Rediff Logo News Find/Feedback/Site Index
September 11, 1999


E-Mail this campaign trail report to a friend

Constituency/ Coimbatore

All quiet on the southern front

A Ganesh Nadar in Coimbatore

There is a small banner outside the main bus stand: Donate blood when you live, Donate eyes when you die.

Volunteers from the National Cadet Corps and National Service Scheme were directing the traffic since the traffic police were also drafted for election duty. It appears the authorities promised the volunteers lunch since a traffic cop led about 20 of them into a good hotel and asked the manager to give them what they wanted. The young men were clearly enjoying themselves.

The Tamil Maanila Congress tables put up to help voters were deserted after lunch. Apparently, waiting for Godot did not appeal to them. The BJP and the Communists were very much there, along with their alliance partners.

The active workers were, naturally, from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All-India Anna DMK. The crowds of the morning were no longer visible at Kottaimedu. But a steady flow of voters assured the polling agents continuous work. The cop on duty said there was 55 per cent polling.

It was 3.30pm. Outside a temple two ladies were sitting in the shade. A worker of the AIADMK alliance was pleading with them: "What's your problem? I will give you voting slips. All you have to do is walk a few steps to the booth and press one button." The ladies were reluctant to cast bogus votes. All his pleas fell on deaf ears.

He then accosted another young lady who was walking by.

"Cast this vote for me."

She too wasn't impressed. "There's still time. I have a little work in the market. I will come back in 20 minutes." She returned the slip he had given her.

Two young men returning from the booth were chatting loudly. "You know that man who planted the bombs? The police are still holding him alive." The other replied, "In Bombay they just let them run and shoot them. Why can't they do it here?"

"Here they are scared of riots".

"What riots? The majority is Hindu. Why are they scared of the minorities?" Clearly, the two young men had voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Elsewhere in the city, voting had settled down to a trickle. A BJP worker handed me over 300 voting slips.

"Nobody turned up, these are all from the jailers' colony. The husbands must have gone for election duty and the wives will not come out without their dear husbands." He was clearly dejected.

"They would have definitely voted for our government."

A young man wanted to vote. They looked him up and down and then gave him the voting slip of a 39-year old. He went away happily into the voting booth. An old lady was passing by. A man told her, "Granny, please vote for Nallakannu, the Communist candidate."

She glared at him. "You know my son's name? If you had known, you wouldn't ask me to vote for the Communists."

The man pleaded ignorance.

"My son's name is Karunanidhi. You think I will vote for anybody else?" She gave him a triumphant look, bowed in our direction, and walked on towards the polling station.

A Communist worker said his party would easily win. His explanation was simple: Coimbatore was using electronic voting machines for the first time. And party workers had told innocent voters that "they should push the button on top first. That means 'ready'. Then they should push the button of the party they wish to vote for. The top button, naturally, was the one that gives Nallakannu the vote.

At 1640 hours, BJP workers started rolling up their banners and carrying their big boards home. "It will serve some purpose in future; if we leave them here they will vanish at night."

As I was waiting to cross the road, I could clearly hear a voice coming over a policeman's walkie-talkie. "As soon as the voting is over, clashes between caste Hindus and Adi-Dravidars are expected in some areas. You have done a good job since morning, be alert for the next four hours too. Only those cops who are within the booths will travel in the lorry carrying the EVMs .The rest must stay at their posts until further orders."

The cops from North India looked grim. They were heavily armed. Some of the automatic rifles had narrow barrels while others had rather big ones. Some had guns that looked like they could stop an elephant. Even the batons the cops from the North carried were different. With wood at both ends and some translucent material in between, they were both light and strong. Even the policewomen from the North looked tougher than their South Indian counterparts.

Anyway, these toughies, who knew no Tamil, had scared off the extremists. Coimbatore, despite a bad reputation, was very quiet today.

The driver of the autorickshaw who took me to the Internet booth told me, "The BJP must win. If the other side wins, it will be pointless. They will fight over who will be prime minister. The government will collapse and we will have elections again". That definitely sounded scary.

It was a sunny day -- hot and soporific. And that reflected the mood of the voters.

