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Friday, December 06, 2019

Constituency no 543: Vellore — Only constituency in country that didn’t vote

Vellore was the only constituency in the country that didn’t vote, after a cash seizure led to polls being cancelled. As rest of the country weighs its votes, Vellore is cynical, indifferent. “It would have made sense if they said we would never have an election”.

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Updated: May 26, 2019 7:24:48 am
Ramachandran Naicker, R Sett point out that it’s business as usual since last time this happened. The friends also believe people don’t vote for money.

As the results of the just concluded Lok Sabha elections sink in, J Jamuna makes it clear that she has no stake either in the euphoria or despair that has enveloped the rest of the country and her state of Tamil Nadu. “We didn’t have elections. Even if they are held tomorrow, what is the big deal? It is good for people who are in the game. How does it benefit people like us?” she says, hurrying off to work. Twice a week, she cleans a plot of panchayat land and waters plants there under the MNREGS.

Jamuna is from a village near Katpadi town in north Tamil Nadu’s Vellore district, the only constituency in the country that didn’t vote as the others went through a long-drawn seven-phase election. Tamil Nadu’s 38 seats minus Vellore voted on April 19.

What derailed the Vellore polls was the seizure of illegal currency from the house of DMK stalwart Duraimurugan. Based on Income Tax and police reports, the state Election Commission alleged that Duraimurugan’s son Kathir Anand, the DMK’s Vellore candidate, had kept the money to distribute among voters. In a major embarrassment to the DMK, which had an upper hand in campaigns across the state, a report was sent to the Election Commission of India, leading to the cancellation of polls.

At his residence in Katpadi, a few kilometres from Vellore, Duraimurugan isn’t flustered about the seizure that led to the cancellation of the election, calling it the EC’s “mistake”.

“It is a murder of democracy, nothing else,” he says about the EC’s decision. “The people of Vellore are all upset and angry. Let the DMK or AIADMK win, but the election should be held immediately,” he
demanded.

Duraimurugan, a nine-time MLA from Katpadi, is one of the most high-profile leaders of Vellore, a region with a minority population of about 30 per cent and home to the prestigious Christian Medical College. Vellore’s 21 per cent Muslim population, who carry the legacy of the 1806 mutiny by Indian sepoys against the East India Company (the mutiny was seen as a precursor to the 1857 rebellion), mostly do low-paying jobs in the leather industry that bore the brunt of both demonetisation and GST. In recent years, Vellore has been also notorious for illegal sand mining and severe water shortage.

While the DMK was optimistic about its chances in Vellore, the AIADMK too sensed a chance — the party has considerable hold over a section of the Muslim population that feels indebted to the late J Jayalalithaa for her pro-minority policies.

While Duraimurgan says people are angry with the EC, most people in the constituency mostly seem indifferent. “We know they are corrupt, all politicians are. But what is the point cancelling one election? It would have made sense if they had said we would never have an election. If they hold an election next month or next year, they will probably use the same currency bundles to bribe voters,” says Kavitha Bhoopalan, a school teacher in Vellore town.

As they sit by the roadside on a hot afternoon, Ramachandran Naicker and R Sett, friends in their 70s, are sceptical of anything changing after the seizure or the cancellation of the election. “Was Kathir Anand (the DMK candidate) arrested? Or even barred from polls for the rest of his life?” asks Sett.

“What happened to those who were similarly caught with cash in R K Nagar?” adds Naicker.

In April 2017, ahead of the R K Nagar bypoll, currency bundles had been seized from the official residence of AIADMK leader C Vijaya Baskar, who continues to be a senior Cabinet minister in the current AIADMK government in the state.

Their neighbour Jayalakshmi soon joins in. When asked for her wish from the government, she snaps, “Why would I wish for anything? Anyway, things are not going to happen the way I wish.”

“She is right. What stake do we have in elections? Those with education will decide who will contest and who will be elected. It is all about who pays more (for voters),” says Sett.

Despite their cynicism, Naicker and Sett believe that people won’t vote for money. “People will take money but vote for people they like,” says Sett, questioning why an election had to be cancelled for “one man’s mistake”. “Before cancelling elections, the EC should tell us how many were convicted in Thanjavur and Aravakurichi where the Assembly polls were cancelled in 2016 in a similar manner,” he says.

Before the May 2016 elections, an IT raid on the residence of C P Anbunathan, a Karur-based businessman with close links with politicians in the state, had recovered Rs 5 crore and several currency counting machines. In December 2016, a month after demonetisation, Rs 9.63 crore of new currency was seized from mining baron Sekhar Reddy in Chennai.

Back in her village near Katpadi town, at one corner of the panchayat land where Jamuna is doing her MNREGA work, stands the village deity. “He guards us, nobody else,” she says, refusing to answer any more questions on elections.

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