent observers and journalists that in the majority of the constituencies, Rs.100 or more was paid for a vote by people claiming to belong to the DMK, and Rs.250 or more by people claiming to belong to the AIADMK.
“This was the amount [per vote] that the parties gave the candidates. It was up to the candidates to pay more if they so willed,” a defeated candidate belonging to a non-Dravidian political party said.
One major political party, for instance, drew up three lists. The ‘A’ list contained names of candidates who could fend for themselves and hence did not need money infusion from the party headquarters (according to two sources fairly high up in the party hierarchy, 60 names figured in this category); those in the ‘B’ list needed some support; and those in the ‘C’ list were candidates whom the party felt it “must support”. Not only the ability of the candidate to spend money but also how he/she got the party ticket mattered, given that there are several power centres in the party.
Its rival gave out a flat amount to its candidates to cover about 70 per cent of the voters in all the constituencies at the rate of Rs.250 per vote, four different sources confirmed. Its distribution machinery was far more organised and the cash reached the voter without pilferage, an independent observer said.
Did voters hesitate to take money? Did they vote for the party that paid them? A taxi driver in Tambaram constituency in Kancheepuram district said: “My landlord took my mother to a place where the local councillor was distributing cash. There, my mother’s name was verified against the electoral roll, and when she pointed to my name on the list, she was given Rs.400 at the rate of Rs.200 for two votes.”
Did he feel bad about taking money to vote?
“What is wrong in taking a paltry Rs.400? After all, this is the money they looted from the people,” he said.
The driver said although he took money from one Dravidian party, he voted for its prime rival.
In Tiruchi West, a voter told this correspondent that a person claiming to be from the DMK gave her Rs.200 and another group claiming to be from the AIADMK gave her Rs.250. “We have two voters in our house, so we got Rs.900 from the two parties,” she told this correspondent in the presence of an independent witness.
“I took money from both the parties and voted for ‘Amma’ [Jayalalithaa, AIADMK supremo and now the Chief Minister],” she said.
“The money was distributed in the night around 10 or 11 p.m. Members of both the parties came around that time only. All of us [in the street] got money,” she said. Was she not scared when people came calling around midnight? “I wasn’t scared as I knew they were coming to distribute money,” she said.
Conversations with voters across Tamil Nadu revealed similar stories, from at least 50 constituencies, detailing specifics of how much money at least a handful of voters in each of these constituencies received.
Ramesh Babu, the CPI(M)’s Parangipettai union secretary, had an interesting story to share. “We caught hold of an AIADMK worker and handed him over to the police because he was distributing money in Puduchatram village [in Chidambaram constituency]. But the police let him off with an admonishment for distributing money during the day,” he said.
What was even more perplexing was that the Parangipettai police made it clear to both the AIADMK and the DMK that there should be no trouble in the area. So, following a gentleman’s agreement, one party decided to distribute money between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. at Puduchatram while the other distributed cash from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. This was aided often by mysterious power cuts.
Ramesh Babu said that in fact people of Puduchatram began to look forward to power cuts. “If there was no power cut, it meant that they won’t get money.”
In Chidambaram, the DMK gave each voter Rs.250 while the AIADMK gave between Rs.300 and Rs.500 depending on the area, he said. K. Balakrishnan of the CPI(M) got 24,226 votes. The party holds this up as an indication that not everyone who took money voted for the party that paid it.
In Tirunelveli and Thuthukudi, candidates of the prominent political parties spent anywhere between Rs.2 crore and Rs.5 crore, a well-informed political analyst said. Both the major Dravidian parties had “appointed” a person in charge of every 100 voters. The head of a Dalit hamlet near Valliyoor in Radhapuram constituency said: “A few days before the election, employees of an entrepreneur distributed Rs.200 to every voter in our village around 10:30 p.m. seeking our votes for a candidate. Before dawn, cadres of the other main party landed in the village and distributed Rs.250 for every vote. Maybe someone from our village informed the other main party.”
AIADMK cadres admitted to a trusted source of this correspondent that they did receive funds towards election expenses and that they used them judiciously to ensure the victory of the party candidate in Radhapuram.
