Testing the waters

Print edition : May 20, 2005

The May 14 byelections for two Assembly seats in Tamil Nadu assume great importance as the next round of Assembly elections is only a year away.

in Chennai

ELECTIONS to the Tamil Nadu Assembly are a year away, but politics in the State has begun to hot up. An immediate reason for this is that political parties view the byelections to the Kanchipuram and Gummidipoondi Assembly constituencies, to be held on May 14, as trial balloons that will indicate which way the voters' mood is swinging. Both the seats were held by the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). The Kanchipuram seat fell vacant when the legislator, S.S. Thirunavukkarasu, died of cancer in November 2004. K. Sudarsanam, who represented Gummidipoondi, was shot dead by dacoits in January. The AIADMK has fielded Thirunavukkarasu's wife T. Mythili as its candidate from Kanchipuram. Sudarsanam's son K.S. Vijayakumar is its candidate in Gummidipoondi.

(From left) CPI leader R. Nallakannu, MDMK leader Vaiko, DMK leaders K. Anbazhagan and M. Karunanidhi, and Congress leader G.K. Vasan at the DMK conference in Thanjavur.-M. MOORTHY

The party is contesting the elections alone. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which was an ally of the AIADMK in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, snapped the ties following the arrests of Jayendra Saraswathi and Vijayendra Saraswathi, the senior and junior pontiffs of the Kanchi Mutt, in connection with the "Sankararaman murder case". The BJP has announced that it would contest alone the Assembly elections to be held in May 2006.

The contests in Kanchipuram and Gummidipoondi promise to be tough. The AIADMK, though friendless, seems to be determined to prove that it can win both the seats. The party machinery is going all out to woo the voters and is reportedly "investing heavily" in the polls. Twelve Ministers each have been put in charge of election work in the two constituencies. They are meeting people directly and seeking their votes. AIADMK general secretary and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa is expected to campaign for three days in each constituency - a clear testimony to the importance that she is attaching to the electoral outcome.

The Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-led Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA) too has taken the byelections seriously. Representing the alliance, the DMK has fielded candidates in both the constituencies: M. Kumar in Kanchipuram and P. Venkatachalapthy in Gummidipoondi. Forged during the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the DPA is a formidable alliance. Apart from the DMK it includes the Congress, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI). Indications are that the alliance will remain intact for the Assembly elections too.

DMK president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi has gone on record as saying that the byelections "will not decide who will come to power" in the Assembly elections but "they form a footpath to the change of government". The DPA, especially the DMK, is under pressure to repeat its performance in the 2004 elections when the front won all the 39 Lok Sabha seats from Tamil Nadu.

The Dalit Panthers of India (DPI) has put up candidates in both the seats: N. Ilanchezhiyan in Kanchipuram and S.K. Viduthalaichezhiyan in Gummidipoondi. According to DPI leader Thol. Tirumavalavan, the party is in the field to establish its individual strength. He pointed out that Dalits constituted 30 per cent of the population in each of the two constituencies. It is difficult to predict whether the DPI candidates will win the majority of Dalit votes, or whether they will merely spoil the DMK's or the AIADMK's chances.

The New Justice Party, which has its support base essentially in the Mudaliar community, had put up D. Venkatachala Mudaliar as its candidate in Kanchipuram, which has a large concentration of members of the community. However, the NJP later withdrew from the contest, reportedly under pressure from the AIADMK.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa.-RAJEEV BHATT

The arrest of the two Sankaracharyas in the murder case itself is not an election issue in the Kanchipuram constituency. No party wants to use the issue because it does not know which way it will cut. Besides, the issue is not directly linked to the DMK or the AIADMK as political parties.

