In one of Tamil Nadu's most bitter electoral battles, neither do adverse findings by pollsters fail to unnerve the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam workers nor does Jayalalitha's disqualification dampen the spirit of her party's cadre.
THERE is no wave or visible anti-incumbency sentiment, nor is there any big issue that apparently affects the daily lives of the people in Tamil Nadu. Yet the elections to the State Assembly to be held on May 10 are the most fiercely fought in recent times.
The main contenders are the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) headed in the State by the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and the front led by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and comprising the Congress(I), the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Left parties. The separate presence of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) makes it a triangular fight as it were.
The important developments during the run-up to the elections have been the rejection of nominations filed by AIADMK general secretary and former Chief Minister Jayalalitha in four constituencies and the sharp polarisation of voters on caste and even linguistic lines. The rejection of Jayalalitha's nominations in Andipatti, Krishnagiri, Bhuvanagiri and Pudukottai constituencies led to strong exchanges between NDA leaders and Jayalalitha.
The nominations were rejected on two grounds. One was that she had been convicted and sentenced to two years' and three years' rigorous imprisonment by a Special Judge in October 2000 in two cases of corruption, and the second was that she had filed nominations from more than two constituencies. According to Section 8(3) of the Representation of the People Act (RPA), a person convicted and sentenced to imprisonment of not less than two years shall be disqualified (from contesting the elections) from the date of conviction and shall be disqualified for another six years after release. Section 33(7)(b) of the RPA, introduced in 1996, states that "a person shall not be nominated as a candidate... from more than two Assembly constituencies in that State."
If DMK president and Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and his allies were careful not to make too much of the rejection of her nominations, Jayalalitha concentrated on whipping up public resentment on the issue and capitalising on the resultant sympathy. She branded it "the victorious culmination of five years of conspiracy". She asserted that she is the chief ministerial candidate of her secular front.
Karunanidhi explained that the law took its course in her case. He pointed out that her nominations had been rejected under the Election Commission of India Order dated August 28, 1997, which directed Returning Officers to decide the validity or otherwise of the nominations of contestants disqualified under Section 8 of the RPA. Karunanidhi asked: "When the law does its duty, how can it generate any sympathy wave?" He added: "To be frank, I am not happy over the rejection of her papers. In a democratic battle I want to take on the enemy face to face. I don't want to fight the enemy after tying up his/her hands. But if the enemy has willingly trapped herself, how can I be held responsible for it?"
JUST as the opinion polls published by a section of the press predicting a sweep for the AIADMK-led front have not unnerved the DMK and its partners, Jayalalitha's disqualification has not dampened the fighting spirit of AIADMK cadres. At Tiruverumbur in Tiruchi, T. Arivazhagan, a 50-year-old DMK functionary said: "The poll surveys will only galvanise us further. We will win a simple majority." At Tirumangalam, an AIADMK stronghold near Madurai, a shopkeeper said the party's cadres "have risen with fervour" and there was a "mountain of sympathy for Amma."
The Tamil Nadu Assembly has 234 seats. The DMK-led front is a conglomeration of 18 parties. The DMK is contesting from 167 constituencies and its principal ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, in 21 constituencies, on its lotus symbol. Nine other parties (the Puthiya Tamizhagam, a Dalit-based political party; the MGR ADMK; and caste-based parties such as the Makkal Tamil Desam, the New Justice Party and the Kongu Nadu Makkal Katchi) are contesting on their symbols from 30 constituencies. Six parties are contesting on the DMK's rising sun symbol in 16 constituencies. These include Dalit Panthers (eight seats).
The AIADMK has fielded candidates in 141 constituencies, the TMC in 32, the Congress(I) in 15, the PMK in 27, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) in eight each, and the Indian National League, the Forward Bloc and the Tamizhaga Munnetra Kazhagam in one each.
The MDMK, headed by Vaiko, is contesting as many as 213 seats. The party, which pulled out of the NDA in the State but continued in the government at the Centre, has not fielded candidates in the remaining 21 constituencies that are contested by the BJP.
