Had there been synchronised elections to assemblies and Lok Sabha, Congress here would have had a less poll-savvy candidate. At 48, Karti Chidambaram is into his eleventh election. “Have done it all. Written out voter slips, organised transport, scheduled meetings, been a booth agent… There is nothing I haven’t done in this constituency.” Mostly, for his father P Chidambaram. He dips his voice and adds, “…this time, he is managing my campaign.”
It is close to 3 pm and the son is just back after extended forenoon meetings with party functionaries, “I am dying for a bath and a meal.” Father is still out, strategising, and an aide isn’t clear when he would return to the back office which seems to work out of a sprawling farmhouse in Managiri village in Karaikal — an old-style, airy bungalow built recently and done up to match the retro vintage. Election is a great leveller and into this exquisite space has come humdrum poll-time paraphernalia — half-opened bundles of Xerox paper and worse, stackable plastic chairs. Spread around in the porch to seat a bunch of techies ideating on the candidate’s social media presence.
A mandatory add-on for sure, but Karti is confident of the underlying factors that favour him — “disquiet among Dalits and minorities over the Modi regime, the angst in the business communities on demonetisation and GST, the general policy drift and last, if not the least, cable TV prices. For whatever reason, cable TV operators have jacked up rates and locally, it is a big issue.” TV, for sure, is an essential feed.
With all these, he does acknowledge the one critical factor of Tamil parliamentary polls — the regional ally. The SUV that pilots his convoy bears ample testimony to the grandeur of partnering. The formidable array of colourful party flags the Fortuner flies can dwarf any Mahagathbandhan. Among the multiple outfits, DMK is the key player that would work the last mile.
Elsewhere in Karaikal, last-mile veterans are lounging in local DMK leader Chandran’s house to tie up the loose ends. Thanks to Internet connectivity, even for a grassroot campaign, you can do some of the work from home. Armed with cellphones, these party men are focused on immediate rival AIADMK, which they think is in terminal decline, hastened by T T V Dhinakaran, who, on his part, is expected to helpfully split the Jaya legacy vote.
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“Come on, how many votes can he split?” asks H Raja, Karti’s major challenger from BJP. “Even if he takes away a lakh, I’ll still win.” He is sitting back after a late lunch at the AIADMK MP’s villa, which, unlike the Chidambaram farmhouse in splendid isolation, stands out in Devakottai’s Nagadi countryside. The regional ally is a big help, acknowledges Raja and returns to what he seems to excel at, number crunching. A practising chartered accountant, he says he polled more than the many-time finance minister ‘Senior Chidambaram’ in a three-way split election that both lost in 1999. He did the same in the 2014 polls, where he was second runner-up and Karti the third. “In the best of times neither is unassailable and least of all now, with the ED, CBI cases,” he says about the father and son.
He quickly switches to ‘the basics’. “Much basic stuff remains to be done here, as basic as drinking water which the seven-time MP Chidambaram left to local bodies.” He would instead act locally and, as a BJP man, think nationally, “Delhi is my second home. I have friends there. I worked in the north and have picked up enough Hindi.” A taunt at Chidambaram who is more comfortable in English and Tamil.