Jayalalithaa started her campaign well in advance like good friend turned mid-poll foe Narendra Modi. For elections scheduled soon after this Easter, she positioned herself well before last Christmas.
December last, hoardings sprang up along the roads that connect the CM’s Poes Garden home to Marina Beach. In hundreds, hailing Amma as PM, give or take a little election. Got many eyeballs in Chennai, then in the thrall of the music season. However, morning walkers from the neighbourhood, mostly NOTA voters, dismissed the whole thing as gimmick and walked on.
The big ticket announcement was primarily meant for party men who were readying to commemorate founder MGR on Christmas Eve, his death anniversary. The wayside visual overkill, an insider ventured, was also meant for the presidential eyes of Pranab Mukherjee who was visiting Chennai on December 20, 2012. In case of a hung Lok Sabha, the veteran would have a role.
Such display boards have since sprouted in places near and far — Delhi’s Tamil quarters to a particularly colourful one at Palakkad in Kerala, whose only connect to the Amma legacy is that it is MGR’s hometown. Also Prakash Karat’s, a factoid that could have had some salience, had AIADMK’s tie-up with the Left run half as long as an MGR film. That apart, come elections and the Tamil land was expected to bloom into graphic spreads.
A surprise was in store as you entered Tamil Nadu from Kerala. Narendra Modi waved you off, from a hoarding flanked by the most winnable candidates from the bordering states – O Rajagopal from Thiruvananthapuram and Pon Radhakrishnan from Kanyakumari. After which, it took miles on end to sight another poll image. The Election Commission’s man in Chennai had struck. No visual splurge in towns. Only in villages. The EC went to the extent of covering the Chief Minister’s face with paper and sticking tape on governmental displays.
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Leaders’ pictures are allowed at party events where Jayalalithaa outdoes the rest, celebrating with a vengeance. She tries out unconventional mounts to maximise appeal. Balloons carrying her picture set against Parliament House go up at her Pollachi rally. On the highway to the Nilgiris, you see her Red Fort in motion — a semi-knocked-down cut-out being carted to the next big do.
Between big events, it is a long spell of visual drought. In Kotagiri, the DMK tries to make up with audio. From a stationary jeep fitted with big box speakers, lyrics in a loop blare out in praise of ‘Dalapati (Group Commandant) Stalin who arrives in leonine gait…’ No patch on the visual morphing you see in a Rajini film, but the earworm stays.
In Nagercoil, the BJP candidate stops strategically at a colourful temple corner working the campaign into a saffron-tinted backdrop. If the candidate chooses, similar choreographed halts can happen beside mosques, or even better, churches in this Bible belt. Which raises the question: Is the EC being all that smart effacing regulated poll-time visuals from public view? The gaze gets redirected to structures overtly faith-bound.
BJP’s new-found minor Dravidian allies don’t seem wholly comfortable with such God-side stopovers. At Alwar Coil street in Nagercoil, Vaiko’s men let a BJP biker wave their flag. The ally retreats to his air-conditioned car whose dashboard has a plastic lotus Velcroed to it, if it is any consolation.
A sturdy man of extreme contrast, hair dyed black and wear all white, spouts an unsolicited secular assertion, “All Christians are with the BJP — Roman Catholics as well as CSI… Just the other day, the pastor garlanded the candidate.” The last bit is no surprise. Pon Radhakrishnan, no stranger to the constituency, was elected from here in 1999. He is merely seeking a return from a two-term vanvaas.
All told, BJP’s best ally hereabouts is the RSS. On the outskirts of Nagercoil nearing Perumalpuram, the young leader manning the two-room party office is candid about his Sangh link. His local clout becomes apparent when a lost cellphone is retrieved within minutes of his calling up the number and revealing who he is.
Such ownership and involvement seem to be anything but uniform in rival circles elsewhere. At the Congress office in Theni, the functionaries say no more than crib, crib and crib about the election observer. “Only the district chief is authorised to speak to the press and he is out campaigning where we aren’t sure.” Amidst the day-long power cut, the grand old party apparatus is powered by a diesel-guzzling engine to function like this.
