National Highway 47 enters Tamil Nadu at Kaliakkavilai, a market for fish, cattle and agriculture produce — an arterial road veering off marks the border with Kerala. At Thalachanvilai inter-section, a crowd is waiting for Congress candidate for Thiruvananthapuram, Shashi Tharoor. Across the decked-up stage is Tamil Nadu and the crowd around has a smattering of voters from the Kanyakumari constituency where the country meets the ocean. And like the waters at this southern tip, politics here is a swirl of currents, with ripples from next-door Kerala.
Six decades after Kanyakumari — then part of the Travancore princely state — joined Tamil Nadu after the linguistic reorganisation, it continues to meld two linguistic and political cultures, making it an outlier in Tamil Nadu politics.
The Congress, the Communists and now the BJP shape voting preferences here, as in neighbouring Thiruvananthapuram, more than the Dravidian parties. his means that in 2019 when the nation debates who should get the keys to New Delhi, the big battle in both Thiruvananthapuram and Kanyakumari — Kerala will vote on April 23, TN decided Thursday — is between the Congress and the BJP. The fact that there’s a significant non-Hindu population here has added another dimension: amid the debate over micro development issues, there is a looming macro question. Will the BJP’s rise herald a Hindu rashtra? That question, though, is understated as parties opposed to the BJP are wary of any counter consolidation.
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History has a bearing, too.
The Dravidian Movement has had little influence in this region, where even the caste faultline, prior to 1956, revealed itself as a linguistic divide — Malayalam was projected as the language of the upper caste Nairs and Tamil as the native tongue of Nadars, the OBC group, that successfully championed for Kanyakumari’s merger with Tamil Nadu. And, unlike in the rest of Tamil Nadu, the Hindus constitute less than 50 per cent of the electorate. In the 2014 general election, the BJP gained the Kanyakumari Lok Sabha seat and in the 2016 assembly poll, the Congress won three of the six assembly seats in the constituency.
The campaign is largely centred on local issues. The sitting MP, BJP leader and Union minister Pon Radhakrishnan, talks about his development record — building and expansion of roads, two major overbridges, one at Marthandam, a trade hub five-km away from the Kerala border on NH47, and the other at Nagercoil, the district headquarters, subways, etc. National issues, at best, figure as a footnote.
Key issues: forest land, mega port
At Kulasekharam, a major market for rubber, Balachandran Nair talks about the plight of over a lakh people affected by the Tamil Nadu Private Forests Act, a 1979 law that restricts business on land classified as private forest. The law began to be enforced only in 2010 when over 11,700 hectares of private land was declared private forest. According to Nair, this led to annulment of all business transactions involving these lands since 1979 and pushed over 30,000 landowners into a deep crisis.
Nair, secretary of the Kanyakumari District Rubber Farmers Association, adds that the MP had helped them get a favourable directive from the Centre. His concern this election season is the intransigence of the local administration, which has refused to recognise the plight of the farmers.
If the ghats that border the northern parts of the district are restive over the forest act, it’s a port that’s stirring the pot on the coast. A mega port near Kanyakumari is a showpiece project the sitting MP is selling to his electorate. Radhakrishnan argues that the Rs 28,000-crore project will transform the quiet town, where three seas roll over and pilgrims visit for a holy dip and to pray at the Kumari Amman shrine. In its hoary past, Kumari was a port that attracted ships from far and wide. Today, a giant Thiruvalluvar, the great ethicist of Tamil culture, stands sentinel on one such rock, watching over the Subcontinent, and dwarfing the memorial to Vivekananda on a neighbouring rock.
Kovalam, a neighbouring village, is the epicentre of the protests against the port. S Prabha, a resident of Kovalam and co-ordinator of the protests, claims the project is a sham. He lists errors in the feasibility report to argue that the port would destroy over 30 villages and impact the lives of over a lakh people, a majority of them associated with the fishing industry. The port will also destroy the estuary of the Pazhayar, one of the two perennial rivers in the district, and impact agriculture in the southern parts, according to Prabha.
