Was there a wave?

Print edition : May 06, 2011

On election day, April 13, voters outside a polling booth in Virugambakkam, Chennai. - S.S.KUMAR

Tamil Nadu records its highest ever voter turnout of 78 per cent in the one-day election to a 234-member Assembly.

ON April 13, in the elections to the 234-member State Assembly, Tamil Nadu witnessed its highest ever voter turnout of 78 per cent. The earlier record was set in 1967 when 76.57 per cent voters came to the polling station to vote out the then Congress government.

Wherever the polling booth was, be it in Tiruvanmiyur, Besant Nagar, Alandur or Tambaram in Chennai; Sellur, Jai Hind Puram, Kudal Nagar or Muthupatti in Madurai; Athiyutru village in Tirunelveli district; or parts of Tiruchi, Thanjavur or any other district, people began making a beeline for the polling booths right from 8 a.m. Women in villages, farmhands, workers in industrial towns, college students, senior citizens and middle-class voters did not shy away from the long queues. For a State that is used to low voting percentages, this enthusiasm came as a big surprise. Voters seem to have come of age, realised the importance of the franchise and the need to exercise it with certainty.

The polling was generally peaceful, with no major incidents of violence reported from anywhere. There was all-round praise from the voters for the State's Chief Electoral Officer Praveen Kumar and his team for the efficient manner in which the elections were conducted.

The projection is that 75 per cent to 80 per cent of the people voted, Praveen Kumar said a few hours after polling ended. Karur recorded the highest turnout, with 86 per cent of the voters hitting the blue button on the electronic voting machines.

The temple town of Tiruvarur, where Chief Minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi is fighting it out with Kodavasal M. Rajendran of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), recorded 75 per cent. After he voted, Karunanidhi said, with his inimitable sense of humour, The DMK's chances of victory are as bright as the rising sun (the party's election symbol).

Srirangam, from where former Chief Minister and AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa is contesting against N. Anand of the DMK, 73 per cent of the voters came out to vote. Jayalalithaa predicted a landslide win for her party. Kolathur in Chennai, where M.K. Stalin, Deputy Chief Minister and Karunanidhi's son, is contesting, recorded 68 per cent. In Rishivandhiyam, where film actor and founder of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) Vijayakant is contesting, the turnout was 83 per cent. In Madurai district, where the DMK strongman and Union Chemicals and Fertilizers Minister M.K. Alagiri was the architect of the party's strategy, the turnout was 77 per cent. About 68.7 per cent of the electorate voted in Chennai, the State capital.

There were many reasons for this high turnout. Praveen Kumar said, We can attribute it to the political parties and the people themselves. The awareness created by a campaign on National Voters' Day and other publicity campaigns had perhaps created a feeling among the youth that they should vote, he said. Some of the political parties had projected a sense of close contest and so an election atmosphere was created. A lot of young people were seen voting in Chennai and middle- and upper middle-class people from posh localities too turned up to vote, he said.

Asked whether the distribution of cash in many constituencies had lured voters, Praveen Kumar replied, I will not link it to that. I will say it is political mobilisation.

The political fronts are waiting for the electoral outcome on May 13 with bated breath in what is seen as a do-or-die battle.

The one led by the DMK, which is contesting 119 seats, comprises the Congress (contesting 63 seats), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (30), the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (10), the Kongu Nadu Munnetra Kazhagam (seven), the Indian Union Muslim League (three) and the Perunthalaivar Makkal Katchi and the Moovendar Munnetra Kazhagam (one each).

The alliance led by the AIADMK, which is contesting 160 seats, includes the DMDK (41 seats), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (12), the Communist Party of India (10), the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi (three), and the Puthiya Tamizahgam and the All-India Samathuva Makkal Katchi, headed by actor Sarath Kumar (two each). Its other partners are the Republican Party of India, the All India Forward Bloc, the Kongu Ilaignar Peravai and the Moovendar Munnani Kazhagam, all contesting one seat each. Although either of the two parties (the DMK and the AIADMK) has been in power right from 1967, there is no denying the fact that they are passing through a crucial phase in their respective political histories. The electoral outcome will be a key factor in charting their political future.