Sensing that the gypsies of Valliyoor might support the DMK candidate in the Radhapuram constituency, the rival candidate’s agent visited the gypsy colony along with party cadres and collected the booth slips from them saying that he would return the slips on the eve of polling along with cash. Attracted by the offer, two gypsy leaders collected the booth slips from their people and handed them over to the candidate’s agent.
On hearing about this, the Sub-Collector of Cheranmahadevi, V. Vishnu, instructed his staff to ensure that the agent returned the booth slips to the gypsies immediately and threatened to put the man behind bars. Left with no option, the agent returned the slips to the gypsies. The gypsies did not take cash from any party.
In Kunnam in Perambalur district, the same money distribution template was followed. “Both the DMK and the AIADMK have perfected the art of reaching money to voters two days before polling in a systematic and organised way,” said J. Mohamed Shanavas, a VCK functionary popularly known as “Aloor” Shanavas.
“Even the PMK candidate distributed Rs.200 here in some pockets after a television channel’s opinion poll showed him to be leading,” said Shanavas, who secured 19,853 votes. The AIADMK’s R.T. Ramachandran won the seat with 78,218 votes.
In Tiruchengode, both the AIADMK and DMK candidates distributed money, a source who watched the election there from up-close alleged. The AIADMK gave Rs.500 and the DMK Rs.300 per vote, the source said.
“Both the parties covered about 70 per cent of the weaker sections. There was a gentleman’s agreement between the candidates and supporters of both the parties that they would carry on the money distribution work without disturbing each other’s schedule and also without interfering in each other’s work,” he added.
As the majority of the cadre of both the parties belonged to the dominant community and have common business interests, money distribution was done without stepping on each other’s toes.
In Paramathi-Velur, there was no conflict between the cadre of both the major parties as they went about distributing Rs.300 for every vote in many pockets, said a senior journalist who witnessed the distribution in one village. They followed the same gentleman’s agreement in the neighbouring Tiruchendur constituency. Here, too, both the parties distributed money to about 70 per cent of the voters.
In Thousand Lights constituency in Chennai, though coupons were allegedly distributed on behalf of the AIADMK candidate, these were not “honoured”, said an “affected” party. A similar complaint surfaced from Mylapore constituency, also in Chennai, where the AIADMK candidate won. In Anna Nagar constituency in Chennai, the DMK candidate claimed that he had managed to confiscate some of these hologram-laden tokens.
How much is the cost of a vote, asks Gauthama Sanna, VCK joint general secretary, in his publicly shared Facebook post at 11:57 p.m. on June 10. He provides the answer: “Dalit Rs.300, Mukkulathar Rs.5,000. Others Rs.1,000.” According to him, this was the case in Bodi and Tirupathur. The Dravidian parties have divided the demography caste wise and have understood how to purchase votes. “Today, no honest person can contest an election and hope to get 1,000 votes. No amount of good work matters,” said a top politician, who did not want to be named.
Explaining how the bribing “scheme” worked, a candidate who lost the election said that there were three levels at which money got added to the distribution “kitty”—the party, the candidate and local body representatives. Because of this pooling of money, even in the same constituency voters in different localities got different amounts. For instance, in Vanur constituency, one candidate, realising that his rival was distributing Rs.250, began giving Rs.300 for every vote, a reliable source said.
Local body representatives keenly participated in the May 16 Assembly election because local body elections are due in October. In “rich” local bodies, such as those in Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur districts, the money contributed by local body representatives is mind-boggling. In one instance, Rs.1,000 was given to every voter, said a source. This was cross-checked and confirmed with a second independent source.
“This is a kind of pre-booking. They tell the voters ahead that the local body elections are coming up, and began canvassing during the Assembly election,” a senior politician said.
In some pockets, the money distribution took a communal turn. In one constituency, the AIADMK candidate made a donation to a local mosque. A candidate in the constituency put the donation at Rs.5 lakh.
Besides appeasing community and caste leaders, candidates also “buy out” influential local-level leaders from other political parties for the duration of the election. A powerful secretary of a political party in charge of a unit of a panchayat union is given up to Rs.2 lakh and a less powerful one is given Rs.50,000.
