Summer of discontent

Published : May 07, 2004 00:00 IST

THE mood in Tamil Nadu is clearly in favour of the Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA) led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and there is a groundswell of anger against the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government for its anti-farmer and anti-poor measures.

Foremost among the reasons for the anti-Jayalalithaa wave is apparently sweeping the State is the scrapping of the free supply of electricity to farmers and hut-dwellers. Although Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has announced a virtual restoration of the free supply of electricity to these categories by reimbursing the tariff collected, voters are not prepared to trust her government to continue the waiver once the elections are over.

Be it in Perambalur town, Musiri and Kurumbalur (Karur district), Kappalur (near Madurai), or Karaikudi and Devakottai (Sivaganga district), voters are unanimous about what they perceive as anti-people measures of the AIADMK government: the introduction of an income ceiling of Rs.5,000 a month for eligibility to make purchases at fair price shops; the raising of the price of rice sold at these outlets; the ban on the sacrifice of animals and birds at temples; the discontinuation of the free saris and dhotis scheme for the poor; the steep increase in the electricity tariff; the tardy implementation of the mid-day meal scheme; the government takeover of sand mining on river beds; the termination of jobs of road workers; and the sabotage of the farmers' markets (uzhavar sandhai) introduced by the previous DMK government and the scheme for the grant of Rs.10,000 to women who have studied up to the 10th standard on their marriage.

Although the government has restored the distribution of free saris and dhotis, repealed the ban on animal sacrifice, and reimbursed the electricity tariff bills of farmers and hut-dwellers, voters view these steps as being aimed at garnering pre-election goodwill.

Surprisingly, even well-meaning steps such as take-over of sand-mining and the retail trade of liquor has boomeranged on the government. Farmers in Musiri pointed to the dry Cauvery river bed, and said that the government had robbed about 6,000 men of their jobs by deploying machines to mine sand.

The three-year drought, the consequent loss of jobs and incomes and the acute scarcity of drinking water have also added to the alienation of the people from the Jayalalithaa government. People suspect her approach to the Cauvery issue. Farmers in Musiri and Kulithalai (Karur district), who have lost five paddy crops in a row, ask why she did not meet Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna and talk to him cordially to bring Cauvery water for the delta farmers if she can meet Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu to get Krishna water for Chennai.

Of all the issues it is the "current bill" that agitates the poor. In 1990, the DMK government announced free electricity to all categories of farmers. After the AIADMK came to power in 2001, Jayalalithaa announced her intention to scrap the scheme. The government later announced that it would send farmers a certain amount through money orders (MO). The recipients of the MOs were required to use the amount, based on the horse-power of their irrigation pumpsets, to pay their bills.

K. Balakrishnan, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu unit of the All India Kisan Sabha, said the government had declined to accept a proposal from the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board to continue the free electricity supply to farmers and hut-dwellers instead of reimbursing Rs.250 crores a year. Besides, the MO scheme was riddled with defects, he said.

The government's brutal suppression of the strikes by government employees, schoolteachers, transport workers, doctors and medical students has alienated middle-class voters from the AIADMK, while the introduction of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act and the AIADMK's alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have resulted in the loss of support of the minorities for the party.

Moreover, Dalits who formed the bulk of AIADMK voters, are disillusioned with the party. At a Dalit colony at Thalavaipuram in Sivakasi constituency, the residents pulled down the AIADMK flag and hoisted the red-and-green "community flag". The 200 votes of this colony, which earlier went to the AIADMK "without exception", will this time be split among the other contestants. At Seithur, 2 km away, the AIADMK and the Puthiya Tamizhagam, a party with Dalits as its supporters, appear to have lost their pre-eminence.

However, the Mukkulathor community is solidly behind the AIADMK in Madurai, Sivaganga and Periakulam constituencies. In the villages of Chittampatti, Pallampatti, Kottampatti and Thumbapatti, which are strung around Melur near Madurai, there is a clear preference for the AIADMK. Again in Sivaganga, where Congress(I) candidate and former Union Minister P. Chidambaram will be facing an AIADMK rival, Mukkulathors flaunt their loyalty to the ruling party.

THE DPA faced a challenge of sorts when Tamil film actor Rajnikant, who has in past elections asked his fans to support a DMK-led alliance, announced that his personal vote this time would be for the BJP-led alliance. Rajnikant asserted that his fans would work to defeat the candidates of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a constituent of the DPA, in the six constituencies, including Pondicherry, that party is contesting, as a response to the PMK cadre's "violence" against his film `Baba' in 2002. Political observers have, however, dismissed the threat as a "hedging the bets" ploy, which would not pay any dividends.

The PMK has a significant presence in the northern districts of Kancheepuram, Villupuram, Thiruvannamalai, Tiruvallur, Vellore, Cuddalore and Dharmapuri, where it is contesting all the five seats allotted to it. The PMK is so entrenched in this region that the Rajni factor is unlikely to have any impact. As elsewhere in the State, the electorate in these districts had expressed discontent with AIADMK rule.

