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The Andipatti roadshow

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

The AIADMK exudes confidence, having pampered Andipatti voters enough to get them to elect party supremo Jayalalithaa.

IT is Jayalalithaa phantasmagoria that rolls through the length and breadth of the sprawling Andipatti constituency in Tamil Nadu. Be it compound walls, temple walls, overhead water tanks, walls of classrooms or of houses, Jayalalithaa's portrait dominates the landscape. But what takes the cake is a tall, newly-built wall in the midst of a vast field at Kandamanur only to carry the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's election slogans. It has Jayalalithaa's picture freshly painted with a slogan asking voters to support one who had received "the blessings of puratchi thalaivar" (revolutionary leader, the late M.G. Ramachandran, AIADMK founder, former Chief Minister and film actor). This is a singular example of the manpower and money-power that the ruling AIADMK has deployed in Andipatti.

The significance of the Andipatti byelection lies in the fact that AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa, if elected, will become Chief Minister. O. Panneerselvam, who does not feel shy to describe himself as a "temporary Chief Minister", will willingly step aside for her. AIADMK legislator Thanga Tamilselvan resigned from the seat to enable her to contest.

Opposing the puissant might of Jayalalithaa is the soft-spoken 'Vaigai' S. Sekar of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Others in the fray are V. Jeyachandran of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), Dr. K. Krishnasamy of the Puthiya Tamizhagam, a Dalit-based party, and 20 independents. Polling will be on February 21.

Given the political polarisation, with all the allies of the AIADMK having walked out on it, and the financial crisis, with the government having sharply increased milk prices, bus fares and electricity tariffs, the mood is not exactly in favour of the AIADMK. Yet Jayalalithaa may canter to victory chiefly because an MGR-nostalgia wave is sweeping Andipatti, and the Opposition has failed to put up a common candidate against her. The mood of the women voters, who, surprisingly, outnumber men voters here, is this: Our vote is not necessarily for amma but for irattai ilai (two leaves, the election symbol of the AIADMK).

Perumayi at Kunnur was chagrined that the AIADMK government did not distribute free saris and dhotis to poor people during the Pongal festival in January. Yet her vote will be for irattai ilai. She pointed to the sari she was wearing and claimed, "I got it when MGR was alive". MGR died in 1987.

At Marikundu, N. Karuppu Thevar listed the benefits that Andipatti received when people elected MGR (in 1984): roads, water supply, bus service, a sugar factory and a cooperative spinning mill. On a mountain road beyond Varusanadu, where the Vaigai river serenely flows, R. Sothiraj exulted that MGR "levelled a bit of this mountain and laid this road". People want to demonstrate their gratitude to MGR by voting for two leaves. Besides, there is expectation that by voting for Jayalalithaa, employment opportunities would boom in Andipatti, and basic amenities would improve.

There is, however, dissatisfaction over the price rise and the DMK leaders are cashing in on this. At Bomminaickenpatti, AIADMK, DMK and MDMK election offices jostle each other, with flags, buntings and streamers galore. Bomminaickenpatti has 4,300 voters. The Muslim community accounts for 2,100 voters and the rest belong to the Scheduled Castes.

At the DMK office, A. Amsa Mohammed said: "Women are shell-shocked at the massive increase in the electricity tariff, bus fare and milk price. The AIADMK government has stopped the distribution of eggs to children as part of the mid-day meal scheme. There was no distribution of saris and dhotis during Pongal. So people will vote for the DMK."

In his public meetings, T.R. Baalu, Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests, referred to the rise in prices. The AIADMK government increased the price of rice sold in ration shops from Rs.3.50 to Rs.9 a kg but then reduced it because of the election, he told the crowd. After a pause, Baalu added, "Once Jayalalithaa is elected, it will go up to Rs.9 again." He went on: "Can you meet her if she is elected? Can you tell her your grievances? She will remain inaccessible to you." But if they voted for Vaigai Sekar, they could meet him and tell him their grievances, he said.

The AIADMK is hard-pressed to reply to these points. What it lacks in the cut and thrust of debate, it has made up in sound and fury. Leading the noise brigade is T.T.V. Dinakaran, AIADMK's campaign manager. He is its Lok Sabha member from Periakulam constituency of which Andipatti forms a part.

At Kunnur village, Dinakaran rode in an open jeep with lights focussed on him. A folk dance troupe performed karagattam to tunes from MGR films. Urchins walking ahead burst firecrackers every few minutes.

An elderly C. Dhanapal, president of the Kunnur panchayat union, who had been with the DMK since its founding in 1949, joined the AIADMK in Dinakaran's presence. Dinakaran asked Dhanapal to join him in the jeep and treated him as if he were a prize trophy.

Dinakaran called Andipatti punya bhoomi (holy soil) because MGR got elected from there. He said Dhanapal crossed the floor because of DMK president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi's "anti-people activities". Dinakaran promised that Andipatti would become "a self-sufficient constituency" if people voted for Jayalalithaa.

Okkarapatti village has defied the electioneering trend. There is no election graffiti or poster. Party flags are taboo too. But party candidates and their supporters can drum up support. Kothampattu village has enforced a similar rule.

THE topography of Andipatti constituency is varied - bone-dry, arid land, lush paddy and sugarcane fields, the Western Ghats clothed with forests and the Vaigai coursing down an enchanting valley. The constituency stretches up to 38 km across at one point but its population is sparse. The total number of voters is 2,08,215(1,01,795 men and 1,06,420 women) compared to four lakhs in a normal Assembly constituency. Piranmalai Kallars account for 35 per cent of the population, Naidus 30 per cent, Dalits 22 per cent and the rest 13 per cent.

After Jayalalithaa announced her candidature on December 4, Andipatti became pampered - metalled roads replaced katcha ones; two water supply projects have been announced; applications for pension for old people, destitutes, widows and the physically challenged have been processed in double-quick time; and Dalit girls have received cycles to go to school. Further, five AIADMK Rajya Sabha members allotted Rs.50 lakhs each from their Local Area Development Fund for developmental activities.

Development issues are the dominant concern of the electorate. The universal demand is for the construction of toilets in villages. In small towns, the voters complain about mosquitoes being pervasive and lack of drainage facilities.

As it happened during the elections in 1998, 1999 and 2001, Dalits, disillusioned with the mainstream parties, are reasserting their identity. They say they will vote for Dr. Krishnasamy. At Thangammalpuram, when a caste Hindu said he was not aware that Dr. Krishnasamy was a contestant, a young Dalit who was cutting sugarcane in the field, enthusiastically announced that "Doctor" was very much in the fray. Dalits everywhere demanded cement-built houses in their colonies.

Two factors, not easy to assess, are at work at Andipatti. With the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), the Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India having decided "not to participate" in this byelection, for whom will their supporters' vote? A. Ponnukutti, a DMK supporter at Marikundu, said the DMK was trying to "convince'' these parties' supporters to vote for Vaigai Sekar. "But the votes will be divided between the DMK and the AIADMK," Ponnukutti conceded. Karuppu Thevar, a Congressman, asked, "How can the party leadership prevent us from voting? We have to vote."

The other factor is the Muslims vote. The TMC, the Congress, and the Left parties have alleged that the AIADMK was getting close to the Bharatiya Janata Party as could be seen from its support to the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO), its silence on issues such as the re-induction of George Fernandes as Defence Minister and the coffin scam. But Muslims are suspicious of the DMK too because of its extant alliance with the BJP. As on February 4, the AIADMK machinery presented a picture of confidence with its systematic work while the DMK machinery showed lack of coherence.