Heat and dust

Print edition : April 22, 2011

AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa on the campaign trail in Thanjavur. - M. SRINATH

Price rise and power cut aside, it is the alliances' response to specific local issues that may decide the winner in Tamil Nadu.

WITH two powerful alliances pitted against each other, it promises to be a tough battle in the April 13 election to the 234-member Assembly in Tamil Nadu. On one side is the formidable combination led by the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which is contesting 119 seats. Its allies are the Congress (contesting 63 seats), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK, 30), the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK, or Dalit Panthers, 10), the Kongu Nadu Munnetra Kazhagam (KNMK, seven), the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML, three), the Perunthalaivar Makkal Katchi (one) and the Moovendar Munnetra Kazhagam (MMK, one).

Chief Minister and DMK president M. Karunanidhi heads the alliance, but it is his son and Deputy Chief Minister M.K. Stalin who is leading the DMK's campaign on the strength of the government's achievements of the past five years. He is confident of getting the support of all those who benefited from these achievements.

Trying to unseat the DMK government is the powerful alliance led by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) headed by former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. While the AIADMK has fielded candidates in 160 constituencies, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) is contesting in 41, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 12 and the Communist Party of India (CPI) in 10. Other partners in the alliance are the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi (MMK), which has three constituencies, the Puthiya Tamizhagam and the All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi, which have two each, and the Republican Party of India, the All India Forward Bloc, the Kongu Ilaignar Peravai and the Moovendar Munnani Kazhagam, which have one each.

There is a third alliance in the field, that of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Party of Subramanian Swamy. It is contesting almost all the seats. Nagercoil will see a triangular contest involving BJP State president Pon. Radhakrishnan, R. Mahesh of the DMK and Nanjil A. Murugesan of the AIADMK. Radhakrishnan, who has a clean image, is expected to give a tough fight to the other two candidates.

Jayalalithaa and DMDK leader and film actor Vijayakant have hit the road, galvanising cadre and fans alike. The youth seem to be with Vijayakant. Amudha Natarajan, a vendor of tender coconuts near Thondamuthur in Coimbatore district, felt that the AIADMK will win because the youth are with Vijayakant.

While the new alliance between the AIADMK and the DMDK seems to be jelling, it has been a messy and painful parting of ways for the AIADMK and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), headed by Vaiko. On March 13, when Jayalalithaa announced the AIADMK's list of 160 candidates and apportioned the remaining 74 seats to the alliance partners except the MDMK, it was a clear signal that the MDMK was not needed. This was despite the MDMK remaining her staunch ally for the past five years. Later, Jayalalithaa offered 12 seats to the MDMK but Vaiko insisted on 21. The AIADMK general secretary stood her ground. The partnership ended with Vaiko's announcement that his party was boycotting the elections. There is no change in her [Jayalalithaa's] attitude or approach. After her arrogance, conceit and unilateral approach have manifested themselves, it is not proper to remain in the alliance led by her, he said in a statement.

Informed observers said the MDMK's exit would be a loss for Jayalalithaa, particularly in terms of its 4 per cent vote share. No less important, the alliance will miss the fiery oratory of Vaiko and his lieutenant Nanjil Sampath.

If Vaiko had been with us, he would have energised the cadre of all the parties in our alliance. He and Nanjil Sampath would have peeled the innards of the 2G spectrum and held them up to the public to ridicule, said an AIADMK leader who did not want to be named.

An interesting aspect in this round of election is the decision of top DMK leaders to contest from new seats instead of their long-held seats. Karunanidhi has moved from Chepauk in Chennai and is contesting from Tiruvarur, his home town in Thanjavur district, for the first time in the 54 years he has been a legislator. DMK general secretary and Finance Minister K. Anbazhagan has shifted to suburban Villivakkam from the Harbour constituency, while Stalin has chosen Kolathur in Chennai over Thousand Lights, also in Chennai. Agriculture Minister Veerapandi S. Arumugam has moved from Veerapandi to Sankagiri and M. Kannappan has given up Thondamuthur for Kinathukadavu.

Jayalalithaa will contest from Srirangam, her home base in Tiruchi city famed for its Vishnu temple, instead of the rural Andipatti constituency, which elected her twice.

The DMK has the dubious distinction of rewarding the largest number of floor-crossers with the party's ticket. They include S. Muthusamy, P.K. Sekar Babu and Anita Radhakrishnan (all from the AIADMK), M. Kannappan and Cumbum N. Ramakrishnan (both from the MDMK) and C. Govindasamy (from the CPI-M). The Congress has given the ticket to S. Thirunavukkarasar and S. Selva Perunthagai, who switched loyalties from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the VCK respectively.

