As the DMK convoy worms through the streets of Mannargudi, the loudspeaker blares the name of the candidate and his achievements at once: “T for trains, R for roads, B for bridges”.
T R Baalu is contesting for the first time from his home, Thanjavur in the Cauvery delta. Originally from Thalikottai, Baalu had contested five times from Chennai South since 1991, losing only the first time, and from Sriperumbudur in 2009.
The DMK campaign is centred around what he has brought to and built for Thanjavur. The roads and bridges were built by the NHAI during UPA-1 when he was minister for shipping, road transport and highways, though he was kept out of the cabinet during UPA-2. In 2009, he became chairman of the standing committee on railways.
In the last two years, he has regularly visited the constituency, making inspections and allotting funds for sprucing up stations. There have been 12 new trains, including seven expresses, to Chennai, Coimbatore, Tirupati, and even Jodhpur.
The shift has not been easy. Powerful district secretary S S Palanimanickam, former MoS and representing the seat for 18 years, is a veteran in factional politics. Palanimanickam, however, failed to shut Baalu out as his detractors threw their weight behind the latter.
“When we go to meet Palanimanickam, he has no time. He was more bothered about cutting his rivals to size than doing anything for the constituency,” said T Thirugnanam, 46, a farmer in Kattur in Mannargudi.
At first, Palanimanickam attacked Baalu in a press meet, leading to a public retort from M Karunanidhi through party organ Murasoli, and moves from M K Stalin to replace him as district secretary. He fell in line, appeared with Baalu on stage, and issued an advertisement in Murasoli with an apology.
Water and power
At the heart of the Cauvery delta, the rice bowl that meets over a third of Tamil Nadu’s requirement, T, R and B are only a small part of what counts. The agrarian region is dependent on the Cauvery for irrigating the vast rice fields but that depends on inter-state water politics.
“From a double-crop area of about 4.50 to 5 lakh hectares, now we have only about a lakh hectares under cultivation. Karnataka is refusing us our share, sand mining is lowering the riverbed, and farmers are falling prey to real estate agents,” said S Ranganathan, a retired geology professor who, as secretary of the Cauvery Delta Farmers Welfare Association, helped organise unofficial meetings with farmers in Karnataka under the banner of “the Cauvery family”. Now he criticises Kerala and Karnataka for their refusal to share water.
It is the anger of such farmers that J Jayalalithaa has been hoping to exploit. When she quit the NDA in 1999, the Cauvery dispute was the stated reason. In her campaigns, she attacks the DMK for not safeguarding the state’s interests.
What could also spell trouble for Baalu is a coal-bed methane extraction project that the DMK government had sanctioned. It met with protests from farmers led by the Left parties who said it would affect the water table. Experts raised concerns that the subterranean bed contains lignite, not coal, which means the methane extracted has to be processed before use.
“The project would have killed agriculture in the delta that accounts for about 38-40 per cent of grain production,” said Ranganathan. Jaya’s government sided with the farmers in opposing the project, and the DMK stepped back. “When we supported the Centre’s project to extract methane, we believed it would not have any impact on farmers. But after realising the consequences, the party has urged the Centre to drop the project,” Stalin said at a public meeting in Thanjavur.
Power is another key issue, and the lack of it could impact the fate of Jaya’s candidate, K Parasuraman. Rapid development under the previous DMK regime without an improvement in capacity addition led to long and frequent power cuts, and the AIADMK has not been able to improve the situation. In Thanjavur, where the farmers are not receiving enough water, this means even the borewells remain largely useless.
Thousands get work only for about 15 days a month; on other days, they hope to get a day’s wage under MNREGA. “The mood in our area is so sombre that there is no election campaign at all by anyone,” said N Nagarajan, a 42-year-old labourer at Karakkottai village.
Mannargudi is also home to Sasikala Natarajan, whose family had had great clout in the AIADMK and the government machinery. The town speaks of them in hushed tones, and shops display their photos as a mark of loyalty.
In 2011, for reasons not yet clear, Jaya expelled almost the entire family. Though Sasikala returned to Jaya’s home soon, others remain persona non grata. Not one party member or even Sasikala attended her niece’s wedding a few months ago. The only politician present was the DMK’s Azhagu Thirunavukkarasu, who was once in the AIADMK. “It is likely that some of those dependent on that family may vote against the AIADMK to express their displeasure,” said J Marudamuthu, a member of the DMK’s trade union.