NEW DELHI: In an acknowledgement that some candidates in RK Nagar by-elections may have outsmarted the election body, Chief Election Commissioner OP Rawat told NDTV that the commission needed to take "a very comprehensive look at the whole system of preventing abuse of money" after the by-election in Chennai.
Sidelined AIADMK leader TTV Dhinakaran who had contested as an Independent from Chennai's RK Nagar - the assembly represented by former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa till her death in December 2016 - had pulled off a huge victory in the by-election. But it is widely believed that money power played a role in the by-election which had once earlier been cancelled over allegations of voters being bribed.
So did the Election Commission fail to check money power because it did not have the resources?
"It is not wherewithal, whatever the commission dispensation is, flying squads, static teams. It is good enough to check money abuse," Mr Rawat said. And it did work in Chennai too, but with a rider.
"If enforcement is strict in one arena, it raises its head in another arena. So you are again back to square one. Like distribution of freebies, distribution of money. We enforced it so it was not there. This time in RK Nagar, we could catch only 23 lakhs. That is all, as against 89 crores last time," the Chief Election Commissioner told NDTV.
Does that mean that the Election Commission closed one door, the politicians opened another to cheat?
"It appears so," the election body chief, known to be an outspoken bureaucrat, said, adding that this is why they need to revisit how the commission can fight use of money power in elections.
The Election Commission had last April cancelled the by-election after tax authorities found evidence that voters were being paid Rs 4,000 each to vote for Mr Dhinakaran, who was then contesting on an AIADMK ticket. He was later sidelined by the party after O Panneerselvam, who was then a rebel leader, and Chief Minister E Palaniswami, merged their respective factions in August last year.
This time, the opposition alleged TTV Dhinakaran's supporters stayed under the radar by distributing 20-rupee notes to voters, promising to exchange the note for Rs 10,000 if Mr Dhinakaran wins.
An NDTV investigation also found instances of people safeguarding the note like a guaranteed lottery ticket. Mr Dhinakaran has rejected the charge, calling it an allegation not just against him but the voters as well.
But many people haven't taking the denial at its face value. "They chose an independent highest bidder," superstar Kamal Haasan said in a column after Mr Dhinakaran's win.