The Election Commission of India (ECI) has rescinded the bye-election to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly from the Dr. Radhakrishnan Nagar constituency, slated for April 12, because the electoral process had been "seriously vitiated" by unlawful activities of candidates and political parties, including bribing of voters.
"....the Commission hereby directs, under Article 324 of the Constitution read with sections 150, 30 and 56 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, and further read with Section 21 of the General Clauses Act, 1897 and all other powers enabling it in this behalf, that the Commission’s Notification 100/TN-LA/1/2017, dated 16th March 2017, calling upon the said 11-Dr.Radhakrishnan Nagar Assembly Constituency to elect a member to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly shall stand rescinded forthwith," an order from the Commission, dated yesterday, said.
It said that, consequently, all actions and steps taken by the Returning Officer of the constituency, District Election Officer, Chennai District and all other electoral authorities concerned were declared as null and void.
The order also said that the bye-election to fill the vacancy from the constituency, which arose on the death of then Chief Minister and ruling AIADMK supremo J. Jayalalithaa on December 5, 2016, shall beheld in due course when the vitiating effect created by the distribution of money and gift items to allure the electors got removed with the passage of time and the atmosphere in the constituency became conducive to the holding of free and fair election.
The Commission had issued the notification for the bye-election on March 16 and March 23 was the last date for making nominations.
The order, signed by Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi and Election Commissioners O. P. Rawat and A. K. Joti, noted that the Commission had made elaborate arrangements for the conduct of a free and fair poll in the constituency and that it had, in this regard, issued extensive guidelines for monitoring of expenditure of the candidates and political parties, enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct, maintenance of law and order, and so on.
It said that, immediately on announcement of the bye- election, on 10th March, 2017, the enforcement of MCC was commenced by putting in place 9 Flying Squad Teams (FSTs), 9 Static Surveillance Teams (SSTs) and 2 Video Surveillance Teams (VSTs). Subsequently, the numbers of teams were increased in a phased manner, considering complaints by the candidates, political parties and inputs from the observers and electoral machinery, to 30 FSTs, 21 SSTs and 10 VSTs per day as on 5th April,2017 and they were operating round the clock.
Generally in an assembly constituency, only 3 FSTs and 3 SSTs team are deployed during any election, but, for this bye-election, the deployment of these squads was increased manifold and total of 61 teams were deployed keeping in view the sensitiveness of the constituency and past experience, it said.
Each FST/SST included a 7-member team with one Executive Magistrate, 4 CAPF personnel, one person from the state police and one videographer. VST is a 3 member team with one employee of the state government and one from state police. Thus, a total of 277 persons in 61 teams operating round the clock were put on job for enforcing the provisions of MCC, particularly, stopping distribution of cash or gifts in any form, it said.
The Commission said that, furthermore, one Central Government employee was included in each FST from April 7 onwards, Similrly all FSTS and SSTs had a CAPF personnel attached with it. Their vehicles were GPS enabled in order to ensure that their position and movement could be monitored from a central control room.
An SMS based complaint monitoring system wherein the FST/SST received a complaint through SMS for gift and cash distribution was also used. SMS- and GPS-based monitoring was to ensure that there is no delay in movement of these teams to attend to the complaints, a camera was also fixed on the top of vehicles so as to monitor how the complaints were handled by the teams after reaching the spot, which was monitored from the DEO’s control room.
Considering a large number of complaints, apart from deployment of these teams, as a first time measure, 70 mobile parties on two-wheelers were also additionally deployed from April 6 onwards. Each team consisted of one Micro Observer along with one police personnel. The total 70 teams, comprising 140 members, were deployed (21 Teams in Morning Shift, 21 Teams in Afternoon Shift and 28 Teams in Night Shift) from April 6 onwards, the Commission said.
Furthermore, 10 companies of the Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) were deployed for area domination and confidence-building among the voters to ensure free, fair and inducement-free election, it said. The deployment of CAPF was also doubled. ency. These companies got placed in the constituency from April 2 itself and were deployed at check posts and FST and SST. To prevent any violence before and during the polls, doubtful licensed arms were deposited. As 195 persons were bound under the Criminal Procedure Code (Cr.PC) and 94 non-bailable warrants (NBWs) were executed, it said.
The Commission said it had also deployed three senior observers additionally exclusively for the constituency. To strengthen supervision, it deployed three more special observers to the constituency, taking the number of observers to six, which was the highest deployment of central observers to any assembly constituency.
"The ECI was thus not leaving any stone unturned to ensure free and fair election," the Commission said.
It said that a team of senior officers of the Commission also visited the State to have feedback of the political parties, candidates and general public and based on their report the Commission made some additional arrangements. CCTV/surveillance cameras were deployed in major streets and junctions in the constituency to record the movement of vehicles and undesirable elements.