IN spite of the bitterness, the campaign has largely lacked punch, partly because elections have come to be held all too frequently. Another factor is the Election Commission's strict monitoring of the code of conduct, which bars parties from using for graffiti the compound walls of government-owned buildings, or private buildings if the owners objected. Workers of the DMK erased the 'rising sun' symbols painted on the long wall of the government-run Queen Mary's College in Chennai. There was virtual inactivity as this correspondent drove around Villupuram, Panruti, Nellikuppam, Sivakasi, Kovilpatti and Tirunelveli constituencies. But where political heavyweights such as K. Kalimuthu of the AIADMK (Tirumangalam), K.K.S.S.R. Ramachandran (Sattur), R. Karuppasamy Pandian (Tenkasi) and Minister K. Ponmudi of the DMK (Villupuram) are in the fray, the campaign is high-profile and colourful.
There are no public meetings at night, and long-winded speeches are out. The stress is on personal contact through door-to-door campaign. At Sattur, Ramachandran was going round Anna Nagar in an open jeep, promising voters implementation of the Irukkangudi water scheme. At Tirumangalam, AIADMK women cadres were doing intensive door-to-door campaign for Kalimuthu, who is recovering from a heart surgery. At Chepauk, Chennai, where Karunanidhi is in the fray, the DMK volunteer force, led by State secretary Nanjil R. Kennedy, went round the narrow bylanes, canvassing votes. Kennedy said, "We are not bothered by poll surveys. I have gone all over the State and I know the people's mood."
Travelling in vans, Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha adopted different campaign styles. Karunanidhi often stepped out of the van to climb a podium and address big gatherings. The speeches - the candidate spoke first, and then Karunanidhi - were short. In villages, Karunanidhi would cite the prices of essential commodities when Jayalalitha was Chief Minister from 1991 to 1996 and compare them with the lower prices since 1996. The skilled orator that he is, Karunanidhi varied the tenor and content of his speeches. A point he highlighted was his government's achievements: competing with Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu had reached the first place in attracting industrial investments; the State had the largest pool of software engineers; his government had framed a separate policy for Information Technology; it had set up software parks; Tamil Nadu stood first in controlling AIDS, infanticide and polio; and so on.
Never getting out of her van, Jayalalitha addressed wayside gatherings, often reading out prepared speeches. She spoke about the plight of weavers, peasants and construction workers under the DMK government. She alleged that illicit liquor flowed everywhere and that terrorism and secessionism had struck roots in the State in the past five years. She charged Karunanidhi with paving the way for dynastic rule by grooming his son and Chennai Mayor M.K. Stalin as his successor. She drew massive crowds at Pollachi, Udumalpet and Madathukulam, almost wherever she went, in Coimbatore district. Women demonstrated their affection for her by stepping up to her van and offering a tender coconut here and guavas there, besides performing the traditional "arati".
After April 24, the rejection of nominations dominated the campaign. As the news reached her at Tirupattur in Sivaganga district, Jayalalitha stepped out of her van and climbed on an open jeep. Quoting from a song from a film featuring AIADMK founder and actor M.G. Ramachandran, she said, "Let people there (in the rival camp) laugh with arrogance. But on the day of the verdict, we shall know who is going to laugh and who will weep." She alleged that pressure was brought on the Returning Officers to reject her nominations.
The Chief Minister, answering her allegations, said his government filed cases against her because in the 1996 elections people had given his party the mandate to punish the corrupt. He accused her of having consciously filed nominations from four constituencies.
WHAT many voters find disturbing is the DMK aligning itself with caste parties, which is contrary to the party's basic principle of fighting casteism. Among its allies are the New Justice Party claiming to represent Mudaliars, the Makkal Tamil Desam (Yadavas), the Kongu Nadu Makkal Katchi (Gounders), the Mutharaiyar Sangam (Mutharaiyars), the All India Moovendar Munnetra Kazhagam (Mukkulathor) and the Tamizh PMK (Vanniyars). Interestingly all these parties are of recent origin.
On the National Highway between Tirumangalam and Sattur, a labourer belonging to a group strengthening the road asked:
"Why should Karunanidhi tie up with caste parties?" At Tiruppur municipal colony peopled by Dalits, B. Eswaran, a young hosiery worker, was angry that the DMK had joined hands with the caste parties. Although a Dalit himself, he argued that Puthiya Tamizhagam and Dalit Panthers were also caste parties. N. Rajesh, his friend, asked, "How can Tirumavalavan join hands with the BJP, which is against Dalits?" Eswaran added, "Dalits are angry that they have been made a vote-bank for the BJP."
But Lakshmi and Pandiammal, Yadava women who had reached Sembar village near Usilamaptti, herding their goats from Kadaladi, did not hesitate to say that they would vote for "udaya sooriyan" (rising sun, the DMK's symbol) because "our leader (S.) Kannappan", founder of the Makkal Tamil Desam, had aligned with the DMK. Sekar, son-in-law of Pandiammal, said, "My 'iyah' (father) and I have been voting for AIADMK only. But I will vote for the DMK this time because of the 'koottani' (alliance)".
