By-Poll Or Buy Poll
System Needs Shake Up
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
The Election Commission has postponed the by-election to Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly in R.K.Nagar constituency in Chennai city scheduled for 12th April, on the ground that the electoral process had been vitiated irredeemably. Evidence of widespread bribery of voters and systematic cash distribution were received by the Commission. It expressed its deep anguish over the “sordid state of affairs” in terms and tone conveying that stern actions against the culprits must follow.
The country has undergone many General elections and by-elections, but none of them can beat the heated enmity prevailing among the contesting parties or the vigour of campaigning in legal and illegal ways. Tremendous cash flow in the aftermath of demonetization and consequent cash crunch raises several questions regarding election funds and their sources and availability of hard cash.
Indeed, it seems to confirm that election expenditure is a kind of investment for the candidates and parties that will yield sure and disproportionate returns in no time.
What happened in R.K.Nagar is a blot on Indian democracy, on voters of the constituency, the bribe-giving parties, and the administrative machinery that has failed. Postponement of elections to two Assembly seats, Thanjavur and Aravakurichi in the State last year has obviously made no impact on the parties. What is needed is not just cancellation of election, but disqualification of erring candidates from contesting elections in future and other suitable punishment for those caught in the act of bribing.
The responsibility of the authorities today is not just conducting elections, but conducting them free of malpractices. The cleansing operation has to cover the voters also.
What causes deep anguish is the fact that role of money and gifts in this election was being talked about everywhere – in houses, workplaces, places of worship, markets, and on roads. The outcome of the election is certainly not going to change the party that will be in the seat of power. In such a situation, the intensity of the campaign only reveals that the result will have immense political significance in a different way.
The Election Commission is reported to have seized many types of articles like lamps, shirts and sarees, mobile phones, vessels, gas stoves and other household articles, and more importantly alcohol. Favours in the form of milk tokens, mobile phone recharge coupons are said to have entered the constituency. Local temples and festivals suddenly became important gatherings for entertainment.
There were on the whole 62 candidates in the field, but not more than five or six are vocal and appear to be serious. The number is the maximum that EVM can hold.
By-elections are crucial for parties with slender majority in the legislature. The Labour Government of James Callaghan (1976-79) and the Conservative Government of John Major (1992-97) in Britain, which faced tough competition in by-elections are cited as examples of important by-elections.
By-elections are generally caused by the death or resignation of an elected member. In India, voting irregularities sometimes have led to by-elections. Occasionally, defection of a member from one party to another necessitated resignation of the member and conduct of a by-election. Under the Representation of People Act, a candidate may contest from two seats. If he or she wins both seats, one has to be given up and a by-election will have to be held. Even strong leaders make use of this provision as Mulayam Singh and Narendra Modi did in the Parliament election of 2014. Indira Gandhi’s election in Chikmagalur after Emergency was in a by-election. In 2011, Parliament member, Mamata Banerjee’s election to the State Assembly of West Bengal created a vacancy in Lok Sabha to be filled by a by-election. Seven Assembly seats fell vacant in Gujarat recently when Congress members shifted loyalty to the BJP necessitating by-elections.
In Tamil Nadu, the victory of the newly formed ADMK created by the split of the DMK under MGR in a by-election to Lok Sabha in Dindigul in 1977 brought a big change in State politics. MGR became a mass leader par excellence over night. Thereafter, elections in Tamil Nadu became contests between two regional parties.
Unlike General elections, by-elections are not fought on any policy or issues. They are regarded as tests of the popularity of the incumbent government. They are mostly contests between the principal parties in the field and between the candidates. They are normally won by the ruling party or ruling coalition or by the locally most influential candidate, if any.
The significance of R.K.Nagar election is due to many factors. It has been a stronghold of the AIADMK and the seat of Jayalalitha. After the recent split of the party, both factions are anxious to capture the seat and thereby claim succession to the legacy of the late CM.
In the process, real problems of the constituency – environmental degradation, inadequate water supply, bad roads and slums are forgotten even by the voters who seem to be content with some ready cash. The regime of freebies has really spoilt the mental make- up of people ready to forget serious issues. The infamous “Tirumangalam Formula” of the DMK – the label by which cash for votes is described and practised in by-elections held in 2009 has come to stay.
In Democratic Party system, results of one constituency cannot decide succession to any right – whether name, symbol, office, or positions. These have to be decided according to party constitutions. The winner in the election can only become a legislative assembly member.
However, in view of the tremendous influence and “power” wielded by the candidate of one faction of the AIADMK which is now in power, it is widely believed that if he wins, he will easily get elected as the leader of the legislature party and take over as CM. This way, this election is crucial only to this candidate and his coterie.
The EC has acted promptly on complaints and made elaborate arrangements for free and safe conduct of elections. It is reported that thirty flying squad teams (instead of normal three), 21 static surveillance teams (instead of three), 10 companies of Central Armed Police Force (double the normal), and additional 10 video surveillance teams were deployed. According to reports, highest number of poll officers were appointed; 30 micro observers from neighbouring States were added to 256 posted in various booths. IAS and IPS trainees from other States were invited for poll related work.
Despite such heavy precautions, malpractices could not be checked. Obviously, our system itself needs major repair. Cancelling the election does not give a permanent solution.
The EC has asked top leadership of parties to exert their “moral influence and legal authority” to rein in their erring candidates and election managers. The well-meaning advice is futile where leadership itself has to answer serious charges.
It is said that cancellation of this election means a loss of at least Rs. two crore to the State Government. It can be avoided by tightening our law and regulations and by stricter implementation. Therefore, what happened in R.K.Nagar needs intensive probe so that the responsibility for the total degeneration of the electoral atmosphere can be determined. —INFA
(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)