Hot and heavy

Published : Apr 27, 2016 12:30 IST

A section of the audience at a public meeing addressed by AIADMK general secretary and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa at Magudanchavadi in Salem district on April 20.

A section of the audience at a public meeing addressed by AIADMK general secretary and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa at Magudanchavadi in Salem district on April 20.

IT is around 9:30 a.m. on April 16. At Somasipalayam village in Ulundurpettai constituency in Villupuram district, cadres of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) have hit the campaign trail within 24 hours of the party naming G.R. Vasanthavel as its candidate for the seat. A young man is painting the DMK’s election symbol, “rising sun”, on the walls of a shed. Some youths are standing a few metres away holding the party flags. Soon more DMK supporters arrive on motorbikes, waving the party flag. V. Arjunan, who has returned to Somasipalayam after spending 20 years in Mumbai, said: “The DMK had no presence here before. But Vasanthavel [who was elected Chairman of the Thirunavalur Panchayat Union], not only developed the area but also built the party. He gave us roads and ensured drinking water supply. He built eight mini water tanks and eight big water tanks. Vasanthavel is popular here. Our men are all keyed up, and we are raring to start campaigning.”

The day is sizzling. The temperature hovers between 38 °Celsius and 41 °C, but the election campaign has picked up pace. Cadres of the six major and several minor political parties that are contesting the May 16 elections to the 234-member Tamil Nadu Assembly are engrossed in campaign activities unmindful of the heat wave prevailing in the State. For the first time, it will be a six-cornered contest in the State. The main players are the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and its six minor allies; the DMK-Congress-Indian Union Muslim League (IUML)-Manithaneya Makkal Katchi (MMK) alliance, which has other parties too in its fold; the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK)-People’s Welfare Front (PWF)-Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) alliance; the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK); the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its minor allies; and the Naam Tamizhar Katchi (NTK), an ultra-Tamil nationalist party led by the film director Seeman. The PWF includes the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK).

Practically friendless

In 2011, the AIADMK contested the Assembly elections in alliance with the DMDK, the CPI(M), the CPI and Puthiya Thamizhagam, or P.T. (a party of Dalits). This time, it is practically friendless. The party antagonised the DMDK by making eight of its legislators cross the floor. It kept out the Left parties during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It fell out with the P.T. after the police firing in Paramakudi (Ramanathapuram district) on September 11, 2011, in which six Dalit youths were killed. The AIADMK gave the TMC the cold shoulder as well, forcing the party led by G.K. Vasan to join the DMDK-PWF alliance.

Although the AIADMK has no important allies, its cadres are in an upbeat mood. “Amma’s [Chief Minister and party supremo Jayalalithaa] charisma and the ‘two leaves’ symbol are enough. The party does not need allies,” an aspiring candidate said. Curiously, most of the candidates who had lined up outside the Chief Minister’s Poes Garden residence in Chennai to seek nomination carried copies of their horoscopes.

The AIADMK is contesting 227 seats while its allies, who will contest on its election symbol, have been allotted the remaining seven.

The DMK’s caravan also has the Makkal DMDK, floated recently by the three DMDK rebel legislators, V.C. Chandhirakumar, S.R. Parthiban and C.H. Sekar. While the DMK will field its candidates in 174 constituencies, the Congress will contest 41 seats, the IUML five, the MMK four, and the P.T. four. The three DMDK rebels have been allotted the seats from which they were elected in 2011.

In the DMDK-PWF alliance, the DMDK will contest from 104 constituencies, Vaiko’s MDMK from 29, the CPI(M), the VCK and the CPI from 25 each, and the TMC from 26. The PMK is contesting in all the 234 constituencies. The BJP and its allies, too, are in the fray in all the constituencies. The DMDK-PWF has offered itself as a “credible and viable alternative” to both the DMK and the AIADMK, which have alternately ruled the State in the past 27 years. The alliance has promised to break new ground in the State’s politics by forming a coalition government if it is voted to power. This is in sharp contrast to the stand taken by both the DMK and the AIADMK, for whom the formation of a coalition government in the State is anathema.

Jayalalithaa will seek re-election from R.K. Nagar, a working-class locality in the heart of Chennai. Opposing her on the VCK ticket is the progressive-minded Vasanthi Devi, educationist and former Vice Chancellor of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli (see box). The DMK has fielded Shimla Muthuchozhan, a newcomer to politics and the daughter-in-law of former DMK Minister S.P. Sarguna Pandian. DMK president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi will be seeking re-election from his home turf, Tiruvarur in Tiruvarur district. Vaiko will contest from Kovilpatti in Tirunelveli district. Thol. Thirumavalavan will test his fortunes at Kattumannarkovil in the coastal Cuddalore district.