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Sitting in his travel agency in the vicinity of the Kanyakumari temple, Prabha, 46, asks how could such projects be announced without any dialogue with the community? Mohammad Sadique, a young hotelier at Vivekanandapuram, also mentions the port issue but he hints that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be a factor that will trigger a consolidation against Radhakrishnan.
The port has a controversial history. It started as a fishing harbour in Colachel, then was expanded into a transhipment harbour, and shifted to Enayam, a fishing village in neighbouring Colachel, and following protests, moved to Kanyakumari. For Radhakrishnan, it is a project to embellish his claims to having been a doer in Kanyakumari. However, there are activists like S Lalmohan, a retired marine scientist, who question the very notion of the development that the BJP pitches for the region. Kanyakumari’s coast has lots of sand bars, which facilitates the breeding of fish like anchovies, and prevents erosion. The port will destroy the coastline, he says.
Big picture: Communal faultlines
So, is the contest in Kanyakumari all about local development?
On the surface, it is. But the subterranean narrative is about the BJP government and its relations with religious minorities. The elephant in the room is Hindutva and its mascot, Modi. “Ponnar”, as Radhakrishnan is referred to in the constituency, is less of a polarising figure and seen as an accessible politician. One afternoon, as his cavalcade rests at Perungode, a village near Thingalchanthai, a market town, a priest from the local parish joins him for lunch.
A K Perumal, a historian of Kanyakumari, explains the demographic diversity and cultural plurality of the district, only to hint that a communal consolidation is brewing on the ground. He spoke about the deep Catholic-Protestant divide in the Christian community. The rivalry is so much that in elections a Hindu candidate is favoured over a nominee from the rival congregation. But such a divide is unlikely this time and the non-Hindus are likely to consolidate in favour of H Vasantha Kumar, the Congress candidate.
This has all to do with the demography of the constituency. A senior RSS functionary maps the demography of the constituency and points out that of 18.90 lakh voters, only 9.10 lakh are Hindus while Christians number 8.80 lakh and Muslims nearly 80,000, with the Nadars, an OBC group, forming a majority of both Hindus and Christians. Modi and the shrill Hindutva rhetoric seems to have had a polarising effect with the minorities consolidating against the BJP.
A BJP sympathiser rues that issues that benefit the party is northern India works against it in Kanyakumari. Sujith Kumar, a senior RSS-BJP leader from Thripparappu, says Ponnar, a Hindu Nadar, will need to mop up 90 per cent of the Hindu vote to win this time. This is no mean task since his main rival, the Congress candidate Vasantha Kumar, too, is a Hindu Nadar.
Interestingly, the Hindu Munnani won an assembly seat in the district in 1984 – its first in Tamil Nadu — on the back of Hindu-Christian clashes in the region, but could never build on it. And barring an MLA in 1996, and Radhakrishnan’s wins in parliament elections in 1999 and 2014, the BJP’s success here have been far and few.
Today, the communal faultline reveals itself mainly in drawing room conversations and on social media platforms. If Modi is a beloved leader of Hindus and hence, the preferred choice for high office, he is a fearful figure for others. But these fears are raised only in closed groups and drawing rooms while the public debate generally stays clear of polarising talk. “The disquiet among the youth here is about corruption and lack of decent employment,” says Babita, who teaches at S T Hindu College, Nagercoil.
In Thalachanvilai, Savitri, a cashew processing worker in her 50s, is uninterested in the campaign, but candid about her choice. “This Narendran (Narendra Modi) is responsible for my plight. He must go,” she says.
The factory that employed her had cut down on production and laid off workers following demonetisation and GST. Savithri lost her job and has since been in difficult times. Pulwama, Balakote and the claims of India becoming a space power appear to have no resonance with her. Her politics is grounded in simple economics, not any emotional pitch. Hers could be the representative voice of the workers, mainly women, employed by the cashew factories that dot the region.
“Orders have come down since demonetisation and GST,” says Sameena, a young entrepreneur who makes sweets at home and sells them to small shops and bakeries. Her choice, too, is clear.