A third front, contesting in more than 230 seats, consists of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Party.

The election campaign gained momentum in the fortnight before polling day. While Karunanidhi asked the people to re-elect the DMK for its achievements, Stalin, who spearheaded the DMK campaign, told the people that if they wanted to continue enjoying the benefits of the government's welfare schemes, they should vote for the DMK-led front.

Jayalalithaa targeted the family rule of Karunanidhi. She said that while the people continued to live in poverty, Karunanidhi was trying to make his family, which is already the richest in Asia, the richest in the world. The family controls several major business enterprises. Should seven crore people suffer to ensure the prosperity of one family? This election is not merely to change the regime but to liberate people from slavery, Jayalalithaa said.

Prakash Karat, CPI(M) general secretary, campaigning for CPI(M) and AIADMK candidates near Nagercoil on April 5, called the DMK and the Congress brothers in corruption. Karat said: We are seeing the worst form of systematic corruption [in Tamil Nadu]. This corruption has been institutionalised by one family. To save Tamil Nadu from the misrule of the DMK, we have to ensure the victory of the alliance led by Jayalalithaa.

VITAL ISSUES

The Assembly election has provided an opportunity to the voters to discuss a host of vital issues relating to the development of the State as a whole and specific local problems affecting people in every constituency.

A few kilometres from Veeravanallur village in Tirunelveli district, Frontline spoke to some elderly men. They were seated on a platform raised around a tree. Nearby, a few bullock carts were parked. The bullock-cart drivers will decide who the winner will be in Ambasamudram constituency, S. Natarajan, one of the men, said emphatically. He had a deadpan expression but was serious about his comment.

When the Frontline team drove around the constituency, it was clear that Natarajan was not exaggerating. The bullock-cart drivers are an angry lot. Many of them had earlier been remanded in judicial custody and spent 15 days in jail. The local DMK leaders saw the bullock carts as a threat to their monopoly in quarrying sand from the Tamiraparani riverbed. At Athazhanallur, a bullock-cart driver transporting soil for a brick kiln, said, Many of us have gone to jail because the DMK leaders want a monopoly over quarrying sand from the riverbed. They smuggle the sand to Kerala. At Tiruppudaimarudur, there are posters announcing agitations against the harassment of bullock-cart drivers. And it is anybody's guess who will win from Ambasamudram the DMK's R. Avudaiappan, who was Assembly Speaker, or the AIADMK's Isakki Subbiah.

At Thondamuthur, Valparai and other constituencies in western Tamil Nadu, it is a different issue that is bothering voters and candidates alike the havoc caused in the villages by elephants from nearby forests. I have promised the people that trenches will be dug to keep out the elephants, P.S. Velumani, the AIADMK candidate, said. If local issues such as bringing Tamiraparani water to Radhapuram constituency or the industrial backwardness of the Viralimalai constituency came to the fore in the respective constituencies, the two issues that resonated everywhere were price rise and the need for a change. Power cuts, for extended hours every day for more than two years now, are a live issue. They have affected the lives of powerloom owners, farmers, small entrepreneurs, big industrialists and poultry unit owners.

In Viralimalai town, C. Ravichandran, who owns a vegetable shop, is not impressed with the achievements of the DMK government. How about price rise? he asked. D. Shanmugham, who was buying mangoes, interjected, The government's scheme to convert huts into concrete houses is a waste. It has made us debtors! Price rise, too, has affected us. Why should we not seek a change?

On the outskirts of Tiruvarur, a respected scholar, who did not want to be named, said: These elections will be crucial to Tamil Nadu's history. Many people think they need a change or a break from the past. If you want to buy prime property in Madurai or Tiruchi, the registering officer rings up a Union Minister or the State Minister and seeks their clearance for registering the property. People are seething with rage and craving a change.

