The two major alliances may be throwing caution to the winds as they make promises they may find hard to keep.
IF the issues debated and the people's mood are any indication, the Assembly elections of May 8 may well rank as the hardest ever fought in Tamil Nadu. The campaign so far has been built around some of the promises made by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in its manifesto. Indeed, not since 1967, when the DMK led by C.N. Annadurai promised one measure of rice for Re.1, has an election manifesto generated so much heat.
Among the promises are: ration rice at Rs.2 a kg, free colour television sets for families that do not own them, two acres of land to landless peasant families, waiver of agricultural cooperative loans, free gas stoves, free electricity to weavers, and reduction in tuition fees for students of engineering, medical and arts and science colleges.
While the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)-led alliance trains its firepower on the "populist" promises, the DMK and its allies in the Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA) stoutly defend them as perfectly feasible. The AIADMK and its allies such as the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) led by Vaiko and the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI) dub the promises utopian.
"Our manifesto is a big plus point for us. It has frightened our enemies. They are scared," said T.P.M. Maideen Khan, the DMK candidate from Palayamkottai in Tirunelveli district in southern Tamil Nadu. He added: "Our rivals ask us how we will be able to implement our promises. We have explained how we will do it. But why are they not prepared to outline what they will do for the people?"
Chief Minister and AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa did just that on April 17 on the ration rice issue, by making her own promise: she announced that her new government would give 10 kg rice "free" to ration card holders when they bought 10 kg of their 20 kg quota at the present price of Rs.3.50 a kg. She subsequently clarified that all ration card holders would get 10 kg of rice free irrespective of whether they lifted their full quota or not. Political analysts felt that Jayalalithaa may have committed a faux pas because she had lost a political plank to attack the DMK.
Jayalalithaa and Vaiko were obsessed with the DMK's manifesto, said K. Murugesan, a campaign manager for K.K.S.S.R. Ramachandran, the DMK candidate in Sathur in Virudhunagar district. "Vaiko does not talk about what his alliance will do for the people. He only attacks the DMK's manifesto and what he calls dynastic politics in the DMK," he said.
Vaiko has set a scorching pace and his attacks seem to have achieved their objective in Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli, Madurai and Virudhunagar districts, where caste is also an important factor. In these places people largely agreed with his criticism of the DMK's populist promises as gimmicks.
The pace of the AIADMK's campaign was the least of the worries for leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Tiruchi. As of April 13, the AIADMK and its allies were two weeks into campaigning, well ahead of the DMK-led alliance. Just three weeks of campaigning would do to counter the AIADMK's propaganda that the DMK's manifesto promised the impossible, said the CPI(M) leaders.
It was at the CPI(M)'s insistence that the DMK included in its manifesto the assurance of two acres of land for landless peasant families. "The DMK's promise to provide ration rice at Rs.2 a kg and distribute two acres of land to families of landless peasants will definitely catch on. The promise about land distribution is similar to what we did in West Bengal," said S. Panneerselvam, CPI(M) district committee member in Tiruchi. He added: "People know that because the Left parties are with the DMK, the DMK will definitely implement its poll promises."
But voters are not so sure when it comes to political parties keeping their promises. A cross section of people Frontline spoke to in villages in Cuddalore, Nagapattinam, Thiruvarur, Thiruvannamalai, Vellore and Dharmapuri districts said they generally did not take election manifestos seriously. They did not believe that the parties themselves were serious about their promises. "How many of us remember these promises to question the parties about a promise that was not kept?" asked a college lecturer. "The release of the manifesto is done mostly as a ritual," said a shopkeeper. But most of them admitted that the "free" offers had raised expectations.
Attacking the DMK's manifesto is only one part of the AIADMK-led alliance's strategy. The other, perhaps more crucial, part is to defeat as many Congress candidates as possible. For, in the AIADMK's calculation, the Congress is the soft target in the DMK-led alliance. The Congress presents a pathetic picture of group rivalry, bloody clashes, midnight fasts and last-minute change of candidates. "Our aim is to defeat 25 to 35 of the 48 Congress candidates. If we can do that we are through," said an AIADMK leader.
The AIADMK campaign highlights the government's achievements. They include a relief of Rs.1,000 to Rs.2,000 to flood-affected families, free bicycles to all class XI and XII pupils, free textbooks to all pupils up to class XII, and an insurance scheme for farmers. There is appreciation for the cash dole despite complaints of favouritism, the distribution of free cycles, the legislation to curb usurious moneylenders and the support to women's self-help groups.
Farmers have a lot to cheer now after three years of drought and seven failed crops, the tsunami and a year of floods. Tiruchi, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts - the Cauvery heartland - and the Tirunelveli region watered by the Tamiraparani river, have raised two bumper paddy crops. A feel-good factor is apparent among farmers and mill owners. Mills that husk paddy are humming with activity after three years of silence.
Among fisherfolk the mood is generally upbeat. Families affected by the tsunami of December 26, 2004, have moved into the hundreds of houses built along the coast as part of the administration's rehabilitation efforts in cooperation with non-governmental organisations and aid agencies. Many of the boat owners have got their damaged boats replaced or repaired and consequently fishing operations have picked up in several places. A number of fish workers have bought boats with government subsidy and bank assistance.
