It’s a little past 10 in the morning, but the summer sun is already beating down hard on Vilathikulam near Thoothukudi in southern Tamil Nadu. But G Vinodh, a carpenter, says he did not think twice about bringing his family along to attend the roadshow of DMK’s Thoothukudi candidate Kanimozhi, daughter of the late DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi who is fighting her debut election. Beside Vinodh stands his mother Maheswari, cradling his three-month-old daughter. The baby, red and hot in a pale green shawl printed with a photo of the late AIADMK leader and former chief minister J Jayalalithaa, drifts in and out of sleep amidst the heat and noise.
As they stand by the road opposite the Vilathikulam bus stand, waiting for Kanimozhi’s convoy to enter the narrow lanes of the town, Maheswari and her friend Ramaneeswari, both daily wage workers, discuss Kanimozhi’s Thoothukudi connection. Kanimozhi’s mother Rajathi Ammal, Karunanidhi’s third wife, is from Thoothukudi and the DMK has fielded Kanimozhi with an eye on the Hindu Nadar community to which her mother belongs. “But Rajathi Ammal left Thoothukudi years ago and now lives in Madras (Chennai),” informs Maheswari.
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Do they like Kanimozhi? Ramaneeswari smiles. “What is there to like or dislike? They will all come like this and go… But we will vote for her to defeat Modi,” she says, not sounding too convinced about Kanimozhi but clear about who won’t get her vote — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party candidate and BJP state president Tamilisai Soundararajan. Maheswari nods, saying their vote is for the DMK’s rising sun symbol. The green shawl that the baby is wrapped in was part of an ‘Amma Baby Kit’ that they received from the Thoothukudi government hospital where she was born. But in Tamil Nadu’s sop-fuelled political landscape, these little contradictions are a way of life.
As Tamil Nadu’s 39 Lok Sabha seats, along with one seat in Puducherry, vote in the second phase on April 18, it’s clear that this is an election unlike any the state has witnessed in recent decades. For one, this is the first election without either of the two towering Dravidian leaders and rivals — DMK’s Karunanidhi, who passed away in August 2018, and Jayalalithaa, whose death in December 2016 sent the AIADMK spiralling into crisis, turning it into a pale shadow of the party that won 37 of the 39 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The circumstances since then have also meant that the state’s election campaign this time has a new language. Unlike in the past, it’s the national parties that are setting the agenda — the BJP, though only fighting from five seats, has the clear upper hand in its alliance with the AIADMK and Captain Vijaykanth’s DMDK; and the mega Opposition alliance led by the DMK has rallied round the Congress, which is fighting on nine seats, and which includes Left, Dalit and minority parties.
In another departure from the past, when sops and strictly local issues set the tone, this time, the Opposition alliance has spun its narrative around a simple question: “Don’t you want to keep out Modi?”
As Tamil Nadu witnesses its first election in a post-Karunanidhi, post-Jayalalithaa era, the political landscape in the state has changed beyond recognition. With the BJP now in an alliance with the AIADMK, the party will hope to not only better its 2014 showing, when it won one seat in the state, but, with the AIADMK a pale shadow of its former self, to also have a bigger say in the alliance.
It’s a narrative that has centred itself around the dozen-odd issues in the state over the last five years that exposed the emotional distance between Delhi and Tamil Nadu. As several Centrally funded projects and some policy and political decisions of the Centre faced massive public protests in the state — from the agitation against the Sterlite copper plant in Thoothukudi that ended in the death of 13 people in police firing to the anguish over NEET, the common medical entrance exam that led to protests over the state’s candidates allegedly being left out; from the ongoing protests against the Kanyakumari port project to the anger over the Centre’s stand on Jallikattu — the Opposition has spun its campaign around Delhi’s ‘big brotherly’ attitude.
With the BJP ruling the Centre for five years and the AIADMK in the state for eight, the Opposition’s position has forced the NDA on the defensive. While AIADMK leaders try hard to avoid any mention of Modi, fearing a backlash, the BJP’s candidates stick to the party line on Swachh Bharat, GST, demonetisation etc.
DMK confident, BJP on backfoot
Back in Vilathikulam, a village town in Thoothukudi whose parched land, in the absence of rain for two years, forms a bleak backdrop, Kanimozhi’s convoy rolls in, followed by a dozen luxury SUVs carrying DMK leaders. The convoy has one other familiar face: Udayanidhi Stalin, the actor-son of party chief M K Stalin who recently entered politics.
