Bigger concerns for ECI
In a significant development on April 9, the Election Commission of India decided to countermand the by-poll for the Dr Radhakrishnan Nagar Assembly seat in Tamil Nadu merely hours before campaigning was to end. The poll body alleged that the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Amma) faction led by VK Sasikala had attempted to bribe voters. Following the untimely death of the former Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, in December the RK Nagar seat was left vacant. As many of those following recent events in Tamil Nadu are well aware, the AIADMK split into two camps after the late chief minister's demise—one led by former aide Sasikala and other by rebel leader and former interim Chief Minister O Panneerselvam. The ECI's decision, however, follows a raid conducted by the Income Tax Department on Tamil Nadu Health Minister C Vijaya Baskar's properties in Chennai on April 7. On the following day, the Central Board of Direct Taxes had submitted its report to the ECI, alleging that the VK Sasikala camp had kept aside nearly Rs 90 crore to be distributed among voters to gain support for their candidate TTV Dinakaran (Sasikala's nephew). As per the documents seized during the raid, each voter was to receive Rs 4,000. Senior ministers from the party were allegedly deputed to distribute cash in particular wards. The AIADMK (Amma) has denied all these charges, although the practice of bribing voters is not an uncommon feature during elections held in the state. Under these circumstances, the only step left for the ECI was to countermand the by-poll. This decision was relatively straightforward, but what followed points to the institutional shortcomings of the poll body.
Reports indicate that no cases have been registered against either the minister or senior leadership of the AIADMK (Amma), despite the apparent mountain of evidence collected during the IT raid. Health Minister Vijaya Baskar continues to occupy his post. Instead, the IT department has asked the Chennai Police to register cases against some party functionaries for disrupting the work of their officials. Last May, the poll body had rescinded elections to the Thanjavur and Aravakurichi constituencies after it caught parties openly distributing cash among voters. Since the introduction of electoral reforms in the 1990s, the ECI has shown greater intent in cleaning up the corruption that has distorted verdicts and introduced better logistics to ensure peace during voting. Despite attempts to weed out corruption and force parties into following the rules through its imposition of the Model Code of Conduct, it has been unable to change much. In fact, the ECI was unable to act against the candidates responsible for such blatant acts of bribery in the Thanjavur and Aravakurichi constituencies and the same set of candidates contested again when the election was held in October. On this occasion, the ECI has put the onus of getting rid to such electoral malpractices on political parties. "It is high time that they (top leadership of the party) exert the 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," the poll body in an official statement. For all intents and purpose, TTV Dinakaran, who happens to be Sasikala's nephew and the party's deputy general sectary, is the party leadership. Does the ECI seriously expect him to pay heed to their sermons? "The panel has done what it can within the powers granted to it by the Constitution," said former Chief Election Commissioner, N Gopalswamy, to The News Minute. "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, which ensure political cases are dealt with immediately because otherwise, political parties and people will not fear the law," he added. What the recent RK Nagar episode represents is a serious test for the poll body's credibility. If it does not act against the likes of TTV Dinakaran or Vijaya Baskar, the commissions' reputation for conducting free and fair elections could take a hit. Parliament could also amend the Representation of Peoples Act, arming the ECI with powers to disqualify candidates or parties caught bribing voters. But there are also those who believe that the ECI cannot be given too much power. Such powers will lead to dangerous outcomes, they argue. Successive governments at the Centre have promised electoral reforms including public funding of elections. Numerous commissions have released reports in this regard, but most of these files are collecting dust in the government's archives. Instead, in the recent Finance Bill passed by the Centre, a host of amendments about election funding saw the light of day. It lifts the cap on how many donations a company can give to parties. It also enables anyone to donate anonymously using electoral bonds issued by "approved" banks. They do little to enhance transparency in the electoral process. There are seemingly bigger issues that the ECI needs to deal with instead of all the hue and cry surrounding electoral voting machines.