A highly visible campaign was launched to popularise the toll-free number of the control room and to make people aware about the penal provisions on bribing of voters throughout the constituency. Web casting was ordered to be done in all the 256 polling stations.
Micro observers were deployed in all the 256 booths. Micro observers were to be appointed from employees of Central Government, who were to supervise the voting procedure in the booths and report to the Commission through the Observers. Central Government / PSU employees were to be deployed as Presiding Officer or Polling Officer and at least one member of the team was drawn from amongst PSU / Central Government employees.
More than a dozen Income Tax officials were assigned duty to attend to the complaints of storage / distribution of money, both inside and outside the constituency. Surveillance was also stepped up at important places like Railway Stations, Airport, bus stands, taxi and auto stands.
All the IT applications like SWC ( single window clearance), vehicle bill payments, and SMS complaint monitoring system used during general elections 2016 and other elections were also deployed for this election.
A special team of two IAS and two IPS officers was put in the night duty rounds till the completion of election.
According to the Commission, for attending complaints of distribution of money outside the constituency, Special Flying Squads were assigned to check them. A separate set of 5 FSTs were deployed for this purpose. These FSTs could visit any area in the Chennai and neighbouring districts.
Based on the complaints of political parties, the Election Commission transferred, totally 22 police officials and 18 officers of the revenue side. Further, one Assistant Commissioner, two Executive Engineers, four Assistant Executive Engineers and four Assistant Engineers were transferred.
The Commission issued special instructions to the effect that no Government vehicle belonging to any department, political leader, Minister should be allowed to move in the constituency and vehicles should be subjected to check without any hesitation.
The Commission said it had received many complaints about the possibilities of inducement of electors by distribution of cash and gifts in innovative forms like tokens, pre-paid mobile telephone recharge coupons, newspaper subscriptions, milk tokens, money transfer in no frill accounts in banks and even mobile wallet payment to mobile numbers. The ECI had put an elaborate system for prevention of any such malpractices, it said.
These included monitoring of transactions in bank accounts, top-up of mobile phone charges, newspaper agents and milk vendors. Teams of Sales Tax (commercial tax) department were pressed into service to immediately verify sale of goods through tokens.
The Commission said detailed enquiries were conducted on various complaints received relating to inducement/bribing of voters. On the complaints of distribution of money, gift articles and violation of MCC, till 7.4.2017 an amount of Rs. 18,80,700 was seized and 35 FIRs were registered. Apart from cash, various items such as lamps, T-shirts, silver plates, mobile phones and sarees, which were used for distribution to workers, were also seized.
According to it, a total of 35 first information reports (FIRs) were registered on complaints of cash or gift distribution.
The Income Tax department informed the Commission on April 8 that, on the basis of information on tax evasion and distribution of cash, search and seizure actions under Section 132 of Income Tax Act 1961, were conducted at 21 places in Chennai and 11 outside Chennai in Tamil Nadu belonging to Dr. C. Vijaya Baskar, Minister for Health, Government of Tamil Nadu and his associates.
Prominent among his associates who were searched are Sarath Kumar, film actor and President, Samathuva Makkal Katchi; Rajendran, AIADMK leader and former MP(2009); and Dr. S. Geetha Lakshmi, Director of Health Services (TN) and Vice Chancellor of Dr. MGR Medical University.
The Income Tax authorities also informed the Commission that several complaints were received recently indicating that Dr. Baskar is the main person involved in bribing the voters in the constituency. Some loose sheets were found with his accountant Mr. Srinivasan indicating distribution of Rs. 89 crore to a number of politicians for further distribution among the voters. The premises of Rajendran were also searched on receiving the input from a central agency that a huge amount of cash was brought there by particular vehicle, for distribution in the constituency.
In all, IT officials seized Rs. 5 crore from the confidantes of Dr. Baskar and from his native place. Incriminating documents in the form of overall money distribution chart to several leading political executives and functionaries totaling Rs. 89 crore were found from his premises. Further, distribution charts, ward-wise and voter-wise, entrusted to each of these politician totaling to Rs. 89 crore were found and seized from the room allotted to Dr. Baskar in the MLAs' hostel. A lot of incriminating material including voters lists, marking against each voter either DMK or AIADMK, and amount to be paid and paid in some cases, were also found and seized, the Commission said.
"The above mentioned search and seizure action by the Income Tax authorities has resulted in unraveling a huge and systematic design to distribute money to voters in order to induce/bribe them to influence their voting behaviour.
"The election machinery was always on the state of alert and on receipt of the complaint over phone/whatsapp the Teams FST /SST were alerted and they reached the area mentioned by the complainant . The teams have seized cash totaling approximately Rs 31.91 lakhs while being distributed. Thirty-two FIRs were registered and 74 persons were arrested. Similarly, eight FIRs were registered for distribution of gifts and eight persons were arrested," it said.