However, there are some irritants. A fish worker who recently moved into one of the 340 houses built for tsunami victims by the Mata Amritananda Mayi Math Trust in Nagapattinam said he was happy with the house but worried that he could not resume fishing though he shared with four others a boat given by the government. He did not have enough money to buy a fishing net. "Without political support one cannot get bank assistance," he said.
People are generally satisfied with the AIADMK government's performance in the last two years, that is, after the April 2004 Lok Sabha elections and specifically after the tsunami of December 26, 2004. The government won praise for the rescue and relief work but drew flak for the delay in rehabilitation work. Many people could not get aid in full, complained R.M.P. Rajendra Nattar, a fishermen's leader at Keechankuppam in Nagapattinam. He added that indiscriminate distribution of aid had resulted in the really affected being deprived of it.
In fact, favouritism, be it in the distribution of flood relief or the issue of ration cards, is an important issue in Tiruchi, Thanjavur and Karur districts. Whether it was a rice mill owner at Vallam, a farm worker at Alangudi, a woman worker at Mahadanapuram, peasants winnowing green gram at Ammapet or even a young AIADMK worker at Krishnarayapuram, a common complaint was that the flood relief of Rs.1,000 was given only to AIADMK cadre and that too those who were close to the local party leadership. Importantly, many people said this relief was distributed from Central funds and was not State government largesse.
In many villages and towns, local issues such as poor roads, lack of drainage facilities, and irregular water supply and neglect of sections of society came to the fore. In Gudiyatham, a small town in Vellore district which boasts a 120-year-old municipal administration, beedi workers and handloom weavers continue to live below the poverty line and lead a miserable life, said Paramasivam, a trade union leader.
In Nagercoil, the headquarters of Kanyakumari district, which has a sizable presence of Christians, the Bishop of Kottar diocese, the Most Reverend Leon A. Dharmaraj, had on April 8 a long line of callers keen "to seek his blessings". Among the first were AIADMK candidates, including Health Minister N. Dalavai Sundaram, K.P. Rajendra Prasad and D. Kumaradas, and MDMK candidate S. Rethinaraj. Their campaign's focus, they said, would be on the free distribution of bicycles, an insurance scheme for farmers, the construction of a sea wall to check erosion, founding the Kanyakumari Government Medical College in Nagercoil town, clearance for a harbour at Thengaipattinam, drinking water schemes and so on.
They were followed by CPI(M) district secretary S. Noor Mohamad and party candidates R. Lima Rose (Tiruvattar) and G. John Joseph (Vilavancode). According to Noor Mohamad, the DMK's promises were not an issue at all in Kanyakumari. "People here are not prepared to trust Vaiko, for he can align with anyone at any time. In Kanyakumari district, the verdict is decided by three big parties - the DMK, the Congress and the CPI(M). This is a grand alliance and they have the popular support of the people," he said.
The DPA, besides anchoring its campaign on promises, is confident that the alliance arithmetic will bring it victory. It believes that the All India Forward Bloc headed by film actor Karthik will cut into the AIADMK vote among the Mukkulathor community in the southern districts of Madurai, Virudhunagar, Ramanathapuram, Tirunelveli and Tuticorin, to the DPA's advantage. The AIFB has fielded 75 candidates in constitutencies where Mukkulathors have a sizable presence.
The Mukkulathor community traditionally supports the AIADMK, but Jayalalithaa's decision not to admit Karthik's AIFB into her alliance and to welcome Thol. Thirumavalavan's DPI with nine seats has angered it. (There have been frequent clashes between Mukkulathors and Dalits in southern Tamil Nadu.)
The anger among the Mukkulathor youth was manifest at Salaipudur in Ottapidaram (reserved) constituency where Dr. K. Krishnasamy of Puthiya Tamizhagam, another Dalit party, is contesting. Mukkulathor youth were categorical that "caste affinity" endeared them to Karthik. They emphasised that where the AIFB had fielded candidates, their community would vote for them. In other places they would vote for the AIADMK, they said. However, at Sivarapatti in Tirumangalam constituency near Madurai, farm labourers of the community dismissed the Salaipudur youth as "Karthik's film fans who do not know their minds".
They claimed that Mukkulathors were solidly behind the AIADMK. They also insisted that the DMK would not succeed in splitting them. Clearly, Karthik's influence among Mukkulathors is on test.
Another film actor-turned-politician, Vijayakant, has fielded candidates of his nascent Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) in all 234 constituencies.
He himself is contesting from Vriddhachalam, a stronghold of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). The party is an ally of the DMK, with which he is at loggerheads.
He is running a spirited campaign, attacking both the DMK and the AIADMK alliances. Big crowds gather to listen to him and there is no guessing which alliance's votes he will cut into.
A.S.A. Karunakaran, DMK leader from Nanguneri, assessed the situation thus: "The DMK, the PMK, the CPI(M) and the CPI have committed voters and hard-working cadres. The Congress may not have a cadre base but it has silent voters. Vijayakant is cutting into the MDMK's vote share, which is to the AIADMK's disadvantage. Karthik is depriving the AIADMK of its share of Mukkulathor votes. Most important, the minorities are with the DMK and its allies." According to Karunakaran, the BJP contesting separately would affect the AIADMK because a BJP sympathiser normally preferred the AIADMK to the DMK.
The DMK is also banking on the votes of government employees, teachers, road workers and mid-day meal scheme workers, whom the AIADMK government has alienated.
With so many issues and parties clouding the scene, the outcome may well be a toss-up between the two major alliances. Perhaps, the minorities hold the key.