A controversy from Day One that refuses to die
The election of P. Chidambaram from the Sivaganga Lok Sabha constituency in the 2009 general election was contentious and controversial for more than one reason.
Late in the night of May 16, 2009, Mr. Chidambaram was declared winner by a margin of 3,354 votes after 21 rounds of counting. But not before dramatic events at the counting centre in Sivaganga. Well before the official declaration of the results, television channels and a news agency had reported that the Union Home Minister had lost. Indeed, supporters of the AIADMK candidate, R.S. Raja Kannappan, had celebrated victory outside the counting centre by bursting firecrackers and distributing sweets. Mr. Raja Kannappan actually went to the room of the Returning Officer to receive his election certificate, only to be told that the counting had not officially ended.
Pace not uniform
The confusion was real. The pace of counting was not uniform at the different tables. Some tables were ahead of the others by a couple of rounds. Thus, while the counting process was still on at some tables, some other tables had completed the process, allowing election agents to come out and announce the end of the process. Mr. Kannappan was actually in the lead when this happened, and AIADMK workers assumed that he had won.
In the age of the Electronic Voting Machines, the counting is again back to being held segment-wise. That is, votes in one Assembly segment of a Lok Sabha constituency will be completed before that of another Assembly segment is taken up. This meant that the leads during counting could change dramatically from one round to another, depending on which Assembly segment is taken up for counting. Especially in a close election, as 2009 was in Tamil Nadu, the votes of a candidate are fragmented geographically: different areas vote differently, whether out of caste or other socio-economic considerations.
During the time T.N. Seshan was the Chief Election Commissioner, the practice of opening ballot boxes and mixing ballot papers was undertaken as a method of preventing political parties from identifying how particular polling booths or geographical areas voted. This was envisaged as a protection to villages that voted en masse against a powerful party. But with the introduction of EVMs, this practice was given up, and the chances of a dramatic change in the lead position increased manifold.
This is what happened in Sivaganga in 2009. Mr. Kannappan built up a good lead in the early rounds and retained it through the 14th round. With the Alangudi Assembly segment coming into the reckoning from the 15th round, Mr. Chidambaram established a lead of 5,761 votes. In the 16th round, he increased the margin again to 5,838. In the subsequent rounds, Mr. Kannappan made a comeback, but he could not completely wipe out the lead Mr. Chidambaram had run up in rounds 15 and 16.
This, coupled with the uneven pace of counting at different tables, gave the impression that the late rally of Mr. Chidambaram was because of external help.
The ally of Mr. Chidambaram's Congress, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, was in power in Tamil Nadu at the time, leading to speculation that the counting process was subverted.
The Election Commission, through the Chief Electoral Officer at the time, Naresh Gupta, looked into the complaints of manipulation of the counting process. The telephone records of the Returning Officer were also examined, but other than a call from the Chief Minister's Office, there was nothing that aroused suspicion. That too was probed and dismissed, EC officials said. But Mr. Kannappan remained convinced that he had been cheated out of the seat and went to court. On Thursday, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court decided the case be properly heard.
Whatever the outcome, one positive fall-out of the confusion in Sivaganga was the directive from the Election Commission for the 2011 Assembly election that the counting for one round would have to be completed before the counting for the next is taken up. The results of each round would be clear before the counting for the subsequent round is to begin. There would be no random announcements from each table. The leads would be tabulated round-wise alone, and not table-wise.