Leaders of the PMK, who seem to enjoy the support of a substantial section of the numerically strong Vanniya community, say that their greatest strength lies in the coherence and smooth functioning of the DPA and the party's own youth force, although its organisational network is not commendable. In addition, the PMK's nomination of academics and retired officers has gone well with the people. The PMK candidate for the Chengalpattu seat, A.K. Moorthy, has earned during his short spell as Union Minister of State for Railways a lot of goodwill not only in his constituency but also in the entire State. He expedited several rail works, introduced new halts and made changes in the suburban train timings to suit commuters. Although the district has not suffered much on account of the drought, the loss of jobs by agricultural workers with the introduction of harvesters in a large number of paddyfields has led to the migration of a substantial number of them, according to D. Krishnaraj, Kancheepuram district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Migration of agricultural workers has happened in Thiruppathur and Vandavasi constituencies also. The PMK candidate for the Arakkonam seat, R. Velu, a retired civil servant, said he would give priority to improving groundwater availability and to arranging governmental and institutional assistance to start cottage industries with a view to solving the rural unemployment problem. Dharmapuri, considered the poorest district in the State, is passing through an acute water scarcity. Agricultural operations have practically come to a halt in the district. "The surrender of about 70,000 family cards in the last one year indicates the extent of migration of labour force that has taken place," said P. Dillibabu, secretary of the district unit of the CPI(M). Early implementation of the long-pending Hogenakkal integrated water supply scheme would be the only solution, he said. The scheme was redrawn to benefit the region up to Vellore. The BJP candidate for the Dharmapuri seat, P.D. Elangovan, who represented the constituency in the dissolved House as a PMK member but was denied the ticket this time, told Frontline that he would endeavour to get the project sanctioned. As for his decision to leave the PMK, he said: "I am still with the NDA. Only the PMK has quit it."

Y.M. Narayanaswamy, a leading manufacturer of silk saris, said silk and cotton weavers were affected by the rise in silk and silver prices, the withdrawal or cutting down of government subsidies to cooperative societies, and heavy competition from other centres. Wage-earners among the weavers have suffered wage cuts and job losses. As a result, many of them have left their homes in search of jobs. They are displeased with the "unhelpful attitude" of both the State and Central governments. Similar sentiments were expressed by weavers in Arakkonam, Vellore and Vandavasi constituencies. Manufacturers of lungis attribute the crisis in their industry to the levy of Central Value Added Tax (Cenvat) and Sales Tax on their products.

In the Vellore-Thiruppathur region, the closure of a large number of tanneries has rendered thousands of workers jobless. The government's reluctance to help the industry build a common effluent treatment plant in accordance with a Supreme Court directive is cited as the major reason for this.

The leather industry, which has earned for the country substantial foreign exchange, is in a crisis, owing to tough competition from foreign companies and the lack of support from the Central government, according to T.R. Purushothaman, vice-president of the district unit of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) candidate for the Vellore seat, K.M. Khadar Mohideen, said he would accord top priority to pulling the leather industry out of the crisis.

The beedi workers of Gudiyatham are among the other sections of people who have suffered wage and job losses in recent years. The closure of a number of factories in the industrial centres of Ranipet and Arakkonam has left hundreds of workers unemployed.

Employees of the Kalpakkam nuclear plant expressed their dissatisfaction with the Vajpayee government's failure to keep its promise to raise the income-tax exemption limit. They are also sore that the government has gone back on its assurance that the interest on Provident Fund would be kept intact. The one section that is apparently happy with the government is the fishermen community. The Jayalalithaa government has constituted a fund to provide Rs.1 lakh each to families of fishermen who die while fishing in the sea. This section has no grievance against the Centre because they are not facing any competition from giant trawlers, as is the case with fishermen elsewhere.

The campaign theme of the DPA constituents (the DMK, the Congress(I), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the PMK, the CPI(M), the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the IUML) is the inability of the government to combat the drinking water scarcity and the mishandling of the drought situation. Jayalalithaa, who is leading the AIADMK campaign, projects the elections as a contest between "a half-baked" Sonia Gandhi of foreign origin and "an experienced" A.B. Vajpayee. The questions that she raises are: "Should an Indian rule the country or a woman of foreign stock do so? Should a seasoned leader continue to be the Prime Minister or should a novice come to the post? How can Sonia Gandhi forge an alliance with the DMK, the MDMK and the PMK, which support the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which assassinated her husband and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi?"

In the districts of Kancheepuram and Thiruvallur, many women in the villages are aware of the media advertisement campaign against Sonia Gandhi, but they do not subscribe to the view that she could not be chosen Prime Minister on grounds of her foreign origin. "She is the daughter-in-law of this land. Poor woman, she lost her husband on our soil,'' said an 80-year-old woman at Uthiramerur village. (The place is close to Sriperumbudur, where Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991.)

The "feel good" ad has had its impact on women of both the upper middle class and the poor sections, the former because everything, from foreign furniture to expensive cosmetics made in France, are easily available and the latter because the "Delhi" government had constructed a "wide and beautiful" highway (the Golden Quadrilateral Highway), on which "hundreds of cars" whizz past.

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