At 0900 hours there was no voter at the table put up to help them. So the worker decided to have his idlis and puris. That was when a fat woman turned up to vote.

"Akka, have you had breakfast?"

"If I haven't eaten, are you going to give me breakfast?"

"Of course, akka."

"No, thanks, swamy, why don't you give me a voting slip?"

"Everybody knows you, akka. Just walk in."

A young man turned up with a nervous youth."

"Give me a voting slip," he demanded. The party worker, who had finished his food, immediately handed him one.

The young man coached his frightened pupil. "Your name is Palani and father's name is Kandasamy. Your house number is... And don't volunteer anything, just hand over the slip and sign Palani. Speak only if they ask you anything. Mostly they don't ask."

The fat lady came back.

"They can't find my name. You give me a slip. Better give me my own slip. I have already told them my name."

"Of course, akka, just wait." He pulled out her slip and handed it over.

A party worker brought along a middle-aged lady.

"Give her Jaya's vote".

I pointed out that the lady had her own name tattooed on her arm. The party worker gave me a cheeky grin, then told the lady: "If they ask you what's that on your hand, tell them it's your pet name."

The lady looked dazed. Apparently she didn't know what a pet name was. Anyway, she was allowed to vote and she came back happy.

A man came with three voting slips in his hand.

"You see, these votes are in a different part of the city. If you arrange for a vehicle we will go and vote."

The BJP man gave him a dirty look and said curtly, "No vehicle." The man went away, mumbling to himself.

Voting in Gandhipuram, in the heart of Coimbatore, was lacklustre. People went about their business. Voting was certainly not their priority this sunny Saturday. I took a rickshaw to Kottaimedu.

An automatic-wielding policeman halted the vehicle. The expected command came, "Open your bag."

"I guess we have reached Kottaimedu," I said sarcastically. "Right saar," said the rickshaw driver.

My press card worked and we were through.

"There is a bigger check post ahead," warned the driver. There was. There were male and female personnel from the reserve police there. The press card again worked. I wondered what a militant could do with a press card.

Unlike the rest of the city, Kottaimedu was fully awake. All the party tables were very crowded. People scrambled to get their voting slips. The Muslims were out with the plan to punish Karunanidhi who had dared to align himself with the BJP. The Communists, at least, were very happy about it.

A lot of people were walking around aimlessly. They could not vote for technical reasons. Others were running from booth to booth. A Communist Party worker said, "The numbers have changed since the last elections; we cannot find names. This crowd is here because we cannot find their names."

Another man butted in: "The TMC has added to our woes. They have printed the slips in a computer and the computer has got all the numbers wrong."

The polling booth was very crowded. There were two booths inside the school too, making it four in all -- two for the men and two for the women. All had long queues.

The policeman outside the school let me in after checking my identity card. Inside, I was stopped by a very pretty lady cop carrying an ugly rifle. The I-card popped out again and I was rewarded with a dazzling smile.

A man inside was screaming at the polling officer. "What do you mean I can't vote, you know what this is? This is a voter's identity card. If I can't vote then nobody can."

The polling officer was not ruffled.

"I am saying that you cannot vote in this booth because your vote is not here. Why don't you check the next booth instead of wasting your time and mine?"

The man walked out in a huff and approached the party tables. They couldn't find his name either.

Voting did not pick up in the city till noon. In Gandhipuram, a BJP worker handed over a long piece of paper with lots of numbers written on it.

"These are the votes which have already been polled. You make sure you don't send these numbers in again."

The man at the table promptly started marking off the numbers on his list. If this pattern continued, I decided, Coimbatore would witness 40 per cent voting, with Kottaimedu likely to set a record of cent per cent if they could find their votes. Wonder if the ruling party had anything to do with the Kottaimedu voters' list.

There were 4,000 cops in Coimbatore today, of whom 1,000 appeared to be deployed in Kottaimedu, an area with a little over 10,000 voters. While the security might have seemed excessive, this is still the city where bomb blasts occurred before the last election. At that time all the extremists had been from this particular area.

