How The Election Commission Was Thwarted In A 2017 Bypoll
It took a series of extraordinary events to ensure that the Election Commission’s own direction to the Tamil Nadu police to file an FIR against Tamil Nadu’s health minister C Vijayabaskar and others, was thwarted.
DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) MP and former union minister TR Baalu submitted a petition to the Election Commission of India in Delhi on Thursday which pointed out clearly how the Commission had been (or allowed itself to have been) duped.
Here’s the story of how cleverly law and institutions were manipulated in order to prevent the health minister and others from being implicated in cases of voter bribery during the RK Nagar bypoll in 2017.
The tale begins with the demise of former chief minister J Jayalalithaa on 05 December 2016. Her seat, RK Nagar, fell vacant and a bypoll was announced for 12 April 2017.
The key contestant for the seat was TTV Dhinakaran, nephew of Jayalalithaa’s close aide and confidante, VK Sasikala. The ruling AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) had by then splintered, with O Panneerselvam forming his own faction.
On 07 April 2017, health minister C Vijayabaskar’s residence was raided by Income Tax Department officials. Reports at the time from the IT department pegged seizures at Rs 4.5 crore in cash and Rs 85 crore worth of gold.
High drama ensued during the raid, with Vijayabaskar’s driver hurling pieces of paper outside the house while partymen protested outside. IT officials managed to retrieve the papers and these allegedly showed accounts of which minister was handling how much money, which was being used to bribe voters in RK Nagar to the tune of Rs 4000 per head.
IT officials at the time, on condition of anonymity, told journalists that over two lakh voters had been bribed out of the 2.63 lakh voters in the RK Nagar constituency, as per the handwritten records in the papers retrieved.
The DMK’s petition records the IT department as stating that chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami, ministers KA Sengottaiyan, Dindigul Srinivasan, P Thangamani, SP Velumani, D Jayakumar, Sellur K Raju, MC Sampath, VM Rajalakshmi Velamandi Natarajan, S Valarmathi and Rajya Sabha MP R Vaithilingam were all in charge of specific divisions within RK Nagar and had been given targets of the number of voters to be bribed. These voters were meant to be paid to vote for TTV Dhinakaran, according to the petition.
On 09 April 2017, the ECI, having perused the statement of the IT department, countermanded the RK Nagar bypoll.
The ECI then, on 18 April 2017, wrote to the Chief Electoral Officer of Tamil Nadu, asking that the Returning Officer of RK Nagar file an FIR based on the IT department report.
Three days later, on 21 April 2017, the Returning Officer filed a complaint with the Commissioner of Police, Chennai.
The FIR was finally lodged in the Abiramapuram Police Station on 27 April 2017 against “unknown persons”. This, despite the Returning Officer’s complaint to the Commissioner clearly naming health minister Vijayabaskar and his relatives Ramya and Chinnathambi. This FIR was not corrected by the Returning Officer, despite the DMK’s representation.
To The Courts
A case was filed before the Madras High Court praying for the ECI’s 18 April 2017 letter to be implemented. By 14 July 2017, the two-judge Bench of the court observed that “no progress is shown in the investigation of the case.”
Another writ petition filed by RK Nagar DMK candidate, Maruthu Ganesh, has been bunched with the above case and is being heard.
On 02 December 2018, the public prosecutor appearing for the government of Tamil Nadu informed the Bench that the FIR filed against “unknown persons” in the Abiramapuram Police Station had been quashed by a single judge of the High Court on 13 March 2018.
Even the counsel appearing for the Election Commission was not aware of this development as the single judge had not issued notice to the ECI upon whose complaint the FIR had been lodged.
Interestingly, the appeal to quash the FIR was filed by a sitting MLA of the ruling party, PM Narasimhan.
The DMK alleges in its petition to the ECI that the single judge had not been informed that a two-judge Bench of the High Court was hearing cases related to the same issue. The petitioner also had no locus standi to file the quash petition as he was not named in the FIR, nor was he mentioned in the case diary. According to the DMK, neither the state, nor the police filed a counter affidavit to the quash petition, allowing the single judge to go ahead and pass the order.
To date, there has been no appeal filed against the order of the single judge by the ECI.
The Advocate General of the state informed the two-judge Bench on 24 September 2019 that the state has been advised not to appeal against the order of the single judge.
At the same hearing, counsel for ECI informed the court that despite various directions and reminders to the District Election Officer and the Returning Officer, they had not carried out instructions from the ECI.
“The situation we are faced today is that the State Government has sounded the war-cry and is using its law officers, bureaucrats and investigation officers to shield the accused in the cash for vote scam, and challenge the authority of the ECI,” states the DMK’s petition.
“The Government has thrown the gauntlet to the ECI and openly challenged its authority through its prosecuting agencies,” said the petition, demanding a CBI probe into the issue.