By contrast, strongman Alagiri’s one-man show is refreshingly forthcoming. You are most politely told how busy Madurai’s sitting MP is. Only his house is forbidding — a cubist walled-up structure standing silently in a cobbled corner. Even the birds don’t chirp.
DMK’s Palanisamy who runs the city’s main campaign outfit is no match for an Alagiri focussed lethally on sibling rivalry. Slim, tall, ash mark on forehead, this lawyer-politician is multitasking at the height of a do-or-die campaign. The middle-aged god-fearing man fields questions from the press and instructs party flock twice his age, even as he briefs juniors on the day’s court work.
If there is a medal for sticking to officious rituals, it would go to the Madurai office of CPM. Much paper and paperless work is happening here — clippings being filed away, list after checklist being reviewed, pencils being sharpened, laptops downloading and mobiles getting charged — atop paint-peeling steel furniture. Hierarchical to a fault, comrades in bush shirts and trousers move about in silence and speak in hushed tones. No smiles, please. The state secretary is visiting. Asked why so organised and cerebral a party couldn’t foresee AIADMK’s betrayal, Comrade Secretary shoots back, “What can you say about these bourgeoisie parties?” The revolutionary option must be very much in place.
You breathe a lot easier in the company of the young men you run into at the historic Gandhi Arch in Thoothukudi’s beachside town, Kayalpattinam, a largely Muslim locality. As informed as activists, they speak freely as commoners. “BJP 90 per cent communal; Congress 20 per cent.”
How about the Aam Aadmi Party? Udayakumar, Koodankulam’s anti-nuclear campaigner, is the AAP candidate in Kanyakumari. “We are ourselves fighting pollution from local chemical plants and as for Kejriwal, he’ll ultimately join Modi as Deputy PM. And the good old Anna Hazare will be the next President.”
“Closer home, both big Dravidian parties have, at one time or the other, gone with the BJP. True, Vajpayee’s BJP, not Modi’s. But then Modi can’t do any harm here. We are educated, we have doctors and engineers who work in Hong Kong and the US. And we are very much part of this seaside culture. Must have come here way back from Egypt.”
“The real danger of Modi ascent is not aggression but discrimination. We can’t live without government nods — to build a house, to get into school, find jobs, buy, sell, export, import, transport…the RSS will infiltrate the administration. If the district collector turns out to be a Sangh guy, we’ll get nothing done. Our kids will lose out.”
“But then it can’t happen. Modi has surely confused voters, but not enough to see his motley gang through. Vaiko didn’t even contest the last assembly poll and Dr Ramadoss isn’t what he was. Captain Vijayakanth’s vote share, once 10 per cent across the state, has halved.”
How? “Take one look at the captain’s antics on YouTube. Who’ll vote for such comedy?”
“Don’t just go by what we say. Talk to the evening crowd at the beach.”
Vandalised cement structures and a waterless fountain long in disuse welcome you to a beach that manages to look eerie at midday. No sign of life barring paper cups and used bottles littered all over. Hardly the place where you can imagine a lively evening chat. More likely, noise.
In fact, much of what you see as you drive along the Tamil terrain is in a similar state of disarray. Barren stretches with neither humans nor cattle dotted by spurts of activity tending to be chaotic. You are never far from rubble and everyday waste, spread or heaped. Urban centres from hilly Nilgiris to seaside Kanyakumari look too uneven to hold. Some parts seem overbuilt, some under-built and can’t tell if some others are half-built or half-demolished. Something is happening to the Tamil landscape, no less to Tamil politics.
The Dravidian template with an alternating Congress isn’t working this time. New player BJP itself is on a test run. Paradoxically, what could work for the party here is the very personality cult the Parivar disapproves. Allies or no allies, each party is essentially fending for itself, back to basics and is in a state of adversity not seen in a long time. Enough to yield a new template?
Even better, will this campaign from Christmas to Easter yield a new Tamil Testament? Emerging from the kind of energy palpable in a wayside Dalit gathering. Young men dancing away to honour Dr Ambedkar — incidentally the most visible image that recurs through some 1,600 kilometres. Which should bring us to the least visible. Except at organised rallies, no trace of women in this political process.