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How the RBI helped confirm cash for votes in Lok Sabha polls to Vellore

Campaigning ahead of the Lok Sabha and bye-elections in Tamil Nadu ended on Tuesday evening with the state entering the ‘silent period’-48 hours prior to voters casting their ballot. However, just over an hour after campaigning drew to a close, a number of developments jolted the state, beginning with the rescinding of the Lok Sabha polls in the Vellore constituency. The move brought the state into national notoriety for the polls to the parliamentary constituency became the first in the country to be cancelled on account of cash-for-votes. But how was the extreme step taken? And what role did a nondescript cement godown in Tamil Nadu play in the whole affair?

The raid

It was widely reported that a search and seizure had taken place at the home of DMK Treasurer Duraimurugan in the wee hours of March 30 in Vellore. The senior DMK leader’s son Kathir Anand is the party’s candidate for the Lok Sabha elections. According to a gazette notification that detailed the decision-making process, a report from the Nodal Officer of Election Expenditure Monitoring of the Income Tax Department revealed that Rs 19.57 lakh had been allegedly recovered from the residence, of which Rs 10.57 lakh were unaccounted for. Printouts with ward numbers and amounts written against them were also found, said the report. It recorded findings that set aside ‘Rs. 500 per vote and at Rs. 200 per vote for distribution to 100%, 80% and 60% of the total number of voters.’

Next, a report from the Director General of Income Tax (Investigation) dated April 5, stated that various poll-monitoring agencies had ‘received inputs’ on huge amounts of unaccounted cash being stored at Kingston Engineering College run by the Duraimurugan Educational Trust. The Trustees of the organisation include Kathir Anand, his wife K Sangeetha and his mother Shantha Kumari. “This information was corroborated through local enquiries conducted discreetly and it was found that there were some suspicious activities relating to elections being carried out in the college premises after college hours,” said the report.

Thus, a simultaneous search was underway at the college and upon being allowed to enter, the search team observed that ‘there was prior rummaging of the premises and removal of material including the control panel of the CCTV as well as the hard disks of the computers.’ In addition to this, searches on April 1 at the properties of Kathir Anand’s close aides, namely local DMK functionary Poonjolai Srinivasan and his brother-in-law Damodaran, allegedly uncovered Rs 11.48 crore stashed in cartons, gunny bags, and plastic bags. While most of the currency was in Rs 200 notes, Rs 99 lakhs were in Rs 2,000 and Rs 500 notes. Stationery of the Kingston Engineering College too was found in the premises.

The investigation

Following the multiple search actions in Vellore district, the investigating authorities enquired Poonjolai Srinivasan, who, according to the DGIT report, “owned up the cash found, without giving any other details regarding the source of this aforesaid cash. Even in respect of the quantum of cash, he has stated that it would be approximately Rs 9 crore.” Srinivasan was found never to have filed Income Tax returns and ‘did not give any consistent answer regarding his source of living.’ He also allegedly admitted to having prepared the packets of cash for distribution to voters, as per the report. A testimony by Srinivasan’s nephew and Damodaran’s son Surendra Babu also placed Srinivasan at the scene with the cash. While Duraimurugan and Kathir Anand said they knew Srinivasan, they denied knowledge of the cash.

The final confirmation of the alleged nexus between the DMK party members to bribe voters came when the Income Tax Department decided to authenticate the source of the currency. The Reserve Bank of India’s help was enlisted and Rs 10.5 crore of the seized cash in Rs 200 denomination was traced to the central bank’s currency chest. Cash from the particular chest had been issued to Canara Bank, Vellore Branch. As a consequence, an inquiry into M Dayanidhi, Senior Manager at the Canara Bank Regional Office, on whose behest the transaction had taken place, revealed that he had facilitated the exchange of currency for Srinivasan. The residence of the bank official was also searched. “He stated that cash was exchanged in 3 to 4 instalments in March, 2019 and the stated purpose was to meet incidental party expenses and to distribute to people brought for party meetings,” said the report.

Further reports were filed by Expenditure Observers in the district as well as the Special Expenditure Observer for the state. A report from Satyabrata Sahoo, the Chief Electoral Officer in the state said, “This organised way of inducement of voters has thus vitiated the electoral environment which is now not conducive for conducting inducement free, ethical election in Vellore Parliamentary Constituency at this juncture”

The cancellation

Taking stock of the multiple reports, the Election Commission, in a letter dated April 14, wrote to the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, requesting the rescission of the election notification to conduct the Vellore Lok Sabha polls. The Election Commission’s final order stated, “The elections have been vitiated on account of unlawful activities of certain candidates and some members/workers of the political party and in the Commission’s considered opinion, allowing the current electoral process to proceed and conducting the poll in the said constituency on 18th April 2019, as scheduled, in such a vitiated atmosphere would severely jeopardize the conduct of free and fair election in said constituency.”

Source: The News Minute