Similarly, a big chunk of Dalit votes will transfer to the DMK because of its alliance with Puthiya Tamizhagam and the Dalit Panthers. As the Frontline team drives from Ettaiyapuram and enters Kakkarampatti, a board says: "Puthiya Tamizhagam welcomes you." This is the heartland of the party in the Ottapidaram (reserved) constituency, from where its founder Dr. K. Krishnasamy is contesting. His opponent is A. Sivaperumal of the AIADMK. Krishnasamy, a medical practitioner, is contesting also from Valparai.
Ottapidaram is a sensitive constituency where the animosity between Mukkulathors and Pillais on one side and Dalits on the other run deep. Police jeeps ply up and down the constituency. Fear hangs over Ottapidaram itself, a big village. Men are afraid to talk. They claim that it is difficult to predict the outcome. The police, however, feel that any violence that would break out here this year would be of a small scale compared to what happened in 1996, when Dr. Krishnasamy was elected.
At nearby Rangarajapuram, Chellaiah, a Dalit, said Puthiya Tamizhagam supporters would vote for DMK candidates, but DMK voters would not vote for Puthiya Tamizhagam candidates (because most of the former are caste Hindus)".
Dalits are clearly disenchanted with the mainstream political parties. When Puthiya Tamizhagam and the Dalit Panthers were founded, they were thrilled because "men belonging to our own community have raised their flags." Even elderly Dalits, who were with the DMK or the AIADMK for decades, jumped on to the bandwagon. More than men, women in the villages near Villupuram and Pondicherry were vociferous in their support of Dalit Panthers leader Tirumavalavan.
In the Vanniyar heartland of Villupuram, Panruti, Nellikuppam and other places, the support for the AIADMK/PMK was clear. At Panruti, former AIADMK Minister S. Ramachandran is contesting as a candidate of the People's Liberal Party, against Dr. Ramasamy (DMK) and D. Velmurugan (PMK). All the three are Vanniyars. There is some popular disenchantment with Dr. Ramasamy.
People are divided on the basis of not only caste but language. Telugu-speaking Naickers belonging to the Kammawar and Rajakambalam Naidu sects are mostly with the MDMK in many constituencies. At P. Kumaralingapuram near Virudhunagar, elderly residents said that they would vote MDMK. The village has a population of 2,000, mostly Kammawar and Rajakambalam Naidus. The residents said that the Virudhunagar constituency had about 35,000 Kammawar and 37,000 Rajakamabalam Naidus and about 8,000 Telugu-speaking Reddiars. "Most of them will vote for the MDMK," they said.
DESPITE the comparatively good performance of the government, the DMK's chances may be affected by the fall in the prices of agricultural produce. Farmers everywhere complained about the unremunerative prices obtaining for paddy, sugarcane, coconuts, oilseeds and cotton. According to them, the procurement prices of Rs.325 for 75 kg of paddy and Rs.600 for a tonne of sugarcane, would simply not suffice. The steep rise in cement prices was another sore point. A farmer said, "It has gone up from Rs. 160-180 a bag to Rs.205." Pointing to a half-finished house, he said, "Look at that house. Its construction has stopped." Construction activity had slowed down, many people complained. A farmer in Kansapuram near Srivilliputhur warned that farmers would commit suicide if they did not get remunerative prices. A youth had committed suicide but the police reported other reasons for his death, he said.
People also complain of a "lack of money circulation". According to a grocer near Coimbatore, about a hundred bought people groceries from his shop every day until three years ago. "Hardly 10 people come to my shop now," he said. Eswaran, a Dalit youth of the Tiruppur municipal colony, was not impressed with the DMK government's development schemes. He said, "Any government can lay cement roads, conduct medical camps, set up factories and so on. But there is no 'money circulation' now. There is no economic development."
Resentment runs high among the workers of mills that were closed in Coimbatore. At Singanallur, outside the closed Rajalakshmi Mills, a hoarding says: "Let us boycott the polls. If the grant of Rs.250 a month announced by the Tamil Nadu government for workers of closed mills is not given immediately, we and our families will boycott the elections." The hoarding has been put up jointly by a number of trade unions. On the mill's compound wall is a DMK graffiti: "Oh, Tamilians, let this golden age continue. Vote for the 'rising sun". A few feet away is the MDMK's hoarding asking party cadres to gather like "ocean waves" to listen to Vaiko speak on April 14 when he announced the names of MDMK candidates. The public meeting attracted thousands of cadres from all over Tamil Nadu.