While the AIADMK is nervous about the outcome of the polls, the DPA is worried about another matter. It fears AIADMK cadre will resort to violence and bogus voting and have, therefore, demanded deployment of paramilitary forces in both the constituencies. To support its demand, the DPA points to the violent incidents on April 19 during byelections in two wards of the Chennai Municipal Corporation. Workers of the DMK complained that AIADMK activists had evicted DMK agents from polling booths in Ward 131 and cast bogus votes. This led to a row between DMK and AIADMK cadre and led to large-scale violence. An AIADMK councillor's car was burnt.

In Ward 110, DMK cadre alleged that about 200 AIADMK women workers were brought to cast bogus votes. DMK workers demanded that the police remove the women from the booths. This led to arguments between workers of the two parties and soon violence broke out. To register the DMK's protest, deputy general secretary M.K. Stalin, treasurer Arcot N. Veerasamy and other leaders sat in a dharna near the United States Consulate on the arterial Anna Salai. To counter them, 11 AIADMK Ministers, led by Finance Minister C. Ponnaiyan, sat in a dharna at the junction of Anna Salai and Thiru.Vi.Ka. Road. The DMK boycotted the elections after the violence. The AIADMK wrested both the wards from the DMK.

While hearing a writ appeal alleging irregularities in the byelections, the Madras High Court criticised the Ministers who sat in a dharna and disrupted traffic. Justices M. Karpagavinayagam and C. Nagappan expressed their "unhappiness" over the Ministers' conduct and said it was unfortunate if an authority that was supposed to uphold law and order broke it. "We are not happy about the way people in power conducted themselves," they said. The court remarked that if the trend continued, even a Police Commissioner could one day sit in a dharna. The Judges said the Ministers "may have resorted to the road blockade for publicity but the government is embarrassed". They asked: "Have they earned a good name for the State?"

The DPA grabbed the opportunity to demand the Election Commission to deploy paramilitary forces in Kanchipuram and Gummidipoondi to ensure free and fair polling. On April 28, a delegation of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha members of the DMK, the Congress, the MDMK, the PMK, the CPI (M) and the CPI met Chief Election Commissioner T.S. Krishnamurthy and Election Commissioners B.B. Tandon and N. Gopalaswamy and urged them to deploy the Central Reserve Police Force in the two constituencies. They referred to the violence during the ward byelections and said: "The ruling party is planning to repeat the hooliganism during these byelections also so as to ensure the victory of the AIADMK candidates in these two constituencies by unfair means." They wanted the CRPF to be empowered to inspect the booths on May 14 and frisk people entering them. Earlier, on April 19, the Chief Electoral Officer for Tamil Nadu, Naresh Gupta, said the Election Commission was considering deploying paramilitary forces in the two constituencies and videographing polling stations to prevent bogus voting and the presence of anti-social elements.

THE AIADMK's strategy for the byelections seems to brazen it out. It wants to overwhelm the Opposition by the display of 24 Ministers going round the two constituencies, meeting village leaders and promising to transform their constituencies. AIADMK leaders are confident that the several measures announced by Jayalalithaa in recent months - restoration of free supply of power to farmers and to hutment dwellers, free distribution of books to pupils from Standard I to X, free distribution of bicycles to Dalit girl students, and welfare schemes for construction workers and employees of mid-day meal centres - will ensure victory for the party in the two seats. They also seem to take heart from the fact that the AIADMK won the majority of about 180 seats in different parts of Tamil Nadu where local body elections were held on April 19. But the violence during the local body elections and the High Court's observations about the Ministers' dharna have affected the image of the AIADMK.

Meanwhile, the DMK is confident that it can wrest both the seats from the AIADMK. It believes that the numerical superiority of the DPA would ensure its victory. Currently, the DMK is holding a series of zonal conferences in different districts of the State. Conferences have already been held in Villupuram, Virudhunagar, Dindigul and Thanjavur. The next conference is on May 28 and 29 at Coimbatore. Leaders of all DPA constituents attend and speak at these conferences, which are intended to send out the message that the DPA is going strong and will remain so for the Assembly elections next. Another objective is to convince DMK cadre that the party is on its way back to power.

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