At 8 in the morning, the usual hustle-bustle of election is absent at the Mamangam residence of Mohan Kumaramangalam, the young Congress candidate in Salem Lok Sabha constituency.
Sitting alone and sipping coffee, the MIT-educated political scion of the illustrious Kumaramangalam family talks over phone with supporters to make last-minute changes in campaign schedule.
His father Rangarajan Kumaramangalam represented the constituency from 1984 to 1996. He later joined the BJP and was elected from Tiruchirapalli in 1998 and 1999.
The family is well known, but Mohan is not the frontrunner and has no pretensions he is. Over the last one-and-a-half decades, political preferences of the constituency in northwest Tamil Nadu have dramatically changed, moving towards AIADMK.
Salem is perhaps the only constituency in Tamil Nadu where candidates of all major parties are debutants. DMDK candidate L Sudeesh is a brother-in-law of DMDK chief Vijayakanth and is considered one of the brains behind the BJP-DMDK-PMK-MDMK alliance. He is banking on the “Narendra Modi factor” and caste equations.
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Caste plays a major role in Salem, at the edge of the Vanniyar belt in the northwest. The result is unpredictable with a likely division in Vanniyar votes.
The AIADMK holds the Lok Sabha seat and five of the six assembly segments, and has fielded a Vanniyar, V Panneerselvam, to take on Sudeesh whose DMDK counts Vanniyars as its support base along with intermediary castes.
It is a prestige battle for Vijayakanth. He had brought in Modi to address a public meeting Wednesday, and CM J Jayalalithaa is Modi’s bitter rival. Against this backdrop, it is not the debut Mohan would have wished for. Undeterred, he argues caste will play little of a role. His DMK opponent Umarani has the same view.
Vanniyars form 30 to 35 per cent of the vote base, followed by Dalits and a mix of Goudars, Naidus, Thevars, Chettiars and Mudaliars.
“The majority are obviously Vanniyars. But only three or four of the last 13 MPs have been Vanniyars. Salem is half-urban. You are discounting that. Salem has been known for picking minority leaders as MPs including my father” Mohan Kumaramangalam says. He hopes urban votes will support a “young, educated person with ideas.”
Mohan, who left his job in Microsoft in 2010 to take up politics, is one of Rahul Gandhi’s nominees.
“I had stiff opposition,” he says. I didn’t seek the support of any leader per se. That happens in every party including the Congress. But in this election, everyone is working together. There were frequent tensions because the groups are so polarised. But everyone is trying to work together. Congressmen also felt that after 16 years, we can have a shot to show what our real strength is.”
Does he plan to stick to politics if he loses? “I will come back and I have already spent most of my time building a base in Salem. It has been almost a kind of a fulltime job,” he says. “I run a consumer goods company with my wife. It is a baby products company. But it is not something that takes up 60 per cent of my time. It is more like a 40 per cent job. Now after this election, depending on what happens, we will decide what the next step is.”