The absence of P Chidambaram from the electoral fray is what Sivaganga has been talking about. With the finance minister’s absence and a possible Congress defeat threatening to deprive the economically backward district of his largesse, Chidambaram’s son Karti, who has replaced him as the candidate, has been selling a dream of bringing private investment to the constituency.
Lack of employment opportunities is a key issue in this dry and sparsely populated constituency, which abuts the relatively prosperous Madurai. The senior Chidambaram is credited with having made Sivaganga a banking hub: the district has over 250 branches of almost all the natonalised banks. Over the years, his gravy train of goodies have included a BHEL plant, a spices park and the expansion of a National Textile Corporation unit. The region’s continued backwardness makes the aspirations of its people a key factor in any campaign.
The father’s absence has met with mockery from the son’s opponents. “He did not contest because he knew he would not win. He has done nothing for the constituency,” DMK candidate S Durairaj tells his audience as he ends his day’s campaign in the town area. The AIADMK’s P R Senthilnathan and BJP’s H Raja say much the same. For all that he has done for the constituency, Chidambaram had a close shave last time, winning by around 3,000 votes.
Karti, for his part, points out that Sivaganga has elected Chidambaram seven times in the last three decades. “It is a record that none of his critics has achieved or can hope to achieve,” he says.
Karti’s mantra is private investment. “I don’t believe the government is the answer to everything. That is my ideology,” he says. “We blame God and government for everything. G-O-I or G-O-D. I think there is a lot of work that can be done through the private sector. I believe GOI and GOD are not the solution for everything that ails us.”
Apart from his ideas and the work done by his father, Karti is banking on his age — he is the youngest of all the candidates. “I do not belong to any caste. My strategy is that I don’t depend on government programmes. I will be able to attract the private sector particularly to three sectors — agro-processing industries, tourism and solar — and I will be able to create jobs through the private sector.”
Sivaganga being a rural constituency, NREGA is a hit here. As he steps out of his SUV in a village near Karaikudi, women surround him with complaints of a cut in NREGA wages. “If your son sends a money order of Rs 2,000 and the postman only gives you Rs 1,000, whose fault is it?” he replies, implying that the state government has been up to mischief.
“Continuance of NREGA is a big issue. The state government is not very enthusiastic about it and the BJP does not want it in its present form,” he says. “So there is a big fear whether NREGA will continue if the Congress is not back in power.”
Karti admits the Congress lacks charismatic leaders in the state with electoral tie-ups hampering the growth of natural leaders. “We have not produced a leader to match Annaduria, Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa or M G Ramachandran. It is a fact. Why deny it? We don’t have a personality who can communicate or emote with the people on the same level as they. I think if we continue to contest separately, a natural leader will emerge. We must contest the assembly elections alone. So what if we lose one more election,” he argues.
In the AIADMK camp, the fear is of a vote division. The AIADMK and its allies had won all but one of six assembly segments in Sivaganga in 2011. Raja Kannappan, the candidate last time, has not been given the ticket and is said to be unhappy.
Although it is unclear whether the Modi factor will play out in Tamil Nadu, Modi is the talking point everywhere one goes. And Karti admits the BJP’s media management is good, though he says it will not translate into a victory.
“That way I think Obama too is very well-known in Tamil Nadu. That does not mean Obama is going to win the election here,” he says. “Everyone knows Amitabh Bachchan as well.”