Calling Modi’s rule “useless” and referring to CM Edappadi K Palaniswami and Deputy CM O Panneerselvam as adimaigal (slaves) of the BJP, Udayanidhi reels out the DMK’s manifesto promises while seeking votes for his father’s step-sister. Kanimozhi, who is neither the most aggressive of campaigners nor considered much of an orator, stands with folded hands, often breaking into laughter at Udayanidhi’s name-calling of rivals.
Kanimozhi, who has been doing a lot of ground work in Thoothukudi over the last few years, is confident of winning by exploiting the anti-incumbency factor against both the ruling dispensations in the state and Centre. If the colour and mood of Kanimozhi’s campaign is a sign of her confidence, the BJP’s lackluster campaign in Kanyakumari — the only seat the party won in 2014 as part of an alliance with the PMK and DMDK — is being read by the rivals as a sign of its nervousness.
BJP’s sitting MP and Union minister Pon Radhakrishnan, who was denied entry to several fishing hamlets for over a month after Cyclone Ockhi in December 2017, speaks little in his campaigns; when he does, it’s mostly about how the Modi regime helped the poor, brought them jobs etc.
Of the 234 people who died in Cyclone Ockhi, 162 were from Kanyakumari. A large section of the fishermen community blames the state and Centre for the “raw deal” they got during the cyclone, saying they got no advance warning or weather alert and that rescue efforts were delayed and inadequate. To contain this anger, PM Modi had promised to set up a new ministry for fishermen and their welfare, an assurance Rahul Gandhi made too.
Besides Cyclone Ockhi, a dozen fishing hamlets in Kanyakumari are locked in a stand-off with Radhakrishnan, who holds the shipping portfolio as MoS in the Union, against his plans to build a new port here.
Villagers allege that Radhakrishnan, in his eagerness to execute his dream project, is indifferent to their fear that the port would submerge their hamlets. “We demanded modernisation of boats and a fishing harbour; not a container harbour, especially when ports nearby (Vizhinjam in Kerala and Thoothukudi port) are struggling. The government has failed to address our real issues,” says Robert Franco, a fisherman from Thoothoor.
Radhakrishnan’s rival H Vasanthakumar of the Congress, a businessman-politician from the region, is confident of “easily winning by a margin of over two lakh as Radhakrishnan’s big promises never materialised”.
“I asked for proof for his claim that he brought projects worth Rs 40,000 crore to Kanyakumari. When the district wants a fishing harbour, he is dreaming of a port,” says Vasanthakumar, who is known in these parts for being related to Kumari Ananthan, veteran Congress leader and father of BJP state unit president and Thoothukudi candidate Tamilisai.
With Kanyakumari a prestige seat for the BJP, the DMK alliance hopes to win over the seat’s Hindu and the Christian Nadar communities, who are usually at each other’s throats. With Vasanthakumar himself a Nadar Hindu, the Congress hopes his candidature will split the BJP’s traditional Hindu votes.
Salem keeps ADMK hopes alive
In Coimbatore, a town on the state’s western border, the BJP is hoping to win a seat that its candidate C P Radhakrishnan won in 1998 and 1999. Radhakrishnan is up against the CPI(M)’s P R Natarajan, whose party is fighting as part of the DMK-Congress alliance.
Coimbatore’s communal past — the town witnessed violence in 1997, 1998 and 2016 — and the backing of the powerful OBC Gounder community means that Radhakrishnan continues to hold an upper hand in poll campaigns. He also has the support of S P Velumani, an AIADMK minister from Thondamuthur Assembly constituency in Coimbatore.
But all’s not well for the party. Though Coimbatore, with hundreds of micro, small and medium scale industries in its periphery, has a sizeable Hindu votebase, the recent gang rape case in Pollachi town in the district, besides the allegedly damaging impact of demonetisation and GST on its industries, are all playing out in favour of Natarajan.
K E Raghunathan of the All India Manufacturers Organisation — the body that conducted a survey in October 2018 that reported 43% job losses among traders, 32% among micro industries, 35% among small industries and 24% among medium-scale industries since 2014 — said there was strong discontent against the BJP across the industrial belts of the state. “Not just Coimbatore but Sivakasi, Tirupur, Karur, Hosur, even Ambattur, Guindy and Gummidipoondi took a massive hit. Many industrial units are up for sale or already shut. The condition of BHEL’s ancillary unit in Trichy is pathetic. Thousands of workers in these belts have a say in this election,” he said.
Salem in west Tamil Nadu, another Gounder community stronghold and native of CM Palaniswami, remains a hopeful one for the AIADMK, thanks to half a dozen flyovers and bridges, besides massive road development projects he brought in. Here, AIADMK’s K R S Saravanan is up against DMK’s S R Parthiban.