Zakir Hussain, the mastermind, was arrested four days ago and the police rewarded themselves. Some of them told the press he had been arrested in Kerala; others said it was in Madurai.

My auto driver said the extremist was actually arrested on the outskirts of Coimbatore. I did not believe him then. A while later, I joined a friend who was talking to a cop. The topic turned to the arrest on the eve of the elections.

"Zakir Hussain had boarded a bus to Coimbatore for the elections. Our people arrested him from the bus just outside the city. If we had let it be known that he was arrested here there would have been panic. To avoid that, we said he had been arrested somewhere else," the policeman said.

Coimbatore was formerly called the Manchester of the South. Thanks to globalisation, more than half the mills are now closed. The afternoon is pleasant, unlike in the rest of Tamil Nadu -- Ooty is just 50 miles away.

The Ukkadam market and the road junction outside it are crowded. The junction is infamous as the place that changed Coimbatore's psyche.

It started after the traffic police fined some activist of the Al-Umma. When members of the group later came upon traffic constable Selvaraj at the junction, they stabbed him to death. The policeman's colleagues in Covai went on the rampage, with some help from Hindu fundamentalist groups. Muslim shops were attacked, looted and destroyed.

Al-Umma decided to retaliate, setting off a series of bombs on the day Lal Kishenchand Advani was to visit the city. Nineteen months after the blasts, you realise that the wounds have healed only superficially.

A Keralite who runs a teashop said, "Business has yet to return to the pre-bomb days. People from the surrounding villages do not come here. You cannot travel to town with money. The cops check everything now. Which businessman likes to account for his money every day? So they have stopped coming here."

The rickshaw driver agrees. "Earlier I used to get 25 customers a day, now I get five. It's the outsiders who travel by auto. The cityfolk take the bus."

At the general hospital, people were walking around with worried looks. Enquiries revealed that the bomb last year had exploded near the main gate. There is a teashop on one side and an STD booth on the other.

"When the bombs started exploding, they brought the injured and the dead here. Seeing the bodies, people started fleeing. The cops also started chasing people out. There was an Ambassador parked near the STD booth. The cops closed the main gate after chasing everybody out. This is what saved a lot of lives. We were closing the shop when the Ambassador exploded. The STD booth vanished.

"Luckily, the girl there had run out with the frightened crowd. This huge tree saved the teashop. Can you imagine what evil people would plant bombs in hospitals?"

He shook his head as if to say he had lost faith in mankind. "The sooner the elections get over the better," he said. The locals are particularly worried because the blasts occurred in the run-up to the last election.

The Shobha Textiles Shop was one victim. It has been partially rebuilt. But one half of the shop is open to the elements. It has been renamed 'Clothes Fair'.

Another shop, Shubika, has been completely rebuilt and bears no physical scars. One employee who has lived through the blasts said, "We had security and metal detectors for some time, but the regulars were getting irritated and so we stopped it. Now it's peaceful."

Open your bag". After the baggage is checked you have to walk through a metal detector. In all the ceilings you can spot smoke detectors. This is Rajendra Textiles, which was rebuilt after the bomb blasts. Six employees were killed that day last February.

Owner Ravindran says, "The insurance company repaid our money, but we lost our employees. We did compensate the families and the government did its bit, but you cannot replace human lives".

He is lucky that in spite of the bomb blasts none of his employees left him. He says everything is peaceful now. He is wary though.

Kottaimedu is a slum area. It has the low income group houses built by the government for the very poor. It is crowded and poverty is writ everywhere. Anyone with money could easily influence the youth here to join any fundamentalist gang.

This is a Muslim locality. During Jayalalitha's tenure as chief minister, police posts surrounded Kottaimedu. The names of any people going in or out were listed in a book. The Muslims decided to vote for the DMK in the next election.

The DMK won. While the results were still coming in, the police posts were destroyed by happy youth. A policeman was stabbed, but did not die.

During Karunanidhi's rule, all the police posts were removed. They came back after the bomb blasts and are still there, 19 months later.

"Generally they leave you alone. Only when they get specific messages from the intelligence wings do they start checking everything and everybody," said one motorist.


Tell us what you think of this report