Darkness has descended on Valliyur town in Tirunelveli district by the time S P Udayakumar arrives at a market on the highway. He and ally, Ramesh, an advocate and a leader of the CPI-ML, campaign from a carrier auto fitted with a megaphone. Their announcement is initially drowned out by the high-decibel campaign song emanating from the DMK candidate’s jeep. After a brief introduction by Ramesh, Udayakumar takes over.
Situated far from the citadels of power politics like Chennai, Trichy and Madurai, Radhapuram constituency, under which Valliyur falls, has rarely attracted political attention. This time, however, the entry of Udayakumar, the leader of the anti-nuclear movement in Idinthakarai, the site of the protest against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, has changed the political discourse here.
In 2014, Udayakumar had contested and lost the general election as an Aam Aadmi Party candidate from Kanyakumari but earlier this year, he floated Pachai Tamizhagam (Green Tamil Nadu), the first political party with a green agenda in the state. Its symbol is a pot.
Udayakumar is unlikely to force a contest in Radhapuram constituency, but his presence is welcomed by many as a breather from the stale rhetoric spewed by the Dravidian parties. On this night, dressed in a white half-sleeve shirt and veshti (dhoti), he unveils his politics in crisp Tamil, liberally quoting Thiruvalluvar, Mahatma Gandhi, Subramania Bharati and Kamaraj. “The present politics of Tamil Nadu is like a piece of firewood that is burning on both ends. We are like ants stuck in the middle,” he says. Encouraged by an increasing audience, Udayakumar speaks at length about the water shortage in the region, pollution and the need for these issues to be part of the political discourse. “But can the existing parties help? Can leaders who are bothered only about their progeny worry about people’s needs? If you trust them, your children too will burn out like you?,” he warns.
Udayakumar, who has an MA in English literature from Kerala University and a doctorate in Peace Studies from the US, moves on to remind the crowd about his experience with the Idinthakarai movement. “I have learnt not from PhD holders but from uneducated fishermen and poor peasants. For 18 years, I have been with the people of Idinthakarai,” he declares.
He also speaks of a looming ecological disaster and says that by the time of the next general election, people will even need to buy air. He speaks about the woes of village women who have to walk long distances to fetch water. His big promise is to desilt and revive the ponds in the region. In the space of the current competitive politics though, Udayakumar is unlikely to make a dent. His focus, he says, is on the larger picture. “I am sowing the seeds so that someone else can reap a good harvest in the future.”
At 56, Udayakumar is neither too young nor too old to redefine politics in the state. His leadership at Idinthakarai didn’t stop the nuclear plant from coming up on the coast but it radicalised a large community of fisher-folk. It spawned writers like Sundari, a Class V dropout, who authored a book on women prisoners based on her experience as an inmate when police arrested her for participating in the anti-nuclear protests. Housewives, school children in Idinthakarai and the neighbourhood today speak about environment and ecology and the need to conserve resources on land and in the sea. His entry into mainstream politics in 2014 had also enthused radical Christian priests, writers and activists.
This, perhaps, is why Sunderrajan, Chennai-based coordinator for Poovulagin Nambargal, a collective of environment activists, says that Pachai Tamizhagam has a role to play in Tamil politics. He believes that the 2021 Assembly election in Tamil Nadu will be fought on green issues the way this election has been dominated by debates on prohibition.