Colourless election

It has been a dull and colourless campaign so far with the Election Commission (E.C.) going all out to ensure that the candidates comply with its model code of conduct. There are no wall graffiti, posters, hoardings, digital boards, buntings or festoons. A party's procession of cyclists or two-wheeler riders can have no more than two vehicles carrying the party flag. Party flags cannot be hoisted on poles erected at road intersections and statues of political leaders, be it of Rajiv Gandhi or former Chief Ministers K. Kamaraj, C.N. Annadurai or M.G. Ramachandran, should be covered. These measures provoked Karunanidhi to unleash a broadside at the E.C.

At Royapuram in the heart of the hosiery town of Tirupur in western Tamil Nadu, workers in 730-odd dyeing units lost their jobs when the units shut down about two months ago consequent to a Madras High Court order on effluent treatment. Each unit employed about 50 workers. Twenty gigantic common effluent treatment plants (CETPs) built by these units have also been closed on the High Court's orders. Each CETP employed more than 100 persons.

As this reporter steered the conversation towards the elections, A. Kandaswamy, a worker who lost his job, said tersely, We need a change. The AIADMK will win.

At Veerapandi village, near Salem, M. Chelladurai, a coconut trader, could not help saying, Although I am a Congressman [and we are in alliance with the ruling DMK], we need a change [of government].

At Magudanchavadi in Sankagiri constituency near Salem, a group of people had gathered for the inaugural function of a business venture and were having a spirited discussion about the elections. One person, A. Madhesh, uncannily echoed what Chelladurai had said the previous day: I am a Congressman. Although the DMK government gives freebies, I want a change. If the straws in the wind in the western region of the State are any indication, change is in the air.

As the campaign gathers pace and locally important issues such as the closure of dyeing units, the high price of cotton yarn, the laying of ring roads and the implementation of drinking water schemes occupy the centre stage, two issues constantly agitate voters everywhere: price rise and power cut.

While the 2G spectrum scam and the consequent arrest of Communications Minister A. Raja of the DMK for his alleged role in it do not figure prominently as an election issue in villages, it is a big issue in the Assembly segments of the Nilgiris parliamentary constituency from where Raja was elected to the Lok Sabha in 2009. The voters there feel let down because they had elected Raja although he was an outsider (he hails from Perambalur district). Raja made himself visible, said a political observer in Udhagamandalam. He visited the constituency 22 times. During the floods in the district in November, he led from the front. However, [after the 2G spectrum scam and Raja's arrest] the image of the district has taken a beating. A section of the local people are, therefore, feeling hurt.

Although M. Dravidamani, the DMK candidate in Gudalur, claimed that the spectrum scam and l'affaire Raja are not at all factors in the election and that Raja has a good reputation among the people of Gudalur because of his service to them, DMK campaigners admitted that the scam had become a millstone round their neck and that it is embarrassing to bring up Raja's name.

As for the issue of price rise, it is women who are the most vociferous. There was a nip in the air at dusk at the Upper Doddabetta Estate near Udhagamandalam, where three women, L. Santhi, R. Jaya and Bhagya, were weighing the tea leaves they had plucked that day. They were angry because they had not received the free LPG stoves promised by the government although their neighbours did get them. They also complained that they were not getting their full entitlement of 20 kg of rice a month. They went ballistic about food prices. The government has brought down the prices only because elections are round the corner, said Bhagya.

A couple of kilometres away, on the Ooty-Kotagiri road, one met more tea estate workers who were angry about rising food prices. What is the use of the government supplying rice at Re.1 a kg when the price of daal, tamarind, chillies, and so on sell at more than Rs.70 a kg? asked one of the women.

CHIEF MINISTER M. KARUNANIDHI in Coimbatore on March 30 on the second leg of his campaign tour.-K. ANANTHAN

At Sanniyasipatti Agraharam, on the highway between Salem and Erode, a group of women were digging a channel under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. A People's Welfare Officer (Makkal Nala Paniyalar in Tamil) was supervising the work. He argued that the scheme was useful to them because agricultural land all over Tamil Nadu was being sold to real estate builders and that rendered farm workers jobless. Works like deepening lakes, strengthening their bunds and digging channels are useful to them, he said. Kathayi, a worker, chipped in: The rice that is provided in the ration shop at Re.1 a kg is uneatable. We have to buy rice in the open market at Rs.25 a kg. So the wage of Rs.120 a day that we get from the scheme is useful to us.