The Commission said the General Observer to the constituency had reported that “… The bye-elections in Dr R.K Nagar AC has proved to be very sensitive and challenging for the election machinery from the point of view of use of money and material inducement to voters, violation of MCC and law and order. Large number of allegations and counter allegations of money and material distribution to induce the voters keep pouring in.”
The Special Observer- 2 Expenditure reported that “Large number of complaints was received by control room that senior party including some of the ministers of ruling party and other dominant party leaders were distributing cash to voters. The information was also shared with the senior officers of Income Tax."
"The Commission has carefully analyzed and examined the whole situation as prevailing in the said constituency. From the very early stages of the notification of the bye-election, the Commission started receiving complaints in large numbers with regard to the distribution of money and other gifts in the form of consumable items, etc., to the electors of the said 11-Dr.Radhakrishnan Nagar Assembly Constituency by the candidates and political parties in the election fray. As a counter move to check these illegal activities of the candidates and political parties, the Commission took several proactive steps to curb these activities. As many as 21 Static Surveillance Teams, 30 Flying Squad Teams and 10 Video Surveillance Teams, headed by senior officers, were deployed in the constituency to keep a constant vigil on the above mentioned unlawful activities of the candidates, political parties and their agents. In addition, as another extraordinary step, three senior officers belonging to Indian Revenue Service were appointed as Expenditure Observers by the Commission under section 20B of the said Act, who were assisted by Assistant Expenditure Observers in the constituency. Despite the above special measures adopted by the Commission, it is apparent from the facts narrated above that inducement and allurements to electors by the candidates, political parties and their agents by distribution of money and other gift items on a large scale went on in clandestine manner vitiating the purity of electoral process and disturbing the level playing field.
"It may be noted that the election law seriously frowns upon the acts of ‘bribery’ at elections and those indulging in such acts are visited with severe penalties under the law. The ‘bribery’ at elections to any person with the object of inducing him or any other person to exercise any electoral right or, even inducing or attempting to induce any person to exercise any such right, is an electoral offence under section 171B of the Indian Penal Code, and is punishable with imprisonment of either description for a term extending upto one year or, with fine, or with both. Any conviction for the offence of ‘bribery’, even if resulting in the imposition of a very nominal fine, will automatically disqualify the convicted person for a minimum period of six years under section 8(1) of Representation of the People Act, 1951. Further, such ‘bribery’ at elections is also a corrupt practice under section 123(1) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 which can result in the election of the returned candidate being declared void and the candidate found guilty of commission of such corrupt practice can also be disqualified by the President on the recommendation of the Commission for a further period of six years.
"The above provisions in the law, making ‘bribery’ an electoral offence and also a corrupt practice, have been made with the manifest object of ensuring purity of the election process. Purity of electoral process has been placed at higher pedestal than even the secrecy of ballot which is considered to be sacrosanct in democratic elections," it said.
"Having regard to the above constitutional and legal position enjoining upon the Commission the duty of conducting free and fair elections and upholding the purity of election and after taking into account all relevant facts and circumstances of the present case, the Commission is fully satisfied that the current electoral process in the said 11-Dr.Radhakrishnan Nagar Assembly Constituency in Tamil Nadu has been seriously vitiated on account of unlawful activities of the candidates and political parties and their workers by bribing the electors and unlawfully inducing them by offering money and other gifts of consumable items to woo them in their favour.
"In the Commission’s considered opinion, allowing the current electoral process to proceed and conduct the poll in the constituency on 12th April, 2016, as scheduled, in such vitiated atmosphere would severely jeopardize the conduct of free and fair election in the said 11-Dr.Radhakrishnan Nagar Assembly Constituency," it said.
The Commission also expressed its anguish over the "sordid state of affairs" as revealed in the reports of the Election Expenditure Observers, Election Expenditure Monitoring Teams, Static Surveillance Teams, Flying Squad Teams, Video Surveillance Teams, as well as the reports of the Income Tax Authorities.
"The innovative ways which the political parties and their leaders at the top echelons have devised to bypass the law enforcing authorities entrusted with the task of keeping an eye on the unauthorized and illegal expenses incurred in the conduct of election campaigns of their party candidates need to be dealt with heavy hand. Some of the States have particularly excelled in innovating more and more subtle ways to circumvent the statutory provisions enacted by Parliament to curb the menace of money power in elections. The top leaderships of the parties cannot feign ignorance about such illegal activities being indulged in by the candidates set by their parties, and also the managers appointed by their parties to oversee the election campaigns of their candidates. If not their express consent, their tacit approval to the resort to such undesirable activities on the part of their candidates and electoral managers cannot be wished away. It is high time that they exert their moral influence and legal authority to reign in their erring candidates and electoral managers without loss of time, if democracy is to flourish and deepen its roots in our country," it said.