A statesmanlike intervention can bring to a quick end the most unseemly of political controversies. In one political master stroke, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi has undone all that went wrong in the elections to the Chennai Corporation Council in October 2006. By asking the councillors elected from 99 violence-marred wards specifically identified by the Madras High Court to resign and face re-election, Mr. Karunanidhi not only blunted the mounting offensive of the Opposition parties on the issue; he also served a warning to his own partymen against manipulating the official machinery for partisan purposes. Although the division bench of the High Court handed down a split verdict with Justice S.J. Mukhopadhaya declining to interfere with the election process and Justice F.M. Ibrahim Kalifulla holding that an "extraordinary situation" warranted re-election in a majority of the 155 wards the DMK chief cut the Gordian knot by asking the councillors to go back to the people for a fresh mandate, instead of waiting to exhaust all legal avenues. Such a decision could not have been popular with the elected councillors. After all, only three of the defeated candidates filed election petitions under the provisions of the Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act within the mandatory 15 days of the date of publication of the results. Mr. Karunanidhi deserves full credit for carrying with him not merely his own party but also his allies, the Congress, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, and the Dalit Panthers (all but one of the 99 councillors have resigned).
The challenge now is to prevent a recurrence of the violent incidents of booth capturing and ballot stuffing that marred last year's exercise. With a clear message emanating from the Chief Minister, the police and election officials can be expected to do a much better job of conducting the polls. The State Election Commission (SEC), which was chastised by Justice Kalifulla for its failure to ensure a free and fair election, has taken the cue. The February 8 elections to fill existing vacancies will see the use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) for the first time in local bodies in Tamil Nadu. Though EVMs cannot guarantee a fair poll, they will minimise the scope for electoral fraud. The SEC would do well to persist with the EVMs (to be borrowed from the Election Commission of India) for the Chennai Corporation Council by-elections. The SEC should model itself on the ECI, which despite some transgressions in the past has built up a reputation for both firmness and fairness. There is no better way to erase the memories of October 2006 than ensuring a free and fair re-election in the wards rendered vacant as a consequence of the split court verdict and the Chief Minister's wise decision.