In the western region, the spotlight will be on the seven candidates of the KNMK, a party that was founded in Coimbatore in February 2009 to reflect the aspirations of Vellala Gounders, the predominant community in the region. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, its candidates polled an impressive total of about seven lakh votes in the six Lok Sabha constituencies of Coimbatore, Tirupur, Erode, Salem, Namakkal and Krishnagiri. The Congress lost in four of these seats Salem, Coimbatore, Tirupur and Erode. Besides, in the Thondamuthur Assembly byelection last year, the KNMK candidate polled 19,558 votes, about 9,500 more than the Gounder community's strength in the constituency. These two developments saw both the DMK and the AIADMK wooing the KNMK, which decided to go with the DMK. The KNMK's candidates are in the fray at Sulur, Palladam, Pollachi, Udumalpet, Perunthurai, Gobichettipalayam and Namakkal.

G.K. Nagaraj, the young Coimbatore district secretary of the KNMK who is an engineering graduate, is a disappointed man. He had worked hard in the Singanallur Assembly constituency in Coimbatore, nurturing local talent, paying attention to civic issues and laying approach roads. He said his hard work saw the KNMK's membership rise to 20,000 in Singanallur constituency alone. He had hoped that Singanallur would be allotted to the KNMK in the seat-sharing exercise and that he would be named the party's candidate from it. But with Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi insisting that Singanallur should be allotted to the Congress, Nagaraj lost out.

He said, After we formed the political party, every party is giving importance to our community. They have given seats only to Gounders in the region. These candidates, belonging to the DMK, the Congress and the AIADMK, include S. Muthusamy, K.A. Sengottaiyan, M. Kannappan, M.P. Saminathan, N.M. Kandasamy, S.P. Velumani, Challenger R. Duraisamy, N.K.K.P. Raja and V.C. Arukutty.

But we don't want importance to any particular community, said Nagaraj. The KNMK is for the development of the country and the region, where people of all communities can live peacefully.

A difficult issue that the KNMK has on its hands is the reopening of the 730-odd dyeing units and the 20 CETPs. The Madras High Court, on January 28, 2011, ordered the immediate closure of all dyeing and bleaching units and all CETPs in the Tirupur region by the TNPCB. The First Bench, comprising Chief Justice M.Y. Eqbal and Justice T.S. Sivagnanam, said the CETPs/integrated effluent treatment plants/units should not be allowed to operate unless they achieved zero liquid discharge (ZLD) as per the court's directions in 2006. The Bench passed the order on contempt petitions filed by the Noyyal River Ayacutdars Protection Association against officials of the Public Works Department (PWD) and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), alleging wilful disobedience on their part of earlier court orders.

M. Karthikeyan, accountant in one of the dyeing units, had no illusion that the closure will affect the election outcome in a big way in Tirupur district. The gravity of the issue is such that the Tirupur Industrial Protection Committee (TIPC), a new organisation, threatened to field 1,000 candidates in Tirupur North constituency. Our aim is not to win the election but to take the issue to the Centre's attention, said R. Annadurai, its coordinator. For, the closure has had a chain effect on associated units such as knitting mills, units that supply chemicals and dyes, tailoring establishments or those who were engaged in embroidery work. (The dyed, knitted fabric is ultimately tailored into T-shirts, vests and briefs, and so on.) Without dyeing units, nobody will buy cotton. There will be no jobs in knitting, tailoring and hosiery units, argued Annadurai. Following the closure of the units, about 9,000 families had left the town, he claimed.

On March 27, the TIPC performed a volte-face, withdrawing the nominations of all the 140 candidates it had fielded as independents in Tirupur North. The TIPC, said Annadurai, took the decision after the DMK and the AIADMK promised to consider favourably its demand that the State government take over the treatment of effluents.

Northern districts

In the nine northern districts, too, the majority of them backward in terms of most development indicators, it is specific local problems that people raise as concerns. Salient among them are illegal sand and granite mining, the lack of remunerative prices for sugarcane and paddy, and escalating raw material cost for silk weavers.

These issues become important when one considers that the nine districts account for 89 constituencies with over 1.78 crore voters, including 88.41 lakh women.

Though considered to be the traditional stronghold of the DMK, north Tamil Nadu underwent a sea change with the emergence of two caste-based parties, the PMK, which has the backing of the Most Backward Vanniyars, and the VCK, which is supported by Dalits.