In Tiruvarur constituency, there are several Left bastions that can upset the DMK. At Kilariyam, a CPI(M) stronghold, S. Vaithilingam and his wife, Rani, are angry with the DMK. What is the use of Karunanidhi supplying rice at Re.1 a kg while salt is selling at Rs.12 a kg? The main issue is price rise. We need a change of government, said Vaithilingam. He narrated how he ran from pillar to post for a single-bulb electricity connection to his house and did not get it. M. Rajaram said no scheme had been implemented in its entirety by the government. Karunanidhi may win from Tiruvarur but he cannot form the government again, he predicted.

Night had fallen at Srirangam, from where Jayalalithaa is contesting. A group of elderly Konars (belonging to the Yadava community) were seated outside a locked house. We acknowledge that Karunanidhi has given us several freebies. He will implement what he has promised in the DMK manifesto too. [Yet], there should be a change, said Ramamurthy. At Kadayam under the Alangulam constituency, S. Azhagar, a young itinerant trader of ready-made garments and a DMK loyalist, said he was confident that Sarath Kuamr, film actor and founder of the AISMK, would be elected to the neighbouring Tenkasi seat, defeating the DMK's puissant Tirunelveli district secretary and legislator Karuppasamy V. Pandian.

Voters were contemptuous of the attempts by the two main parties to woo them with freebies. P. Ajantha, from Eechankuppam in Nagapattianam, which was affected by the tsunami in December 2004, is an articulate woman. People will never develop the confidence to earn by themselves if you shower them with freebies. People want a change. They don't want freebies, she said. If we take Rs.500 from a candidate and vote for him, officials will never respect us.

Ajantha was angry about the killing of Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lanka Navy. What is the use of Karunanidhi writing letters to the Prime Minister asking him to stop the Sri Lanka Navy from killing our fishermen? Why can't Karunanidhi pick up his mobile phone and speak to Manmohan Singh? she asked. She was upset that the Government of India ceded Katchativu to Sri Lanka although there was proof to show that it belonged to Tamil Nadu.

Tamil Nadu may have become notorious for its Tirumangalam formula (buying votes with cash and gifts), but there seems to be a change in the mindset of voters. M. Sekar of Karadipatti village in the Tirupparankunram constituency in Madurai district said that during the byelection in the Tirumangalam constituency (situated about 20 km from Madurai) held in January 2009, families with several votes received Rs.16,000 to Rs.20,000. Cash was also given during the Lok Sabha elections held in 2009.

When we go to meet them after they have won, they expect us to remove the towel from our shoulders, tie it around our waist [as a gesture of subservience] and bow before them. And they drive us out. We have realised that if we take money from politicians and vote for them, they won't care for us. If we don't take money, we can demand that the legislators provide us with amenities, he added. Significantly, problems such as power shortage, spiralling prices, closure of factories, un-remunerative farming, corruption, non-issuance of house site pattas, unemployment, deterioration of the environment, displacement of people owing to the implementation of mega projects, travails of migrant labour and lack of civic amenities came to the fore during the debates at the local level. This relegated other issues, including the freebies and populist schemes promised by some parties, to the background. This is evident from the feedback obtained from a cross section of voters in Chennai, Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram districts. There are 37 Assembly constituencies with a voter strength of 78,03,385 spread over the three districts.

Among the key contestants are M.K. Stalin in Kolathur, Finance Minister K. Anbazhagan in Villivakkam, Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president K.V. Thangkabalu in Mylapore and CPI(M) leader A. Soundararajan in Perambur, all in Chennai city. DMDK president Panruti' S. Ramachandran has entered the fray in Alandur, Kancheepuram district.

Quite in contrast to their counterparts in other northern districts in the State, the electors, in these districts, including those who were to exercise their franchise for the first time, were aware of the implications of the 2G spectrum scam for the country's prestige and economy.

PATTAS AND LOCAL ISSUES

A major issue worrying the people residing in Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur districts is the non-issuance of title deeds for their house sites. By and large voters in these districts also show scant regard for the promise of freebies. Local issues such as unemployment, lack of infrastructure, health care and hygiene were hotly debated.

Despite apprehensions being raised by the opposition parties about alleged attempts to woo voters with money, voters in some areas were confident that the cash for vote strategy would not work.

