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Friday, April 10, 2020

In this Tamil Nadu seat, the fight is also over Jaya’s legacy

The buzz in Mettu Neerathan village is that the whole state is watching Theni for signs. Once the voters here show the way, Jaya loyalists statewide would sense it, swing in sync and the winner would take all.

Written by E P Unny | Theni | Updated: April 14, 2019 11:04:28 am
Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu elections, Lok Sabha elections, Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu politics, Theni, AIADMK, DMK, Stalin, T T V Dhinakaran, Indian Express Raveendranath Kumar (left) and Thanga Tamilselvan. (Illustration by E P Unny)

Stress is more palpable in these parts than the summer. Theni’s voters are being wooed far too anxiously, as though there is no tomorrow. It could well turn out so for one of the two warring claimants to J Jayalalithaa’s legacy. One managed to inherit her government, and the other hit back by winning a bypoll from the seat that fell vacant on the supremo’s death.

T T V Dhinakaran, who pulled off the upset, wants to rub in a repeat here. His friend-turned-foe, O Panneerselvam (OPS), has fielded son Raveendranath Kumar as the AIADMK candidate. Theni is OPS’s hometown. On May 23, when the votes are counted, this place will see that extra burst of firecrackers over face saved or lost on home turf.

More than the urge to win, what drives the campaign is the fear of failure. There is all-round effort to sustain panic levels. The buzz in Mettu Neerathan village is that the whole state is watching Theni for signs. Once the voters here show the way, Jaya loyalists statewide would sense it, swing in sync and the winner would take all.

Sounds neat, but for something like a bellwether effect to play out, even as the poll process is on, voters will have to exchange mental notes. How? Through telepathy?

Forget logic. The fear is real and such obsession with a single constituency doubly conspicuous on the ruling party’s side.

In pics | Sketch Book: E P Unny in Tamil Nadu

When Raveendranath breaks for lunch, there are about 25 SUVs parked in attendance. A caravan, the kind you see in film locales, snakes its way into the parking lot. The candidate reappears in good time, rested and refreshed. He tries to make eye contact and address individual members in the crowd, “How are you, Sister? All well, Brother?” Amplified brutally by ill-set loudspeakers, the pleasantries sound threatening. A bigger disconnect is his longish non-Dravidian name — yet to be shrunk into an easy acronym like his father’s ‘OPS’.

When a girl on a mobike stops to check what the commotion is about, the gathering answers in chorus, “OPS son rally”. Since parental appellations aren’t written on EVMs, the AIADMK has to popularise the candidate’s name.

The opponent’s party, Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), little over a year old, has a bigger task — to propagate the just allotted gift box symbol. What’s inside, ask people expectantly when gift-wrapped replicas are held aloft at the roadshow. The new image has to compete with the MGR-vintage two-leaf symbol which, in the last Lok Sabha polls here, drew more than double the DMK votes.

Since then, not much water has flowed under the unbuilt bridges across the Mullai River. Even less through the barely two-feet-high public faucets that line the roadside. In interior Andipatti, women wave down the AMMK convoy to ask sharp questions on the missing water. The candidate, Thanga Tamilselvan, in an open jeep, mike in hand, has only his Rayban dark glasses for cover. For a seasoned politico, he recoils but quickly recovers. With some helpful prompting by an aide, every promise is recalled, rephrased and renewed.

There is more to this poll than the Jayalalithaa spell. Voters are also expected to elect an MP, not just settle a legacy dispute. And there is a prominent third candidate, fairly sure of making it without much fuss. At 70, E V K S Elangovan sounds more cool than the younger contenders. The veteran Congressman sees no point in desperate campaigning.

“Arithmetic and aggregation don’t work. It is sheer chemistry that creates the one-way swing the state is known for. Stalin is a worthy successor to the prescient Karunanidhi. He endorsed Rahul as Prime Minister because he knows the focus of these polls is to vote out Modi,” he says.

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