In early April, at a press meet by the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of Tamil Nadu, restlessness was palpable. “When will you begin crackdown on the actual illegal cash sir?” asked one journalist. “So far the Election Commission Flying Squads have only been catching small businessmen and vendors with legitimate cash transactions,” he stated. At the time the cash seizures by the ECI amounted to Rs 25 crores. 95% of this was returned when its owners submitted legitimate documents. Rajesh Lakhoni, CEO Tamil Nadu smiled. “The Central teams are coming very soon,” he said, without further elaboration.
The Central teams arrived – senior officers of the Income Tax Department from all over the country, most from the Investigations wing. 32 teams of 10 officers were deployed, one team to a district.
The crackdown began in earnest. On April 22, the first big catch was netted, an amount of almost Rs 6 crores, most of it in a house belonging to one Anbunathan, alleged to have close links with a state minister. A vehicle, allegedly a government ambulance, was also caught transporting cash and confiscated by the ECI.
On the same day, anonymous tip-offs to the ECI helped them pick up two passengers in a bus carrying over Rs 1 crore in unaccounted cash. On April 24, a house in Egmore, Chennai, was raided – close to Rs 5 crore was the haul in that dramatic search and seizure operation, featuring a desperate gambit by the resident — throwing courier envelopes filled with cash out of the window. On April 25, following an anonymous tip-off, 245 gold coins worth Rs 3 crore were seized inside a school in Krishnagiri,.
Deputy Speaker of the state Assembly, Pollachi Jayakumar’s relative’s house and houses that belonged to friends of ministers were raided by IT officials. Drivers of ministers were raided without warning, derailing politicians. State buses, cars, trucks, all vehicles in fact, are stopped and checked thoroughly for cash as ECI teams set up checkposts at 10 kilometre distances along highways. Ambulances were not spared either, following complaints from Opposition parties that these were being used to transport money to voters.
The haul has been rich so far – a huge Rs 65 crore seized since the imposition of the model code of conduct, with close to Rs 30 crores seized in just two weeks since the IT teams arrived. Of this total amount, Rs 25 crore has been returned to those who have produced authentic documents.
Compare this with the seizures in 2011 and 2014 – Rs 35 crore and Rs 25 crore respectively, almost all of which was eventually returned to the rightful owner on production of legitimate documents.
This time round Tamil Nadu politician appears to have been caught off guard by the ECI’s aggression. “We have at least managed to put fear into the minds of politicians,” said a senior official in the Commission who did not wish to be identified. “At this rate, we can’t even campaign, it appears,” complained one DMK councilor in Trichy. “The Election Commission’s measures are too stringent.” They say you can’t please everyone. In Tamil Nadu, the EC can’t please anyone. A team of leaders from the DMK, the same party as the disgruntled Trichy councilor, met Prime Minister Modi last week and submitted a petition to him asking for intervention into what they alleged was the ECI’s failure to curb money distribution to voters. The Third Front’s Vaiko too lambasted the Commission in a statement. “The money has already gone to constituencies and state machinery is helping to distribute this money,” he stated.
The ECI’s new bag of tricks in 2016
In early 2016, top officials of the ECI had visited Chennai to meet with representatives of all political parties in the run-up to poll preparations. There was one resounding concern from all parties – stop cash distribution to voters somehow.
“Of course we too told the ECI that our biggest concern is cash distribution,” said Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) spokesperson TKS Elangovan. “State government machinery is being misused to transport money to all districts. Police are afraid to intervene. It is for the EC to ensure that this does not happen. It is their duty,” he stated. The DMK, in Opposition for the past five years, was worried that the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) would use money and state machinery to bribe voters. DMK insiders say the party could not match the money muscle of its key rival. Smaller parties had no money to pay to voters and they clamoured for a level playing field.
ECI officials went into a huddle. There had to be a way to curb illegal cash to a larger extent at least, than was done in previous elections.
“We discussed the problem at length,” said the senior ECI official. “The loophole was that the Flying Squads (so far in elections in the state) and the various other teams and observers consisted of state and Central police. They did not have the powers to enter into any premises and conduct searches for cash without a warrant. They could also only enter any premises if the owner or a relative was present. This was a major handicap,” he explained.
The solution was a simple one – deploy Income Tax officers, IRS officials belonging to the Investigation department, who have been bestowed the power to raid any premises for hidden cash without prior notice to the owner. 32 teams of 10 such officers would scour through each district, entering homes of people who were said to be hoarding illegal cash for distribution.
The allegation of soft-pedaling on the ruling party by state government bureaucrats and state police too was sidestepped using tech.