According to K. Devaraj and C.M. Kanthanathan, secretaries, Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) at Singanallur, 29 industrial units had closed down in Coimbatore, 24 of them spinning mills and five textile engineering industries. About 20,000 workers were unemployed. All the units had closed because of mismanagement. Kanthanathan said that all the mills had reserve funds until 25 years ago but had nothing now. Devaraj said that if the mills were not reopened, "there will be suicides in Coimbatore, just as handloom weavers in Andhra Pradesh committed suicide."
P. Chidambaram, the former Union Finance Minister, has provided a new angle to this round of elections. He left the TMC in protest against its alliance with the AIADMK and formed the TMC Democratic Front (TMCDF). He has set a punishing schedule for himself, travelling all over the State, drawing sizable crowds. Chidambaram argues that Jayalalitha cannot provide "good governance".
Chidambaram says the TMC wanted to form an alternative (to both the DMK and the AIADMK). "But some compartments in the TMC train derailed on the way. I want to put the coaches back on the rail and drive the train on the proper path." On the rejection of Jayalalitha's nominations, he says: "The law has not bent to accommodate her." He ridicules her claim that she will become Chief Minister if the AIADMK is voted to power. "A big question mark should be put next to her claim," he says.
INFIGHTING plagues both the fronts. The AIADMK denied the TMC 19 seats the latter held, appropriated 16 and gave three to the PMK. The TMC got 19 new seats where its strength is untested. Several TMC legislators who could not contest have entered the fray as independents or pledged support to the DMK-BJP combine. For instance, A.S. Ponnammal is seeking re-election from Nilakottai, which she has represented in the Assembly for several terms, as an Independent this time, against K. Anbazhagan (AIADMK). K. Ravi Arunan, who lost his Tenkasi seat in the TMC-AIADMK deal, joined the BJP and pledged support to R. Karuppasamy Pandian (DMK). P. Veldurai, The TMC legislator from Cheranmadevi, has announced support to S.S.N. Chockalingam (BJP) against P.H. Manoj Pandian (AIADMK). At Radhapuram, TMC MLA M. Appavu is contesting as an independent.
The DMK denied the ticket to three legislators, Gomathi Srinivasan, K.K. Veerappan and R. Manimaran, and later suspended them for anti-party work. The three were among the 74 sitting members of the Assembly who were replaced by newcomers. Adding to the resentment in the party is the fact that many of those given the ticket are Stalin's men. Karunanidhi's another son, M.K. Alagiri, is campaigning in Madurai West against Assembly Speaker P.T.R. Palanivel Rajan of the DMK.
In the AIADMK too, some of those denied the ticket have raised the banner of revolt. At Vellakovil, Durai Ramasamy, a local leader, is contesting as an independent. At Srivilliputhur, the maverick legislator R. Thamaraikani is in the fray as an independent against his son T. Inbathamizhan who has been nominated by the AIADMK. Thamaraikani alleged that conspiracy by Jayalalitha to split his family.
There is a byelection to the Tiruchi Lok Sabha constituency, caused by the death of Union Minister Rangarajan Kumaramangalam of the BJP. The BJP candidate is M.N. Sukumar Nambiar, and his rival is Dalit Ezhilamalai of the AIADMK. The BJP, which went into hibernation in this constituency after the death of Rangarajan Kumaramangalam on August 23, 2000, is working hard for Nambiar now. The AIADMK here is faction-ridden. Its district secretary T. Rathnavel was removed and A. Murugaiyan appointed in his place. Dalit Ezhilmalai is backed by the CPI(M), which has considerable presence in the industrial belt.
The constituency consists of six Assembly constituencies - Tiruchi-1, Tiruchi-2, Srirangam, Tiruverumbur, Lalgudi and Musiri. Of these six, DMK is contesting in five and the BJP in one. The AIADMK is contesting only in three and has allotted the remaining three to the CPI(M), the Muslim League and the Congress(I).
FROM April-end, the two fronts stepped up their campaign by fielding big guns, who included CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan, Chattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani (BJP). Jayalalitha frankly raised the stakes in the last lap by telling her cadres on April 30: "Nobody should forget that this election decides our life or death."