Stashing away huge sums of money comes with attendant risks. In Karur, most of the money meant for distribution was stocked in a candidate’s house. Revenue investigation officials raided the house and began a search. But it did not occur to them to first secure the entire premises before launching the search. They assumed that the money would be in the main building. But a major portion of it was stored in the servant’s quarters, two politicians with first-hand knowledge of the raid said.
There was everything in the servant’s quarters: counting machines, envelopes, the voters’ list, and details of which party functionary the money had to be sent to.
The moment the handler inside the quarters realised that the people inside the candidate’s residence were E.C. officials, he managed to pack all the material kept inside the quarters, including a few crores of rupees in cash, into gunny bags and throw them across the massive perimeter fence. He then called up a local contact and asked him to move the sacks.
But the most intriguing story came from Attur in Dindigul district. Multiple accounts, cutting across party lines and from independent observers, point out that the money distribution and poll expenses happened on the largest scale in this constituency. Both candidates are said to have spent about 100 times over and above the limit set by the E.C. It is intriguing that only a small amount of money was seized in this constituency.
The fine art of distribution
“I want to know if my rival is distributing, how much he is distributing, how many times he is distributing, where all he is distributing and at what time he is distributing,” said a candidate who got elected.
This information was critical to a candidate’s response to the situation, he added. According to several candidates and mid-level leaders of political parties, where a candidate has stored the money in a constituency is an open secret. This correspondent is aware of one such instance—the candidate of a main Dravidian party shared all the locations of his money stash with his arch rival. “This actually prevents the rival from sneaking to the E.C. or other officials about the money stash,” said a party veteran. He confirmed that this sharing of information appeared to be the new norm among the main rivals. In this case this correspondent is aware that the information was not shared with anyone, including the E.C.
A former Member of the Legislative Assembly said the money was not necessarily moved from the party headquarters in Chennai to the constituencies.
“The money is usually taken from a local businessman or trader if there is an additional need in a constituency. This money is paid back, sometimes with interest, a few months after the results are declared,” he said.
Another method is to move the money ahead, sometimes six months ahead of an election. This is to circumvent the E.C.’s watchdogs.
Money distribution is a fine art. The candidate is under the care of a paguthi (area) secretary. If the equation between the two works, the money distribution will go on like clockwork. This correspondent is aware of places where excellent coordination existed and where there was zero coordination. In one zero coordination metropolitan constituency, the candidate, a first-timer brought in his loyalists, did the mapping of the constituency on his own and handled the distribution. To make local-level leaders aware of his prowess, he even played back a conversation between his main rival and the rival’s main agent, one surprised middle-level leader told this correspondent.
There are up to five “circle” secretaries under the area secretary (depending on the size of the constituency). Each secretary has a few trusted (five to eight) lieutenants under him. These lieutenants, or foot soldiers, are the most important link in the chain. The entire constituency is mapped and divided into “handlable” segments of 50-60 houses. Each of the trusted lieutenants is roughly in charge of two or three streets in a constituency. It is their responsibility to distribute the cash to each individual and return the unused money.
“I was given a total of Rs.1.4 lakh for distribution. My target was to cover two streets in my constituency. It was Rs.1,000 for every household,” said a local leader.
This is not the only expenditure for a candidate. He spends on publicity work and engages booth agents needed on election and counting days. He also takes care of the expenses of religious festivals, sports meets and any event that happens in his constituency.
A close associate of a candidate from a southern district said: “One day it was quite funny but very business-like. The DMK was distributing money on this side of the road, and the AIADMK was distributing it on the other side of the road.”
What about the E.C.’s flying squads? He said party men received advance information from an insider about the flying squads’ raid. Besides, on the day money distribution was taking place, they had nothing to worry. The officials were taken care of, he said. “Six Indian Revenue Service officers were not to be seen. I made enquires and learnt that they were in Poovar [resort],” he added.
However, it was not always that easy to distribute cash. “We get a maximum of 10 minutes in a hamlet,” said a top politician, who did not want to be named. “It’s get in and get out. We have the money in neat covers [envelopes], with the candidate’s name or symbol on it. It is handed over to a local handler, and he takes care of the hamlet,” he added.
