Look who’s Amma’s ambassador in God’s own country

Liquor baron, whose bribery charge toppled Kerala’s finance minister, has unleashed a ‘Tamil-style’ poll campaign in the state capital.

Written by Amrith Lal | Thiruvananthapuram | Updated: May 11, 2016 8:26 am
kerala election, MGR films, J Jayalalithaa, Jayalalithaa kerala election, AIADMK, kerala news, kerala, kerala news, viral video, kerala polls, India news Flexboards sporting Jayalalithaa, MGR, Biju Ramesh. (Express Photo: Amrith Lal)

FROM A distance, the pushcart with large flexboards looks like a film promo. Tamil hits from MGR films blare from a jeep. As the crowd begins to move, the procession assumes the shape of a political campaign.

The flexboards sport large visuals of Amma and MGR, J Jayalalithaa and M G Ramachandran, both synonymous with the AIADMK. With a jeep and a cart in front, the procession winds its way past the narrow lanes of Puthenthoppu, a fishing hamlet in Thiruvananthapuram, and stops where the road opens to the Arabian Sea. Out jumps a man dressed as MGR and then another as his lady love and both begin to dance. Vote for Dr Biju Ramesh, the AIADMK candidate for Thiruvananthapuram assembly seat, the announcement comes.

“Ithellam Tamil style, appee (This is Tamil style, dear),” says a woman, who has stepped out of her house to watch the action, to a bemused gathering.

Ramesh, with declared assets worth Rs 161 crore, is the richest candidate in the fray in this assembly election in Kerala. The cap is his symbol. And despite the old Malayalam saying that refers to a loser’s cap, Ramesh claims to be a serious candidate. After all, it was his bribery allegation that forced the powerful state finance minister K M Mani to resign — ironically, the AIADMK’s two-leaves symbol has been allotted to Mani’s Kerala Congress (M) this time.

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In a way, Ramesh has framed the election agenda in Kerala, which votes on May 16. In December 2014, he alleged on primetime TV that the bar owners’ association in the state — he was the working president — had paid a bribe of Rs 1 crore to Mani to facilitate licences. The fallout led to Mani’s resignation and forced Chief Minister Oommen Chandy to announce phased prohibition.

Chandy’s policy caught many in his own party and the Opposition unawares, but got the backing of the influential Latin Catholic church and the ruling ally Muslim League. With the prohibition agenda becoming an election issue, the CPI(M)-led Opposition was forced to uncork its own liquor policy leaning more towards temperance.

With a string of bars in the capital, Ramesh, 51, is not happy with the new policy but defends Amma’s support for phased prohibition. But then, Ramesh is more than just about bars. His website describes him as entrepreneur and philanthropist and one holding a doctorate in business administration. His Rajadhani Group has at least 14 hotels in and around Thiruvananthapuram, has invested in realty and offers trade and technology solutions.

At his sprawling office near the Kerala capital’s iconic Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, he clarifies that he is not a politician and had refused offers from Left parties and the BJP. “But when Amma asked me I could not refuse,” he said.

The AIADMK doesn’t boast of much presence in Thiruvananthapuram, although the constituency of over 1.8 lakh is home to around 35,000 Tamil-speaking voters. So, how did Ramesh come under the radar of Amma? He says he took an AIADMK membership six years ago and since has become friends with many AIADMK ministers.

”I am not concerned about the outcome. I am contesting because of my love and respect for Amma,” he said. Such devotion is what has made the political careers many AIADMK cadres MLAs, MPs and ministers in Tamil Nadu, which is just an hour’s drive from Thiruvananthapuram. In fact, Ramesh claims he was one of five — the four others were AIADMK ministers — who were allowed to receive Amma when she launched the party’s campaign in Coimbatore.

Ramesh admits he has business interests, including property, in Tamil Nadu. He claims he joined the AIADMK, which was then the main Opposition, after a minister demanded a bribe to let him construct a hotel in Kanyakumari. He refused to pay, he said, and the hotel has still not been completed. Now, having entered the contest, he is keen to make the most of it.

Every morning, he sets out on the campaign trail with a bunch of followers — one of them admitted he was on hire — to canvas in the name of Amma. His glossy pamphlet outlines his 46-point development agenda. All households have been promised freebies ranging from TVs, refrigerators, fans, mixer-grinders, sewing machines and other household goods. Brides have been promised Rs 25,000 and four grams of gold; the cash component has been doubled for girls with a degree. Housing projects, subsidies for Haj as well as pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Hindu centres, CCTVs at bus stations, toilet facilities at bus stations, diesel subsidy for fishermen are part of his promises.

So who will fund these freebies and schemes? “Amma,” said Ramesh, adding, “It will be a new thing in India’s federal set-up where the chief minister of a neighbouring state will fund schemes in another state.”

There will be pressure from residents of 139 other assembly constituencies in Kerala on political parties to rethink their welfare agenda, he said. Amma has also promised to set up a state-of-the-art garbage disposal plant on land to be provided by the candidate, said Ramesh.

However, having been a Thiruvananthapuram resident all his life, Ramesh knows what the constituency needs. On top of his agenda is making the city garbage-free. He agenda lists better sewage and drainage facilities, more toilets at public places and so on. He also speaks in detail about the lack of facilities at the numerous resettlement colonies.

The Thiruvananthapuram constituency includes the Secretariat area, in the heart of the city, and the coast adjoining the airport. The Congress has fielded minister V S Sivakumar and the Left candidate is Antony Raju, a Janadhipathya Kerala Congress leader. Former cricketer Sreesanth is the BJP nominee.

Ramesh singles out Sivakumar for criticism and claims the Congress has been targeting him since he came up with the bar bribery allegation. He claims that he blurted out details about the payment when he got irritated by the sanctimonious talk of fellow panellists on a TV show. “When the journalists named the minister, I refused to retract my statement,” he said.

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