Inching his way through the narrow lanes of Chennai’s R K Nagar, DMK leader M K Stalin stood up in his open jeep and addressed residents leaning out of their balconies in this multi-storey housing cluster for the poor. “Amma and her party ruled this constituency for nearly two decades. But R K Nagar remains the worst constituency in Tamil Nadu… You are voting for N Maruthuganesh and that means you are electing me, too,” he said.
Then, he slipped in the line that has drawn cheers at every stop during this bypoll campaign, which wound up Tuesday. “Naan, adiyan (I am your servant).”
As J Jayalalithaa’s constituency votes on December 21 — to elect a new MLA after her death last year — her own AIADMK is nowhere in the frame in the final days of the campaign.
The only other leader who has been welcomed here with pomp this time is T T V Dinakaran, ousted AIADMK leader V K Sasikala’s nephew and a rebel candidate. The campaign of the AIADMK’s official candidate, the veteran E Madhusudhanan, ground to a halt a few days ago with a senior minister saying that he was unwell and meeting voters at home.
Residents of R K Nagar say Madhusudhanan’s campaign never really took off, despite the government throwing its weight behind him and ministers visiting the constituency. “The last time he contested from this constituency was in 1991-96, which makes him a stranger before the youth. Moreover, disagreements within the merged factions of E Palaniswamy and O Panneerselvam will hit the AIADMK’s chances,” said a voter, who did not wish to be identified.
Ruling parties have traditionally won bypolls in Tamil Nadu but in the countdown to voting in R K Nagar, the buzz on the ground is that change is around the corner.
The bypoll was originally slotted in April before the Election Commission stepped in to cancel the vote following allegations of voters being bribed. Since then, the state’s politics has seen a number of shifts — the merging of the EPS and OPS factions, Sasikala being ousted, Dinakaran losing the fight for the party’s official two-leaves symbol. But in this constituency, dominated by low-income groups, it’s the same old story that’s playing out.
Once again, there are charges of people being paid Rs 200 each to shower flower petals on candidates, and money being distributed to influence voters. “There is no point in voting for a candidate if he has no money. One needs money power to do something. I got money from more than two parties,” claimed Murugan, a 19-year-old school dropout who works at a customs freight centre.
Last month, days after Dinakaran was allotted the pressure cooker as the symbol, the EC seized a truckload of pressure cookers from the area. It has also seized more than Rs 30 lakh in cash during the final leg of the campaign. A poll official said they have received reports of a number of violations: Rs 5,000 per vote, Rs 400 per head for a day for active campaigning; cash for those who draw party symbols as the traditional kolam (floral designs) at their doorsteps; and, tokens worth Rs 4,000 with a promise of payment after poll.
On Monday night, addressing a large crowd near Kasimedu, Dinakaran asked, “Mama (uncle), did I bribe you for votes?” With the crowd shouting ‘No’, Dinakaran raised a pressure cooker, and said with a laugh: “Then, who is bribing people here for votes, mama? We all know.”
Waiting in a lane near a temple on the Ennore high road to catch a glimpse of Dinakaran, a woman voter said, “I don’t like Sasikala, anyway she is in prison now. But T T V will do something. He sounds good.”
G Sargunan, a DMK sympathiser who sells medical equipment and medicine, said, “Dinakaran campaigned a lot in April. Through electronic and social media, he has reached the youth in almost all households. He is a promising leader. And more than Stalin, it is Dinakaran who has the courage to take on BJP at the Centre.”
While the Madhusudhanan camp fears a defeat, the DMK camp is nervous about retaining vote share. “We got 57,000 votes in the May 2016 elections. With the support of VCK, CPI, CPI(M) and Vaiko’s MDMK this time, we hope to win this election,” said a senior DMK leader.
The decline in the AIADMK’s share — from 1.51 lakh votes for Jayalalithaa in the June 2015 bypoll to 97,000 in the May 2016 assembly elections — and the removal of around 47,000 “bogus” voters from the rolls are factors that the DMK is banking on.
Winding up his speech at Annai Sathya Nagar, Stalin said, “If Kolathur (his constituency) is my own child, R K Nagar is my adopted child. In the last 17 years, AIADMK and Jayalalithaa have kept it as the worst constituency in the state. Everyone knows that R K Nagar is the worst place to live in. Give us a chance, we will make it a better place. Vote for DMK means not just R K Nagar but the beginning of the fall of Edappadi Palaniswamy’s corrupt government.”