The Congress, which faced a washout in 2014, is more confident this time around, riding on the general trend in favour of the DMK alliance and hoping to capitalise on the anti-BJP, anti-AIADMK wave in the state.
In Sivaganga, a traditional Congress seat from where the party’s Karti Chidambaram lost his deposit in 2014, the fight is between him and BJP’s national secretary H Raja. While Karti’s candidature had initially triggered a revolt in the Congress, Raja, who has contested several times from this seat, has the backing of the BJP and RSS, besides the AIADMK.
“In this election, there is no other question or agenda except the ouster of Modi,” Karti, who is on the radar of Central agencies for his alleged role in the Aircel-Maxis case, tells The Sunday Express.
On the alleged corruption charges, he says, “You ask anyone, I haven’t done anything against anyone. I am a harmless person. Congress workers like me a lot… We will win by a margin of over one lakh.”
This election, Raja has stuck to the BJP’s Hindutva line. Often criticised for his hardline Hindutva position, Raja, who began his career as an RSS worker, says, “Hindus have faced a raw deal for years. I will stand by them, argue for them. I am not at all apologetic about that.”
In his speeches, he talks about PM Modi’s “success in building toilets” and the “benefits” of GST and demonetisation, and promises to revive all Chola-era water tanks in Sivaganga to solve the region’s water crisis. “I will win this time, even Congress followers will vote for me. Remember that Karti lost his deposit and was behind me in the 2014 polls,” he said.
2 unknown, one known factor
The man to “remember” might well be T T V Dhinakaran, AIADMK rebel and Sasikala’s nephew who, after being expelled from the party, founded the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) and has put up candidates in 38 out of 39 seats.
A senior AIADMK leader contesting from a Central Tamil Nadu region said Dhinakaran’s presence has left many clueless, not just the AIADMK. “Even if he splits AIADMK votes, he may end up helping the wrong candidate. We have to wait and see since spoilers can spoil anything, not just the AIADMK’s prospects,” he says, adding that his presence might result in the Congress losing Theni (where its E V K S Elangovan is up against AMMK’s Thanga Tamilselvan), spoil the chances of the CPI(M) in Madurai by splitting the OBC Thevar votes and split PMK leader Anbumani Ramadoss’s Vanniyar votes in his home turf Dharmapuri.
Besides these seats, the Dravidian majors are nervously watching Sivaganga, Trichy and Ramanathapuram, fearing that the Dhinakaran factor may sabotage their prospects by forcing a three-cornered contest.
Political observers predict that while the DMK and AIADMK are bound to get at least 30 per cent votes in all seats, AMMK, they say, will get up to 20 per cent votes in at least 10 constituencies and an average of 15 per cent across the state — enough to play spoiler.
Analysts say that unlike Dhinakaran, Haasan, though he is expected to get 3 to 5 per cent votes, is unlikely to win any seat.
At least in Chidambaram, the reserved seat in the eastern part of the state, Thol Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) isn’t letting anyone play spoiler.
The state’s most powerful Dalit leader, Thirumavalavan has already secured his position here by being part of the powerful DMK-Congress-Left alliance.
After addressing a meeting at Jayankondam Pattinam, a remote village in Chidambaram, Thirumavalavan is surrounded by Dalit women, who want a temple for the local deity.
Thirumavalavan, whose politics has been largely shaped by the Dravidian and rationalist movements of Periyar, absently wipes off the vibhuti and kumkum that his supporters had smeared on his forehead. But he courteously tells the women he that he would get a temple built.
One of the women, who holds Thirumavalavan’s hands in a tight clutch, says, “Ellai Mariamman is our God, who else will save us.” Their village had recently faced massive protests against the ONGC-Vedanta project to extract hydrocarbon in this region.
In a constituency where Dalits and the OBC Vanniyars are in equal numbers, it was PMK’s Ramadoss who led the protests against the project and the Centre in 2017-2018. “But he compromised the cause of people and has joined the BJP-AIADMK alliance now,” Thirumavalavan tells the crowd, mostly locals from this arid village. With no rains and the Cauvery delta dried up, the villagers have seen bigger battles, far beyond the political.
Manikyam, an 80-year-old Dalit labourer who has come to see Thirumavalavan, turns philosophical. “We have no problems here because we have got nothing ever after all these elections. We live on our own, fight life,” he smiles, his trembling index finger pointing to the scorching sun above the DMK banners and flags.