Published: May 19th 2009May 10th 2009
Your vote, our celebration
Drummers, crackers and a lot of excited people. No festival is as great as elections here.
The din of the Sunday market is drowned by loud recorded songs. The Tamil songs resemble old numbers from MGR, the movie messiah-turned-chief minister who continues to be a defining force posthumously. The tune and tone are the same, but these songs are in praise of current chief minister M Karunanidhi, who wrote the famous lines for MGR and many other matinee idols and scripted his own success saga along the political fault lines of Tamil Nadu. He is called Kalainjar, the artist.
Firecrackers burst at the other end of the street. Small boys scurry along with the red-black flags of Karunanidhi’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK). A band of teen drummers - clad in oversize yellow T-shirts bearing the picture of the black-goggled chief minister - ushers in the procession. Behind rows of flag-bearers nudges the Tempo Traveller of M K Alagiri, Karunanidhi’s son, who makes his electoral debut from Madurai constituency. Street vendors retreat, collecting their fruits and vegetables.
Men with broad smiles and broader moustaches line up to greet their leader. Though there’s not much ideological difference between the two major Dravida parties - DMK and All India Anna DMK - there’s an easy way to distinguish
Ushering in a government
Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi, ailing in Chennai, smiles from the T-shirts of his paid supporters.
between its workers: DMK men wear white veshtis (or dhotis) with red-black borders while AIADMK men’s veshtis have red-white-black borders. Alagiri passes women offering aratis and kids throwing jasmines at him with folded hands and a reluctant smile.
“He will win. He is Kalainjar’s son,” says Swetha, a housewife, as the procession goes past her threshold on a narrow alley. Her son thinks that Alagiri lacks the credentials of sitting MP P Mohan of CPI(M). A scream from her neighbour’s terrace. A miniature missile has gone awry and landed on a spectator’s roof. The pyrotechnician doesn’t mind. He shoots off more, proclaiming the candidate’s arrival. Alagiri, the south zone secretary of DMK, has to win this election to match the stature of his younger brother M K Stalin, a state minister. His sister Kanimozhi is already a Rajya Sabha MP.
The sibling rivalry in the first family is folk lore in Madurai, where Alagiri’s men set fire to the office of a newspaper, Dinakaran, which published a survey proclaiming Stalin as Karunanidhi’s political heir in May 2007. Three staffers died. Ironically, Dinakaran belongs to the second family in DMK, which owns half a dozen television channels across south
Legacy of loyalty
Subramony came from Tirupur to Madura, where his daughter and grandosn live, to campaign for his leader Kalainjar's son.
India. Kalanidhi Maran is a media baron - whose empire ranges from cable network to film production houses - and his younger brother Dayanidhi, former Union IT minister seeking reelection from Chennai Central.
“Yarukkamna ungal vote? Yarukkayya ungal vote? (Who will you vote for?)” the accompanying song harps on the populist measures of the Karunanidhi government. “Who gave you rice at Re 1? Who gives money for weddings and childbirths? ” But Alagiri’s men don’t take a chance. “I got Rs 500 last week. So did my wife and my father. DMK men came to our house and verified the votes,” says Surish, a taxi driver, who lives on the suburbs. The talk of the town is that Rs 1500 more is due to the potential voter.
“Don’t be surprised. It’s nothing. In Thirumangalam assembly byelection in January, they gave as much as Rs 5000,” Surish adds. CPI(M), which has been representing Madurai since 1999, has warned that DMK was out to replicate Thirumangalam victory. Many DMK men had been caught bribing voters. Election observers seized bundles of saris - said to be distributed among poor women - from buildings held by DMK functionaries. The Election Commission even
Enter the son
M K Alagiri tries hard to win the battle for his father's political inheritance.
ordered the transfer of the city police commissioner.
Yesterday, we were following Vaiko in Thirumangalam, an assembly segment within Virudunagar parliamentary constituency. “I won’t tell you not to receive that money. Spent it however you want it. After all, they looted it from you. But if you vote for those who try to buy your vote, nobody can save this country,” Vaiko, who runs his own Dravida party, tells his voters from atop a customized Traveller. But people rue that they get only Rs 150 while those in neighbouring Madurai get Rs 500.
“Achathinal en kankalil kanner varathu, anal thumbathe patha en kankalil kanneer varum (I don’t cry with fear, people’s worries make me cry),” Vaiko gets filmy at Avalsoorampatty, a godforsaken hamlet just 4 kilometre off National Highway 7. These villagers have voted him to parliament in 1998 and 1999, when the constituency was named Sivakasi. The firebrand chief of the Marumalarchi DMK is thrashing the Congress and DMK, with whom he went vote collecting in 2004, like the communists. Now he is all praise for ‘Puratchi Thalaivi’ J Jayalalithaa, the AIADMK chief and former CM who jailed him for 18 months in 2002.
Firebrand and filmy
Vaiko once travelled to Sri Lanka to meet up with LTTE chief V Prabakaran
identical to all hamlets on the way. Mud houses flank the muddy road leading up to the village temple with fiery forms gazing down from its roof. “Candidates just come and go. If we want to survive, we have to toil everyday,” says Sokkamma, who works at one of the countless small-scale matchstick factories in the area. If Sivakasi is the cracker capital of Tamil Nadu and neighbouring states, matchstick factories are strewn all over the district.
