Pondicherry's new experience

Published : May 21, 2004 00:00 IST

For the first time in its history, the Union Territory, a bastion of the Congress, witnesses an electoral contest between parties with casteist and communal outlooks.

in Pondicherry

FOR the hardcore Congress workers of Pondicherry, Elections 2004 will remain for long a dark period in the history of their party in the Union Territory. When the Congress high command accepted the allotment of the Pondicherry Lok Sabha seat to the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi, who heads the Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA) of the principal non-BJP parties in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, the party workers in the Union Territory protested against the "sell-out". The Congress has consistently won the seat ever since the former French enclave became part of the India union in the early 1960s. In the 12 elections held between 1962 and 1999, the Congress won nine times, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) twice and the DMK once. Former Chief Minister M.O.H. Farook and Pradesh Congress Committee president P. Shanmugam represented the constituency thrice each.

The national leadership of the Congress itself felt outwitted by the DMK president, who foreclosed any discussion on the Pondicherry seat by allotting it to the PMK and made it a fait accompli. The high command was hard put to persuade the disheartened PCC to fall in line. Congress workers were particularly sad that they were given a raw deal at a time when its government in the Union Territory, which has a comfortable majority in the Assembly, has had a good track record. They had to yield ultimately, but a section of the party cadre is still unhappy.

Another significant feature of the May 10 elections is that for the first time in the Union Territory the BJP is trying to make a dent in the Congress bastion with the support of the AIADMK. Although the PMK, known for its caste-based political mobilisation, had contested the 1999 election, this time round it has entered the electoral arena as part of a formidable alliance. The elections, therefore, mark the entry of communal and casteist parties which, observers say, have had no significant presence in this region till now. Several old-timers in Pondicherry say that this may not augur well for the peaceful atmosphere in the Union Territory, thanks to the presence of institutions like Aurobindo Ashram.

The principal claimants to the seat now are the PMK's M. Ramadoss, an academic-turned-politician, and the BJP's Lalitha Kumaramangalam, a post-graduate in business administration. In 1999, Ramadoss lost to Farook by a margin of about 24,000 votes. Lalitha Kumaramangalam, who joined the BJP in 2000, unsuccessfully contested the 2001 election to the Tamil Nadu Assembly from Tiruppur. Vanniyars, who form the vote base of the PMK, account for 52 per cent of the 6.36-lakh electorate. The sprawling constituency covers the entire Union Territory, parts of which lie in Tamil Nadu (Karaikal), Kerala (Mahe) and Andhra Pradesh (Yanam).

Ramadoss says that his basic strength lies in the fact that his party is a constituent of a formidable alliance. He claims that an anti-BJP wave is sweeping the constituency and its ally, the AIADMK, is not strong in Pondicherry. A large team of his students is working for Ramadoss. He is confident that film actor Rajnikanth's appeal to his fans to vote against the PMK will not harm his prospects: "The Rajni factor is not visible enough to wean away even a few hundred votes." Another factor he cites as favourable to him is the "good work" done by the Congress government in the Union Territory, particularly, in the field of education and social welfare.

Elaborating this point, Tourism Minister K. Lakshminarayanan, who is also in charge of Education, says that the government, under a unique Rs.9-crore scheme, provides free breakfast to all students in government and aided schools in the Union Territory up to X standard, in addition to the free lunch provided to the students up to XII standard. Besides, the government provides bicycles to all school students.

"The reputation and track record of the Vajpayee government is my strongpoint," says Lalitha Kumaramangalam. "On the other hand, the Congress government in Pondicherry has not delivered. You know, I hail from a family which has faith in delivering." (She is a daughter of Mohan Kumaramangalam, a Minister in the Indira Gandhi government and a sister of Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, who died four years ago during his tenure as a Minister in the Vajpayee Cabinet.)

Lalitha Kumaramangalam says: "The PMK is not for peace and development." She alleges that there has been a perceptible fall in tourism because of "the violence that the PMK workers allegedly indulge in after an annual gathering at Mamallapuram for the last few years.

"Identifying the `staggering' unemployment problem as one of the most important issues highlighted at campaign meetings, D. Murugan, secretary of the Pondicherry district committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told Frontline that over 1.67 lakh persons had registered their names in the live registers of the employment exchanges in the Union Territory. "The Centre's ban on new recruitments has only aggravated the unemployment problem," he said. This is in addition to the loss of jobs caused by the closure of about 2,500 of the 5,000 factories in recent years. The four textile mills in the Union Territory, which once had on their rolls 7,000 workers, now employ only 550 persons, he said.

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