Non-performance or failure of the legislators came into focus in many constituencies. Many voters welcomed the Election Commission's strict enforcement of the model code. Voters also expressed their views on the question of stability of a coalition government in the event of a fractured mandate.

SLUM DWELLERS' IRE

As far as Chennai is concerned, a key issue that will have a decisive impact on the elections in many of the 16 constituencies is the displacement of slum dwellers to facilitate the implementation of some mega projects. Despite the DMK government's pious declarations that it would not forcibly evict slum dwellers, thousands of people have already been uprooted and rehabilitated in newly built dwelling units far away from the city. Life has become miserable for these displaced people, who have to travel around 60 km daily to eke out a living in the city.

Apart from this, over a million people belonging to 1,400 slums in the city have been living in perpetual fear of being evicted, as the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board has embarked on an ambitious plan of ensuring that Chennai becomes slum-free by 2013. Though the displaced people and those who are facing eviction from the slums have not been organised, they are dismayed at the eviction drive. Their indignation will certainly reflect in the election outcome, opined A. Marx, organiser of the Tamil Nadu chapter of the People's Union for Human Rights.

A sizable number of slum dwellers in Chennai, who by and large had been supporting the DMK all these years, turned against it in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. This erosion in the traditional vote bank prompted the stalwarts of the ruling party, including Karunanidhi, Anbazhagan and Stalin, to move over to safer seats, observers pointed out.

The goof-up in the nomination of Thangkabalu's wife as the Congress candidate for the Mylapore constituency resulted in violent protests by party activists. The rejection of her nomination papers during scrutiny led to Thangkabalu himself entering the fray in Mylapore, which has a large number of slum dwellers.

A jewellery polisher residing at Mahakavi Bharathi Nagar in Perambur constituency said, Any welfare state is expected to extend basic amenities to its citizens rather than offering freebies. As the city has a large slum population, the government should resort to measures to rehabilitate them properly instead of forcibly evicting them.

P. Abdul Khader, who transports goods on a tricycle, said housing was a major problem, particularly for the poor. I have been in the job for the past 15 years. My average daily earning is Rs.200 but I have to shell out Rs.2,000 a month on house rent, he said. According to him, many people in the city are aware of the 2G spectrum scam. He hoped a change of government would help check the deterioration in the law and order situation.

A hotel worker in Rabindranath Tagore Nagar in the Villivakkam constituency said several houses in the area had been built on sites without pattas. Daily wage earners and their families comprised most of the residents. Instead of vying to extend freebies, the political parties should work towards issuing pattas to these residents and take steps to set up a multi-speciality hospital in the area, he said.

On the viability of a coalition government, which would be a new phenomenon in Tamil Nadu, the worker said, Coalition politics has come to stay at the national level and in other States. It will not create any problem in our State. M. Vadivelu of Royapuram and T. Ponmani of Rajaji Nagar in Villivakkam felt there was room for checks and balances in a coalition government.

A retired executive of a private company residing at Jawahar Nagar in the Kolathur constituency said kattapanchayat (kangaroo courts) and kanduvatti (usury) had become rampant in the city. People would favour a government that took firm steps against the twin evils, he said.

M. Gnanamuthu, running a hardware store at Kattupakkam village in the Poonamalee constituency, hopes the DMK-led front will win in view of the various welfare schemes implemented by the Karunanidhi government. E. Selvam, a resident of Nolambur in the Maduravayal constituency, said apprehensions were raised by some genuine beneficiaries about the continuance of the welfare schemes, including the old-age pension if there was a change of government. A taxi driver residing in the same area said only a small percentage of voters could be hoodwinked with the offer of cash or gifts.

Y. Dhanam, an aged widow of Eekkadu in Tiruvallur constituency, said, I do not want freebies but I will be much obliged if the authorities consider my three-year-old plea for old-age pension favourably. B. Mohammed Khan, a hawker belonging to Vilapakkam, said the mood of the people in several villages in the constituency was for a change of government. S. Sunil (name changed), a carpenter residing at Gummidipoondi, also felt so.

