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Accusations of voter bribery have been flying thick and fast in Tamil Nadu Erode East constituency. Representational image: iStock

Erode East by-poll: Tamil Nadu’s voter freebie culture hits new high

As voting takes place on February 27, what stands out is the magnitude of the freebie issue

Tamil Nadu has an almost Pavlovian acceptance of election freebies. These could start with as little as ₹500 in cash (pre-voting), and move on to TV sets and pressure cookers and bicycles and so on (if the party comes to power). 

The debate on whether such freebies are part of development economics, or are in fact just voter bribery, is a long drawn out one. However, as the state’s Erode East constituency votes on Monday (February 27), what stands out is the magnitude of the freebie issue. 

Though the ruling party more often than not wins the by-election in the state, the DMK has been fighting a pitched battle in Erode East. Starring in the tightly fought contest are ‘novel’ freebies offered by the warring parties — such as silver anklets and steel utensils — and the war of words this has triggered. 

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The matter has reached the courts. Main opposition party AIADMK has filed a petition with the Madras High Court and received an assurance from the Election Commission (EC) that the polling will be fair. The EC has filed an affidavit saying it will ensure free and fair polls. Till date, Returning Officer K Sivakumar has filed two separate cases over gift distribution.

Accusations have been flying thick and fast. The ‘gifting’ per se is no longer news. BJP state president K Annamalai, in one of his speeches, slammed the quality of the freebies. 

The ‘Thirumangalam formula’

Tamil Nadu’s election freebie culture has its roots in the ‘Thirumangalam formula’. The name comes from the Thirumangalam by-poll of 2009, when MK Alagiri, brother of Chief Minister MK Stalin, pulled off a big win, allegedly with freebies.

Cash-for-votes was said to be the reason for an unusually high 89.89 per cent turnout in the election. The DMK candidate won by a margin of 39,266 votes. 

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Successive governments in the state, both AIADMK and DMK, have been accused of manipulating official machinery during by-polls to ensure a smooth win. Here, the outlier was the 2017 RK Nagar (Chennai) by-poll, when leader TTV Dhinakaran of AMMK (a rebel faction of AIADMK) won the election, defeating the official candidate of AIADMK, then the ruling party.

Bitter battle

Though the DMK has allotted the Erode East constituency to its ally Congress, multiple ministers and DMK district secretaries are campaigning to ensure a big win. Minister V Senthil Balaji, who was said to be the brain behind RK Nagar by-poll win for Dhinakaran, is at the helm of affairs at DMK, after shifting loyalty. 

The AIADMK has reasons to be worried. Especially because expelled leader O Panneerselvam (OPS) is blaming the party’s interim General Secretary Edappadi K.Palaniswami (EPS) for its poor performance in recent elections. EPS is under pressure to present an increase in the vote share, if not an outright win in Erode East.  

While the DMK alliance might win the Erode East by-poll, the vote-share is the bone of contention. It is here that EPS hopes to make a mark and convince his party men of his leadership. For this, he has had to fight the alleged onslaught of gifts and money by the ruling DMK. 

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