As is her wont in every election, Jayalalithaa changed the candidates’ list seven times since releasing the first list on April 4. On April 18, she replaced eight candidates named in the original list and included three Ministers, P. Mohan, P. Palaniappan and S.P. Shanmuganathan, in the list. Political observers said she probably felt they would sabotage the prospects of party candidates if they were denied the ticket. After Vaiko announced his decision to contest from Kovilpatti, Jayalalithaa withdrew the nomination of K. Ramanujam Ganesh and brought in Kadambur Raju to give Vaiko a stiff fight.

The DMK, too, has gone the AIADMK way by changing its candidates in five constituencies. The party leadership is facing opposition in several constituencies against the choice of candidates. DMK cadres protested outside Karunanidhi’s residence in Chennai against the nomination of former Minister T.P.M. Mohideen Khan in Palayamkottai in Tirunelveli district. Cadres also demanded change of candidates in Sirkali and Vriddhachalam. The leadership gave in to their demands and replaced Thanga. Anandan with Govindasamy at Vriddhachalam. It has fielded the scions of party bigwigs in a dozen constituencies.

The electoral road show has become electrified with all the top leaders addressing crowds from observation vehicles or rallies from platforms. Jayalalithaa, Karunanidhi’s son and party treasurer M.K. Stalin, DMDK leader Vijayakanth and his wife and the party’s women’s wing secretary Premalatha, Vaiko, CPI(M) State secretary G. Ramakrishnan, CPI State secretary R. Mutharasan, Thirumavalavan, Vasan, PMK founder Dr S. Ramadoss, his son and the party’s chief ministerial candidate Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, and the BJP’s Union Ministers are traversing the length and breadth of the State to drum up support. The AIADMK has only one star speaker, Jayalalithaa.

Major plank

The reintroduction of prohibition is the central issue in the campaign. In village after village in Kancheepuram, Cuddalore and Villupuram districts, voters demanded permanent closure of liquor shops. The DMK, the AIADMK, the PMK and the PWF have promised to reintroduce prohibition if voted to power. The DMK manifesto has assured voters that a “law will be enacted to enforce prohibition in Tamil Nadu” and that “the government will formulate schemes to compensate [for] the loss [of revenue] incurred by implementing the prohibition”. Jayalalithaa has promised to introduce prohibition in a phased manner. The promises made by the PWF and the PMK on this score carry credibility.

At the first DMDK-PWF joint election rally held at Mamandur, about 64 kilometres from Chennai, on April 10, Mutharasan pointed out that Jayalalithaa “without any sense of shame” promised the voters that she would bring back prohibition in phases. He said when Vaiko and senior Congress leader Kumari Ananthan undertook padayatras demanding the closure of liquor shops, Jayalalithaa did not relent. In October 2015, the police arrested Kovan, a member of the People’s Art and Literary Association, in Tiruchi on charges of sedition for singing songs demanding the closure of State-run TASMAC (Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation) liquor shops. The Tiruchi police booked a case in March 2016 invoking sedition charges against C. Raju, leader of Makkal Adhikaram, an organisation fighting for the closure of liquor shops; Dhanasekaran, general secretary of a TASMAC trade union; and four others after they addressed an anti-liquor conference organised by Makkal Adhikaram. When Karunanidhi was Chief Minister he signed the order scrapping prohibition on August 30, 1971. “But Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi are claiming that they will reintroduce prohibition,” Mutharasan said. However, it remains a fact that Karunanidhi reintroduced prohibition in 1974. The irony is that major distilleries in the State are owned by AIADMK and DMK politicians.

The PMK has been independently fighting for the closure of liquor shops. In the Vanniyar heartland of Cuddalore, Villupuram and Kancheepuram districts, the PMK’s slogan in Tamil, “Dr Anbumanikku vottu [vote]; TASMACkku poottu [lock], meaning cast your vote for Anbumani and lock out TASMAC, stands out.

Thirumavalavan was certain that the “mega alliance” of the DMDK-PWF had put the fear of God in Jayalalithaa and she was convinced that she would not be able to face voters without promising prohibition.