J. Jainul of Vandalur, a first-time voter, described the 2G spectrum scam as the mother of all scandals that had brought disrepute to the nation. The contending parties should come forward to implement development programmes and labour-intensive projects instead of doling out gifts to the voters, he said. Expressing similar sentiments, S.K. Khaleel, an autorickshaw driver residing at Chembakkam in Tambaram constituency, said DMDK leader Vijayakant should have taken the lead in floating a third front this time as an alternative to the DMK and the AIADMK.

M. Ezhumalai, a farmhand residing at Indira Nagar in Old Perungalathur in Kancheepuram district, said the majority of the residents in the area were daily wage earners who had lived in the area for over three decades. But their plea for house site pattas had not been heard.

His neighbour E. Vasantha said no patta had been issued for her house although she paid the tax regularly. Vasantha, who lost her husband in a road accident four years ago, said her request for widow's pension had been rejected on the grounds that she had two sons.

R. Robin, a resident of Mudichur in the Tambaram constituency, said a patta had been denied for his house site and the petty shop he ran on the grounds that he had constructed them on grazing poromboke land. As many as 2,500 residents, including painters, construction workers and farm workers, live in this area in constant fear of being evicted.

The DMK government's Kalaignar Housing Scheme aimed at providing concrete houses to 21 lakh hut dwellers in the State had not benefited them, he said. Some of the residents of Ambedkar Nagar in Manimangalam village in the Sriperumbudur constituency also pointed out that house site pattas had not been issued to them although they had been residing there for more than 30 years.

LESSON LEARNT

M. Sivaji, a farm worker of Ambedkar Nagar in Manimangalam, said categorically that he would not accept cash or gifts offered by any party. In 2006, he had a bitter experience: supporters of a candidate who lost the election pulled him up for not obliging them.

S. Kannan, a farmer belonging to Sriperumbudur, accused the sitting Congress legislator of not making adequate efforts to highlight the problems facing the constituency. Some residents of Manimangalam said a bridge on the Tambaram-Sriperumbudur route had not been repaired and for nearly three years the road had been in a bad shape.

Expressing dismay at the attempts made by the DMK and the AIADMK to woo voters, Kannan said these parties should strive to enhance the facilities at the local government hospital, which did not have the anti-rabies vaccine or the antidote to snake venom. The abject poverty among Dalit families in villages, including Perumpulipakkam in the constituency, forced these people to work in farms for low wages, he pointed out.

He said the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam of Vaiko should not have been kept out of the AIADMK-led alliance. This electoral combine will face problems in those constituencies where the MDMK is likely to work against its candidates, he opined.

N. Deenadayalan, a tenant farmer of Manimangalam village in Sriperumbudur constituency, said agricultural operations were hit by the unreasonable power cut imposed by the government. Parties generously announce that they will distribute mixers and grinders free of cost. But even for running them we need electricity, he quipped.

S. Rajesh, a young farmer of this village, said paddy procurement had taken a nosedive. The procurement price had come down to Rs.700 a quintal compared to the previous year's level of Rs.1,100 a quintal.

Undeclared power cuts, apart from the declared three-hour power cut daily, had ruined the traditional silk weaving sector in Kancheepuram town and adjoining villages, said 25-year-old V. Srinivasan, who took to weaving at the age of nine. Low wages had also affected the industry. While a large number of genuine weavers had been kept out of the purview of the cooperative societies, persons who were in no way connected with weaving were enrolled as members, he alleged. The weavers working for private agencies could not avail themselves of the 100-unit free power supply offered by the government. They were also not eligible for statutory benefits such as Provident Fund, Employees State Insurance and bonus, he pointed out.

In five years, the silk industry would be wiped out as weavers, more particularly youngsters, had started seeking jobs in industrial units run by multinational corporations around Kancheepuram, he lamented. Some of his colleagues had become construction workers or hawkers, said K. Vadivel, an erstwhile weaver who sells ice fruit bars.

A meaningful change in the prevailing situation is the need of the hour. We will vote for the party which promises a viable programme to rehabilitate the traditional craft, said B. Muniamma, another silk weaver.

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