In the 2006 Assembly elections, the AIADMK made serious inroads into the DMK's erstwhile bastions in the region by winning 20 seats. Its then ally, the VCK, bagged one seat. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, too, the AIADMK-led alliance performed well in several Assembly segments by securing votes more than what the DMK and its allies had polled.

This was why the DMK evinced keen interest in forging ties with the PMK, despite knowing that its influence had been on the wane in recent times. The DMK conceded to it 31 seats even before clinching a deal with its principal ally, the Congress. Subsequently, the PMK had to part with one seat for the Congress. The DMK earmarked 10 seats to the VCK, one more than the number it had in the AIADMK alliance in 2001.

The DMK nurtures hopes of the combine improving its overall vote share in the region owing to the presence of the two parties in it. However, some observers do not rule out the possibility of the two parties working as a separate bloc or pressure group within the DMK-led front in the event of a fractured mandate.

As for the AIADMK, encouraged by its good showing in 2006 (Assembly) and 2009 (Lok Sabha), it has fielded candidates in 54 constituencies in the region. It will take on the DMK in 24 of these seats. Its new-found ally, the DMDK, is in the fray in 18 seats. Interestingly, in 2006 the DMDK won only one seat, Vriddachalam in Cuddalore district, while its nominees forfeited their deposits in 231 constituencies. Even so, the party earned some respectability because it could muster 8.35 per cent of the total votes polled. The party bettered this performance in 2009 by garnering 10.11 per cent of the votes polled, though all its nominees were trounced. This pushed the DMDK to the enviable position of being in demand with both the AIADMK and the DMK.

DEPUTY CHIEF MINISTER M.K. Stalin campaigning in Kolathur, in Chennai, where he is the DMK candidate.-M. VEDHAN

The Left parties, which have reached seat adjustments with the AIADMK, have fielded candidates in eight constituencies in the region, the CPI(M) in five and the CPI in three.

In the DMK-led front, the DMK has fielded its candidates in 33 constituencies, the Congress in 21, the PMK in 18 and the VCK in nine.

Vijayakant is contesting from Rishivandiyam in Villupuram district, against his Congress rival S. Sivaraj, a four-time MLA who suffers from a host of incumbency factors.

Other prominent candidates include K. Balakrishnan, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, who crosses swords with G.M. Sridhar Vandayar, the MMK chief and local landlord, in Chidambaram. A. Soundararajan, State secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, has entered the fray in Perambur in Chennai. DMDK president S. Ramachandran has moved out of his home constituency, Panruti, to contest from Alandur on the outskirts of Chennai.

The DMK sees itself as heading a formidable front. It is confident that this and the various welfare schemes it has implemented will help the alliance to counter the strategy of the AIADMK-led combine.

In the AIADMK's calculations, the party and its partners, particularly the DMDK, have a clear edge over the scams-tainted DMK. The AIADMK-led alliance is also training its guns on the DMK's family rule. Jayalalithaa and Vijayakant have already started campaigning in the region; so has Kanimozhi, the DMK's Rajya Sabha member.

As in the western districts, here too campaigning is marked by the absence of ostentation. Any election in the State has meant cacophony of loudspeakers, convoys of vehicles ferrying leaders, flags, festoons, hoardings, cut-outs, posters and graffiti. But this time the restrictions enforced by the E.C. have acted as a vaccine against campaign fever.

The Left parties have decided to use this opportunity to take the debate to a higher level by highlighting livelihood issues concerning working people, farmers and the downtrodden masses, including Dalits who are in a sizable number in these districts.

Interaction with people in the predominantly backward districts of Villupuram, Cuddalore, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri, Vellore and Tiruvannamalai show that the relative calm has allowed voters to weigh their options with equanimity. While doing so they also factor in the response of successive governments to their pressing and long-standing demands.

Pollsters find it difficult to predict the outcome in the absence of any clear wave. There is no gainsaying that even electors in the remote areas have become shrewd enough to play their cards close to the chest. One never knows which way the balance will tilt, an observer opined.

In several villages people did not mince words when they referred to the authorities' response to their pleas concerning their livelihood. In many places, voters, including women, said they would prefer only those candidates who are really interested in mitigating their age-old problems.

Pattas, a major issue

While the steep hike in food prices is a big concern, the non-allotment of houses and the fact that house-site pattas have not been issued to the majority of the residents of the region combine to form a major problem. Getting a small piece of land has been a dream for lakhs of farm workers in many villages. Pattas have not been issued to small and marginal farmers who have cultivated their land for generations in certain areas. Pattas are essential to become eligible for benefits such as free power and compensation for crop loss.