“Intha gramathil veyiladikkuthu, neruppu veyil. Antha Muthukumar intha neruppe udambile kodutharu, Ilankai Tamilarkkake (The sun is beating down, like fire. Muthukumar embraced this fire, for the Lankan Tamils),” Vaiko signs off his short speech invoking memories of Muthukumar, who set himself on fire in Chennai on January 29. He gets down from the vehicle, receives shawls from men and bows before women with aratis. As soon as he climbs back to the vehicle, an old woman empties turmeric water off a steel plate, disgusted. She doesn’t know that the currency note she was expecting in return of the ritualistic greeting would be a violation of the code of conduct for the candidate.
If Sri Lankan civil war could undermine the prospect
Not quite at home
Union home minister P Chidambaram on a whirlwind tour of his constituency in interior Tamil Nadu
of the Congress-DMK combine anywhere in Tamil Nadu, it should be in Virudunagar, where Congress candidate Manik Tagore is pitted against Vaiko, the most vociferous supporter of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. Vaiko, with his trademark black shawl and fiery oratory, paints the plight of Tamil civilians in all its gory details. “Thousands of Tamils are being murdered in Lanka. Many starve to death. What relief India army sends reaches the Sinhalese…Don’t vote for the ‘hand’ stained with Tamil blood,” he thunders.
“Lankan problem is the main issue in this election. It will affect the Congress. The other problems like power cut have always been there, no matter which party rules,” says Chandra Mohan, a merchant in Chennampatti, as Vaiko winds up his speech and an MGR song blares through the speakers.
Not everybody is so sure. “Lanka? We have enough violence at home. Everyday our men come home drunk and beat us up. These parties also give them liquor at poll time. So we don’t like any party,” says Sokkamma.
Gangammal fetches a handful of rice from the kitchen. “Smell this rice we get from the ration shop for Re 1. We can only give it to cows and goats.” The widow, who earns Rs 900 from her work at a local school and pays Rs 200 as rent for her house in Avalsoorampatti, has to buy rice at Rs 22 a kilo.
Pazhani Kumar, an unemployed graduate in Chennampatti, paints the picture of neglect. “We don’t have agriculture. There’s no water. A canal flows 10 kilometres away, but we don’t benefit from it. There’s no industrial unit in the vicinity,” he says.
As Vaiko’s motorcade halts at the next hamlet and his 60 odd private bodyguards - some in dark safari suits and some in black T-shirts - line up around the vehicle, a party worker gives out leaflets to a group of impoverished women. They shout at him: “Why should we vote for anyone. Everyone just comes and goes. We don’t have any benefit.” As the harassed man in white returns to the car, his fellow-worker asks, “Why? Are they asking for money?”
They do get money, for work. Large groups of labourers are engaged in dried up fields as we leave the string of hamlets. If DMK governments Re 1-rice failed to click, Congress-led Union governments National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme connects with voters. Every family is assured of 100 days’ work a year, for Rs 80 a day. “There would be no work at this time of the year. This programme helps us buy rice,” says Subramoni in Uthapuram village.
If NREGS is advantageous to the Congress-DMK combine throughout the rural areas, the Lankan issue works against it. In Thiruppuvanam, a small village bordering Virudunagar and Sivaganga constituencies, Rajeev Gandhi is going from house to house. The 26-year-old advocate from Chennai is an independent candidate in Sivaganga. His only agenda: defeat the Congress candidate, Union home minister P Chidambaram. Rajeev Gandhi, named after the former prime minister assassinated by an LTTE suicide squad in 1991, believes that the Indian government still helps Sri Lanka in its war against the Tamils.
Sivaganga doesn’t seem like a high-profile constituency. The district headquarters, where Congress secretary Rahul Gandhi was shown black flags by Tamil activists on Friday, is an overgrown village ruled by street cows. Surrounding villages are as backward as any in interior Tamil Nadu. But almost every town has a bank, and possibly an ATM. Chidambaram, who held the finance portfolio, has made every bank to open a branch in his constituency. He asks vote by the 43 bank branches here.
“He has brought so many ATMs,” says Nagoor Gani with a sarcastic smile. “He has promised farm loans easily. But we never get it. Bank managers and clerks are defeating him. But we will still vote for him. I may not have got anything. But he is supposed to do things for all,” says Gani, who runs a tea shop at Singampunari, hardly 100 kilometres from Madurai. One of his customers quips that Congressmen walk away with all the loans. The loan waiver scheme, however, has brought respite to many farmers.
As the tea-drinking crowd continued to rue the declining agriculture, local Congressmen smarted up and crowded the arriving motorcade. Chidambaram gets down from the air-conditioned car and proceeds to a podium to garland a statue of K Kamaraj, the former Congress chief minister who held ground before the Dravida politics transformed Tamil Nadu. A wave, a smile, before busily climbing back into the car.
Voters are equally detached. “He is a good man. He is able to do good things for the country. But we can’t go meet him. We see him only during the polls. That too, in a speeding car,” says Tavasi, a farmer.
But Chidambaram’s country cousins are good economists too. “This is no way to run a government. Money for wedding, money for childbirth, money for death…,” Palanichami, a retired government official, says. “When you can buy rice for Re 1, who will cultivate rice,” the DMK sympathizer asks.
Singampunari has five banks, three of them with ATM facilities. An old woman comes to a bank branch, religiously remove her torn slippers before entering it, and stretches across the counter a passbook. A few moments later, she walks out after wrapping the money in one of those ubiquitous yellow cloth bags. Kanthi has just collected Rs 4000, pension due to her late husband.
“Do you vote?”
“Yes, if you give money. Who should I vote for?”
“Don’t you know Chidambaram?”
“Don’t you know the minister?”
“What does it got to do with me?”