Leaders of the DMDK-PWF are tearing into the arguments of the DMK and the AIADMK that there is no alternative to their parties. Speaking at an election rally, Premalatha Vijayakanth said: “The DMDK-PWF alliance is the people’s choice. The leaders of the six parties who have formed the alliance are above corruption. Can anybody make any allegation of corruption against these six leaders?”

G. Ramakrishnan ridiculed Jayalalithaa’s claim that she was leading “a life of renunciation” ( thava vazhvu , in Tamil) for the sake of the people of the State. “Do you need a 1,000-acre tea estate [Kodanad tea estate in the Nilgiris] for you to lead a life of penance and renunciation?” he asked. Bringing up the issue of corruption under AIADMK rule, he said: “Posts of bus conductors, drivers, teachers, professors, Vice Chancellors are all up for sale. There are no shades of difference in the corruption indulged in by both the AIADMK and the previous DMK government. There are corruption cases against Karunanidhi’s daughter and grandsons.”

Vasan alleged that the DMK and the AIADMK had destroyed people’s lives by opening liquor shops. He said the government had blocked the State’s development and denied remunerative prices for farm products.

Vaiko promised the voters that if the DMDK-PWF alliance was voted to power, it would write off farmer and education loans, confiscate property (acquired illegally by AIADMK and DMK leaders), ensure uninterrupted supply of electricity, and release Muslim undertrials languishing in the State’s prisons, among other things. Vijayakanth asked: “When Vaiko, Thirumavalavan and Vasan have been demanding prohibition for many years, why did the AIADMK not listen to them?”

At the DMDK-PWF rally, MDMK volunteers wore T-shirts with the legend “Our target is total prohibition” (in Tamil, Muzhu madhu villakke engal ilakku) embossed on them.

Area-specific issues

Although prohibition and corruption are the central issues, the speakers also take up issues specific to each district and constituency. In many villages, residents complained of frequent power cuts and load-shedding for long hours even though the AIADMK government has been claiming that it made Tamil Nadu “a power-surplus State”.

Sometimes, purely local issues dominate. For example, it is the failure of successive governments to build a check dam across the Palar river that is agitating the residents of about 50 villages in Uttaramerur constituency in Kancheepuram district. In Tirupporur constituency, traders and vendors are worried about a drop in the number of visitors to the Pallava rock-cut monuments at Mamallapuram and the consequent loss of revenue for them because the Archaeological Survey of India has increased the entrance fee to these monuments.

In Cuddalore, Villupuram and Kancheepuram, the three districts that bore the brunt of the rains and floods in November and December 2015, many families are angry that they have not received the flood relief of Rs.5,000. Voters are also concerned about the continued neglect of rivers, canals, ponds and lakes, which have not been weeded or desilted.

The AIADMK is on the back foot in Cuddalore, Villupuram and Kancheepuram districts. Sizeable sections of voters at Panikkankuppam, Kudiyiruppu, Visur, Kalgunam and Villianallur villages and Cuddalore and Chidambaram towns in Cuddalore district; Somasipalayam, Andikkudi, K. Kallakurichi and Virugavur in Villupuram district and Pulikunram, Vallipuram, Vadakadampattu and Mamallapuram in Kancheepuram district said they had not received flood relief. “I did not get Rs.5,000 even though my hut was damaged in the floods, but my neighbour, living in a brick-and-mortar house, received Rs.5,000 in his bank account because he is an AIADMK man,” one voter said.

At Panikkankuppam village, coming under Neyveli constituency, Dalits, whose huts were swept away in the floods, are distraught. The huts were situated on a slope, right in the path of the floodwaters which came cascading down from an artificial pond situated a kilometre away. The pond was created when sand was excavated to make ceramic insulator dishes/cups for use in power pylons. Heaps of sand and damaged huts formed the scene that obtained on April 15 when this correspondent visited Panikkankuppam.

People complained that M.P. Subramaniam, the AIADMK MLA from Neyveli, never visited the settlement after the floods. (The AIADMK has nominated R. Rajasekaran in Neyveli.) Jothi Arumugam, a middle-aged woman, said: “Some people here got Rs.5,000 and many did not. I did not get it. I got tired of going to the bank to see whether the government had paid Rs.5,000 into my account.” An elderly woman named Amirtham, who lost all her possessions in the floods, said: “The floods swept away our huts and dumped sand all around us.” She has two sons. One of them is physically disabled and the other is unemployed. Her daughter lives in another village. Naduvamma Jayaraman complained that government officials had denied patta s (title deeds) to all the 25 Dalit houses that had come up on their street. “They say our houses are located on poramboke [government wasteland] land and on the path of a stream. So they refuse to give us patta s.”