Other daunting problems faced by the people in these districts include unemployment, labour migration, acquisition of land for industrial purposes, inadequate rehabilitation of displaced people, non-implementation of forest dwellers' rights, illegal sand mining and illegal quarrying of granite.

DMDK LEADER AND film actor Vijayakant campaigning in Mettur for his party's candidate.-E. LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

We have lived here for almost four decades. We live in perpetual fear of being thrown out of our huts by the authorities. All these years we have pleaded for an alternative housing site. But till date it has not evoked a positive response, lamented D. Govindammal, a Malaikuravar woman at Vallinagar in Veppanahalli constituency in Krishnagiri district.

P. Seenivasan, another resident of Vallinagar, said he had migrated to this place several years ago from Madheswaran Hills to join his tribe known for its tattooing skills and for making baskets. The Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (Education for All) scheme has not reached this habitation. Most of our children do not go to schools. They opt to sell peanuts in neighbouring areas, he said.

N. Rathnamma, a resident of the Valmigi Naidus' colony on the hilly terrain of Theertham village in Krishnagiri district, said house-site pattas were denied to all the 14 houses in the area on the grounds that they were on forest land. Many youth in and around the village had migrated to Khammam in Andhra Pradesh in search of jobs in granite-polishing units, she said.

Residents of Sennachandram, Marachandram, Thimmachandram, Bairachandram and Uliyalam in Hosur constituency have a common complaint: Pattas have not been issued to most of the houses and farm land.

J. Saravanakumar, a resident of Sennachandram Dalit colony of 120 families, said, None of the houses has been given patta. Our lands have been acquired by the authorities for establishing an information technology park. Most of the residents in the colony are agricultural workers or manual labourers. Many of our elders have not received old-age pension.

We have submitted petitions to the local MLA and the MP seeking their intervention. But they do not bother to look into our grievances. They visit the colony only at the time of elections to seek votes. This time, we have decided to tell the candidates in unequivocal terms that we will boycott the elections if our demands are not met, Saravanakumar said.

D. Ravindran, secretary of the Krishnagiri unit of the CPI (M), said agriculturists agonised over the government's indifference to vital issues such as illegal sand mining on the South Pennar river, the lifeline of farmers in Krishnagiri, Tiruvannamalai, Villupuram and Cuddalore districts. Similarly, illegal granite quarrying posed serious problems to the environment in several villages, besides causing displacement of people, he added.

People in many villages alleged that the much-talked-about housing scheme named after the Chief Minister had not reached them.

IN COIMBATORE NORTH, the AIADMK candidate's campaign vehicle draws attention to the 2G spectrum scam.-K. ANANTHAN

V. Radhakrishnan, Villupuram district secretary of the Tamil Nadu Sugarcane Growers Association, said the government's farm policy had deprived the over one lakh cane growers in the district of a remunerative procurement price. Inadequate power supply had also harmed cane production, he added. Different types of caste discrimination against Dalits existed in the district, where the Scheduled Castes comprised 27.39 per cent of the population against the State average of 19 per cent according to the 2001 Census, he added.

At Arni in Tiruvannamalai district, two main sectors silk weaving and rice mills have been in dire straits because of the escalating cost of fibre and zari and the lack of a remunerative procurement price for paddy.

Though ruling party activists claim that DMK Ministers have nurtured their constituencies well, people narrate tales of the administration's neglect of development activities that take care of their livelihood.

A case in point is Pallikuppam village in the Katpadi Assembly segment in Vellore district, the home constituency of Law Minister Durai Murugan. Several youth here have migrated to other areas in search of jobs in the unorganised sector for paltry wages. Though the government has announced 35 kg of rice at one rupee a kg for below-poverty-line' families, the scheme has benefited only a small percentage of people who come under this category, according to C. Velu, a construction worker.

At Aadayur panchayat in Tiruvannamalai constituency, where Food Minister E.V. Velu is the DMK candidate, people complained of half-hearted measures to create job opportunities. Many of the men migrate to Bangalore to earn a living, as adequate job opportunities are not available locally. No effort has been made to reopen the oil mill of the Tamil Nadu Oilseed Growers Cooperative Federation, which has been closed for more than 10 years. This has dashed the hopes of farmers in the industrially backward area who rely on the rain-fed groundnut crop.

C. Jagadeesan, a cycle shop owner at Kalikadanthan village in Kattumannarkoil (Reserved) constituency in Cuddalore district, said the AIADMK's campaign against the family rule of the Chief Minister would cut no ice with voters of the area.

But the AIADMK seems to be banking on the inroads it made in the region in 2006 and 2009.

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