“The drama that started five years ago must end,” Ramasami, a local CPI leader, standing atop a mini-truck decorated with photographs of Tiruppur Lok Sabha candidate K Subbarayan, and leaders of the DMK-led front, hollers into the mike. “Chowkidaar”, “Rs 11-lakh coat”, Pulwama, Imran Khan, Rafale, GST, demonetisation, petrol prices, all find a mention as Ramasami’s voice soars above the cacophony of the late evening traffic in Tiruppur, India’s hosiery capital.
As a van decked with speakers ferrying a music troupe parks next to the truck, Ramasami winds up. “Kallakudi konda Karunanidhi vazhgave,” a singer emerges from the van, with Nagoor Haneefa’s famous paean to the late DMK patriarch. People jostle to pay as the singers belt out DMK numbers, until the announcement that ‘Puratchi Puyal Ilaya Anna (Revolutionary Storm and Junior Anna)’ Vaiko is arriving.
Vaiko arrives with candidate Subbarayan, a veteran CPI leader. Vaiko’s party is a skeleton of what it used to be. The only MDMK candidate this election is contesting on DMK symbol. Vaiko invokes the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, whose ashes are kept in Tiruppur, recalling the Hindu Mahasabha staging Gandhi assassination in Aligarh recently. “Prime Minister! Are you people Godse’s followers?” he asks.
Subbarayan’s main rival is M S M Anandan, a former AIADMK minister in this party stronghold. The BJP has only a nominal presence. However, the Opposition singles out Modi in speeches. He is blamed for demonetisation and GST, the two predominant issues in Tiruppur, where numerous small units shut down in the wake of these two actions. Tiruppur voted with the rest of Tamil Nadu on April 18.
Sampath Kumar, an industry veteran, blames rising costs for Tiruppur slipping in the exports market. Manufacturing in Bangladesh is 16 per cent cheaper. Enabling policies that helped when India was a least developed country have run their course. Now, the industry is exploring cheaper manufacturing locations in Southeast Asia, Africa, Sampath explains.
Such nuanced reading of the economy is not the norm in Tiruppur. Subrabharathi Manian, whose fiction mirrors the lives of the city’s working class, says the industry in Kongu belt (west Tamil Nadu) is depressed because of GST. In Tiruppur, where a person starts as a labourer, rises to become a small entrepreneur and then expands his business, both demonetisation and GST have hit hard, he says.
As Manian claims issues like nationalism and leaders like Modi are insignificant in Tiruppur, G Kalamani, who is listening, joins the conversation to say national security is important and Modi “a strong leader like Amma (Jayalalithaa)”. Kalamani is chairperson of an NGO that works with local women. Her brother, Palanisami, a realtor, also supports Modi, saying demonetisation was a “cure”, and that when the disease is grave, the medicine will be bitter.
Hosiery is just one part of the Tiruppur story. This town lives in the shadow of Coimbatore, a manufacturing and education hub. The Noyyal, that connects the two cities, is now a stinking reminder of the ecological cost of the industry boom. Farmers in the Noyyal basin fought for their river in the courts and forced the industry to set up STPs.
The Tiruppur constituency stretches from the Noyyal to the Cauvery in the north, and much of it is rural. The Federation of Tamil Nadu Agriculturalists Association has fielded a candidate, L Kathiresan, who taught at NIFT, Tiruppur, before turning an entrepreneur. The Association has nearly three lakh members. One of its leaders, Nallasamy, says they chose to field a candidate in Tiruppur since it is home to people from all over Tamil Nadu.
Nallasamy isn’t impressed with what Modi and Rahul are offering to farmers. He calls for an Agriculture Commission on the lines of the Pay Commission. Cauvery water, substitution of farm imports by local produce, “inclusion of domestic edible oils in the PDS system”, revival of water sources, are prominent on Nallasamy’s list of demands.
At Bhavani, where the Bhavani joins the Cauvery, Siddaiyyan, an AITUC leader, has a different set of concerns. He heads a union of weavers who make handloom durries (jamukkalams). It’s a 100-year-old industry that has GIS certification and employs nearly 30,000 people. “We were outside the tax net and then 18% GST was imposed. It has since been reduced to 5% but, as a handloom sector, there should be no tax on us,” Siddaiyyan says. GST is only the most recent blow to the industry. The Tamil Nadu government hasn’t revised wages since 1994.
Rajammal, the AITUC vice-president who has been a weaver for over 50 years, warns that the profession may become extinct. It takes two weavers a day-and-a-half to weave a 15-ft-by-8ft durrie. They earn Rs 400 for it.
At Vaniputhur, in the northern edge of the constituency, DMK cadre are confident Subbarayan will win. Lilavati, a DMK leader, however, is concerned the AIADMK will “buy voters”. Pointing at the CPI candidate, she says, “He neither takes money nor gives.”
The AIADMK has won Tiruppur since its inception. In 2014, the AIADMK front (including the AIADMK, DMDK and BJP) had polled over seven lakh votes. In contrast, the DMK and allies Congress and CPI had got just 2.86 lakh votes. In the 2016 state elections, the AIADMK had won all six Assembly segments. The AIADMK front this time represents a coalition of politically dominant Gounders and Vanniyar castes.
But standing at Gokul Tea Stall in Tiruppur town, outside a new hosiery unit, old mill-hand Kuppuswamy says things are about to change. Taking a puff from his beedi, he says, “Saar! There is a silent rage all around. It will become a storm.”
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