An unusual contestant

Print edition : May 13, 2016

Vasanthi Devi, the VCK's candidate in R.K. Nagar. Photo: M. VEDHAN

Shimla Muthuchozhan, the DMK's candidate in R.K. Nagar. Photo: V. GANESAN

Jayalalithaa. is contesting from R.K. Nagar for the second time. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

A LITTLE past noon on an especially hot day in April, Thol. Tirumavalavan, who heads the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), introduced a new element into the State’s electoral politics: fielding an activist-intellectual who is not part of his party to contest an election.

“Vasanthi Devi will be the candidate of the People’s Welfare Front [PWF] and the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam for the R.K. Nagar constituency. She will contest on the VCK symbol, ‘ring’,” he told a crowded press conference in Chennai on April 20. He said: “We are not fielding her to defeat somebody.” After a brief pause, he added. “It is to bring about a change.”

With that announcement, Tirumavalavan ushered in a seminal change on more than one level in the State’s electoral politics, which is pretty much the norm in the neighbouring State of Kerala.

Joseph Mundassery, a literary critic, was the first in a long list of distinguished non-party candidates to contest the elections in Kerala. He was Kerala’s first Education Minister, in the E.M.S. Namboodiripad Cabinet. The Jnanpith awardee S.K. Pottekkatt, the writer-critic Sukumar Azhikkode, the poets Kadamanitta Ramakrishnan and O.N.V Kurup, Professor M.K. Sanu and the actor Murali are among those who were not overly political in their beliefs but nonetheless contested for political parties, more often than not as independent candidates.

Professor Vasanthi Devi, 77, an acclaimed academic, was Vice Chancellor of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University (1992 to 1998) and Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women (2002-05). It was Chief Minister Jayalalithaa who invited her to assume charge as Vice Chancellor during her first term (1991-96) and later even gave her an extension. When Jayalalithaa became Chief Minister in 2001, she invited Vasanthi Devi to occupy the Chair of the State’s Women’s Commission.

Vasanthi Devi is currently chairperson of a non-governmental organisation (NGO), the Institute of Human Rights Education, headquartered in Madurai. She is also the president of the Association for India’s Development (AID-India), an organisation that works in the area of school education and health, mainly in Tamil Nadu. The focus of its work is to improve the quality of school education for the benefit of children from underprivileged sections at the elementary level. Vasanthi Devi is a trustee of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, a reputed research institution in socio-economic-cultural-developmental issues. She is also a member of the Governing Body of the Council for Social Development, New Delhi, one of the oldest NGOs in India.

N. Satiya Moorthy, political observer and director of Observer Research Foundation-Chennai, said: “Prima facie, it is an election coup. It will bring more than an academic national/media attention on R.K. Nagar. It can also help Thirumavalavan recast his party image. But it [such an experiment] failed for [S.] Ramadoss [Pattali Makkal Katchi chief] with Dheeran and others,” he added.

A senior political leader who did not want to be named said: “The idea of Vasanthi Devi contesting against Jayalalithaa sounds good. But who will vote for her against Jayalalithaa. It’s a good way to split some votes… and a well-thought-out idea to grab media attention. That’s all.”

Some politicians said this was a case of a good candidate being wasted. “If they really wanted her to win they could have fielded her elsewhere,” one of them said. Another said Kovan (the folk singer who was arrested for songs criticising Jayalalithaa’s liquor policy) would have been a better choice.

Jayalalithaa will be contesting from the constituency for the second time in under a year. She was elected in the byelection in June 2015 (by a margin of 1.5 lakh votes) after she was acquitted by the Karnataka High Court in a disproportionate assets case. Thirumavalavan wanted to contest from R.K. Nagar but was dissuaded from doing so.

Both Jayalalithaa and Vasanthi Devi came to Chennai at a very young age. While Jayalalithaa’s story is well-recorded, not many know about Vasanthi Devi. She came to Chennai (then Madras) in 1954 at the age of 15 to join Queen Mary’s College in the intermediate class. “That was the start of five years I spent along the Marina—two years at Queen Mary’s, and three years at Presidency College, where I did my B.A. History Honours…. In 1959, I joined Queen Mary’s again—this time as a lecturer,” she told The Hindu Metroplus in an interview.

She has taken up many causes: education, women’s rights and child rights among other things. She has not shied away from expressing her opinion about contemporary issues such as the need for prohibition or the banning of a Dalit students’ union at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras.

Shimla Muthuchozhan, 34, a political novice, is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) front’s candidate. The PMK has nominated its women’s wing secretary P. Agnes for the seat. C. Devi, a transgender representing the Naam Tamilar Katchi, an ultra-Tamil political party, is also in the fray. The Bharatiya Janata Party has announced that M.N. Raja, son-in-law of former AIADMK Minister Aranganayakam, will contest from the seat.

Shimla Muthuchozhan’s mother-in-law, Sarguna Pandian, was Social Welfare Minister in the DMK government (1996-2001). She was elected from the R.K. Nagar constituency in 1989 and 1996. She is now deputy secretary general of the party. Shimla Muthuchozhan is a resident of R.K. Nagar. She was active during the Chennai floods and makes it a point to ask voters, Who was with you in your greatest hour of need?

Opposition leaders draw courage from the fact that Jayalalithaa was defeated in the Bargur constituency in 1996. E.G. Sugavanam of the DMK was elected from there. If she can lose once, she can lose again. But AIADMK grass-roots workers in R.K. Nagar are pretty sure it will never happen again.

R.K. Radhakrishnan