The mood is grim at Kudiyiruppu village. A group of villagers were engaged in strengthening the sides of a road under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. R. Ramachandran, M. Radhakrishnan and Ranjitha Ramalingam among them are for “change”.

At Visur, M. Subramanian, whose hut was washed away when the Vellavari river breached its banks, was standing outside his makeshift hut in the blazing afternoon sun looking forlorn. His new hut was made entirely of coconut fronds. Tarpaulin sheets formed the roof. He said: “The government gave us Rs.5,000 to rebuild our huts. How is that sufficient?” The AIADMK government did not keep its promise to provide alternative land, his neighbours S. Rajavel and A. Balamurugan complained.

At Kalgunam and Onankuppam villages, coming in Kurinchipadi constituency, an anti-AIADMK mood prevails. People appreciate the work done by M.R.K. Paneerselvam, the DMK MLA and former Health Minister. At Kalgunam, the Chengal odai, a broad irrigation canal, breached its banks and flooded more than 335 acres (one acre = 0.4 hectare). A duck grazer and his wife were drowned. More than 100 huts collapsed when six feet of floodwater barrelled through the main village and the nearby Dalit settlement. The floods occurred because the canal, impeded by the dense growth of eucalyptus, palm and neem trees and other vegetation, breached its banks at three places.

Today, five months after the November floods, nothing has changed. Only the breaches have been plugged with sand bags. The canal has not been weeded or desilted. When Frontline asked Sorathur R. Rajendran, the AIADMK candidate for Kurinchipadi constituency, about the continued neglect of the Chengal odai, he said it would take time to weed the canal. “I will seek votes on the strength of Amma’s achievements,” he said.

The residents of Kalgunam and Onankuppam are unhappy with the power cuts that last from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Irrigation pump-sets can be operated only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., they said.

Spotlight on Ulundurpet

With the DMDK announcing on April 18 that Vijayakanth will contest from Ulundurpet, the constituency has come under intense spotlight. The DMK fielded Vasanthavel after the MMK said it was unable to name its candidate for Ulundurpet. The AIADMK has renominated the incumbent MLA, R. Kumarguru, for the seat. The PMK has fielded its legal wing secretary, K. Balu. The party had originally fielded R. Ramamurthy

If the popularity of Vasanthavel at Somasipalayam, Visanankuppam, Andikkudi and K. Kallakurichi villages and the fighting spirit of the DMK cadres are any indication, it is a going to be a four-cornered contest between the DMK, the AIADMK, the DMDK and the PMK in Ulundurpet. “It will be a tough battle, but Vijayakanth will have an edge,” a woman farmworker of Andikkudi said, although she and her colleagues praised Vasanthavel for the relief work he did during the November/December deluge.

The DMK, the AIADMK and the PMK will make every effort to ensure the defeat of Vijayakanth for they have scores to settle with him. The DMDK leader spurned repeated requests from Karunanidhi to join the DMK-led alliance. There is bad blood between the PMK and the DMDK, with the PMK feeling threatened by the DMDK’s rise not only in the Vanniyar heartland of Cuddalore, Villupuram, Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur, Dharmapuri and Salem districts but in other districts as well.

The outcome of Ulundurpet will be keenly watched because the DMDK-PWF alliance projects Vijayakanth as its chief ministerial candidate.

If Vijayakanth has shifted to Ulundurpet from the nearby Rishivanthiyam constituency, also in Villupuram district, from where he was elected in 2011, the reasons are obvious. His supporters accuse him of neglecting Rishivanthiyam. “After he won the election in 2011, he came to thank the electorate but never got out of the car. He merely sat in the car and waved his hand,” said Priya, a housewife and a Vijayakanth fan. Power cut is a big issue in Kallakurichi and Rishivanthiyam constituencies.

At Tiruvidanthai in Tirupporur constituency in Kancheepuram district, Suresh Kumar said: “Women voters are with Anbumani. He has a no-nonsense attitude towards prohibition and he is against smoking. The PMK is strong in these areas.”

In Cuddalore, Villupuram and Kancheepuram districts, a large number of women are with the AIADMK, claiming that they have a predilection to vote for “two leaves”. Muslims seem to favour the DMK and Dalits are with the DMDK-PWF here.

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