“Cash was distributed in corporate style,” said a sympathiser of a party, who has helped in the distribution of multiple items to voters.
“You can look at it like this. It was done with one head of operations and some others in the capacity of managers, assistant managers and team leaders who were responsible for channelling money to the voters,” he added.
In his experience, there were only a few cases of people rejecting the money. “Even a teacher with an MPhil degree was willing to take the money as it would come of use to buy groceries,” he said.
There are two types of money distribution. One, when women come forward to perform aarti (a traditional welcome with garlands and lamps) to a candidate, and two, through direct distribution. While a few candidates and representatives of political parties insist that distributing money post-aarti is not immoral, some of them agree that bribery is not right. Even the aarti offerings has reached menacing proportions, with many households even pushing their children to offer the aarti to a candidate because they get paid. After the elections, the aarti is performed to the winning candidate by burning camphor in a plate filled with vermillion-coloured water. This is shown to the candidate in close proximity, and is an age-old custom to ward off the evil eye.
“In each village the number of aarti–plate bearers have increased exponentially with each election,” said a candidate of a main political party.
“In the 1990s, for instance, there used to be 10-15 aartis at a spot. Now, there are no fewer than 50. When the model code of conduct is in force, a video camera team follows the candidate and so, the candidate will not distribute money. The distribution takes place after the candidate leaves the spot,” the main agent of a candidate said.
How much would a candidate or a political party have spent on the purchase of votes?
“I spent at least Rs.10 crore,” said a defeated candidate.
A candidate who won said he only spent about Rs.5 crore. A third candidate gave some more details, which left this correspondent a little dazed about the logistics this exercise would involve: “Rs.500 each for 1.2 lakh voters.” That adds up to Rs.6 crore. Candidates of both the main Dravidian parties keep a close watch on each other’s plans.
Antaridoss, the MDMK’s candidate in Avadi constituency, said: “I have contested six times so far. Three times in the Avadi municipal elections and three times in the Assembly elections. I have lost all these elections. I have lost hope in these elections. The rival candidates were bribing the voters and the Election Commission just looked on,” he said.
Leaders of the PMK, the VCK, the CPI(M) and the MDMK, in separate conversations with this correspondent, said the E.C. hardly took any action even when there were complaints.
Anbumani Ramadoss said: “There was no barricade or check post from Pennagaram [from where he contested] to Dharmapuri for three days before the election and not a single vehicular checkpoint from Dharmapuri to Chennai a day before the election.”
This assertion is not without basis. This correspondent travelled from Chennai to Palakkad (Kerala) on the evening of April 26 via Vellore, Dharmapuri, Thoppur, Mettur Dam and Coimbatore, covering a distance of over 550 kilometres.
The vehicle was stopped only once, at around 1 a.m. on April 27 at Kallipatti near Satyamangalam. This correspondent did not see any mobile squad on the entire stretch except near Coimbatore city and at the Walayar check post on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border.
Frontline studied the issue in some depth during the 2014 Lok Sabha election, when, according to multiple accounts, almost 70 per cent of Tamil Nadu voters were bribed. This correspondent has followed the votes-for-cash phenomenon right from the 1996 Assembly election, when the menace was restricted to a few pockets in the State.
Impact on the candidate
Where does such unsustainable expenditure leave the candidate or the MLA?
“Life is very difficult,” said an MLA. “The loans have to be repaid. Lifestyle has to be maintained. There is another election coming in 2019 [Lok Sabha]. Wonder what we will do,” he said. While those who lent money were generally understanding, the problem for most leaders, regardless of whether they won or lost, is maintaining the lifestyle. They are expected to be part of all local functions, contribute financially to every single event that happens in the constituency—be it wedding, coming of age, death, birth, festivals or anything else. And, they are also expected to be present at all these functions.
An elected candidate thus invariably spends more than a defeated candidate. “An MLA has to spend anything from Rs.5 lakh to Rs.10 lakh a month to maintain his relationship with his base in the constituency,” said an advocate identified with a political party. This is not true of the Left or Dalit parties.
By winning, and not being part of the power structure, many MLAs in Tamil Nadu face a dark reality.