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|February 5, 1998|
Constituency Profile/ Coimbatore
BJP reaches out for a constituency no one really wants
N Sathiya Moorthy
The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, whose member M Ramanathan won the 1996 election from here with a massive majority, did not want it. Its electoral ally, the Tamil Maanila Congress, would not touch it, and the prospective ally, the CPI-M, would not be satisfied with it. With the result, the Bharatiya Janata Party. which had come a poor fourth with just about 43,289 votes against the DMK's 463,807 votes the last time, sits more comfortable than most in the Coimbatore parliamentary constituency.
"We are going to win the seat this time, and Coimbatore more than Nagercoil, will open the BJP's parliamentary account from Tamil Nadu," says Ponnayan, a party worker for over 10 years. Though there is some justification for the BJP optimism, it is too early to say whether the 'middle class swing' in its favour, particularly in the urban areas, is enough to offset the cadre votes of the DMK, TMC and the CPI-M, which together form a formidable force.
The 'Cotton City', with its increasing number of ancillary units, has been a traditional Congress seat that has returned Communists on a couple of occasions. The last time round, the DMK's M Ramanathan won on an 'anti-Jaya wave' against the ruling AIADMK, and in the company of the infant TMC. He won by a margin of over 260,000 votes against the Congress's C K Kuppuswamy, who had won the seat twice, and was supported by the AIADMK. The CPI-M, in the company of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, now in the AIADMK camp, and the Janata Dal, polled over 85,000 votes.
If the BJP's 'stable government, able leader' slogan has its attraction in middle class localities like Coimbatore West, Coimbatore East and the Tiruppur assembly segments, the communal clashes of last November has sort of polarised the votes in the party's favour in some pockets.
That was the time when Coimbatore town went berserk, and lawlessness prevailed for two full days when angry policemen in civvies, and Hindutva elements joined hands to bring down every shop and establishment owned by Muslims. Their ire against the government was owing to the killing of Selvaraj, a police constable who had reportedly intercepted a vehicle carrying Islamic militants with weapons.
The local police believed that Selvaraj had duly intimated the higher-ups, and that the message had travelled up to the state capital, but no action was initiated between his intercepting the vehicle and the 'revenge killing' a few others hours later. They were convinced that the powers-that-be at Madras were sympathetic towards the fundamentalists, if not to their cause, and cited in their favour the sudden transfer of a city police commissioner earlier when he had acted tough with the baddies.
Though the 'mood of the middle class', which voted mostly for the DMK-TMC combine is not exactly in its favour in the urban areas, the ruling party will not give up. If anything, DMK cadres are using the same 'communal situation' to send out a message or two, and argue against the BJP.
"There is no denying a loss of face for the state government and for the DMK," concedes party cadre Kumaran in the Perur outskirts of the constituency. "But the speed and decisiveness with which Chief Minister M Karunanidhi acted by calling in the army without standing on prestige, to control the riots, has started sinking in," he says. "People have also realised the true colours of the 'Hindutva' cadres."
There is also no denying the DMK argument that the police resentment at Coimbatore was the result of accumulated negligence from the past, when under the erstwhile AIADMK regime, the second and lower-levels of the force were ignored, whereas the top was being made too fat and heavy, with a new post being created every day.
There is also no denying that the cop resentment and the communal violence of last year have favoured the BJP in no small measure. Says an intelligence officer: "The party could not benefit in the state even at the height of the 'Ayodhya demolition'. But today, local issues and local differences have helped it no end." His anxiety is that Coimbatore should not set the standard for the spread of 'Hindutva forces' in the state.
It's for this reason that the DMK shied away from contesting in the constituency. Says a district-level party official: "The November riots were bad enough, but there was no charge of collusion between the cops and the ruling party cadres, which would have been the case otherwise. Here the charge of collusion lies at the door of the RSS-VHP-BJP cadres. We wanted to avoid electoral tension that could lead to similar charges against the ruling party."
But that was not to be. While the TMC showed no interest in demanding Coimbatore from the DMK, for this and other reasons, the CPI-M, to which it was offered, did not take it, either. "The DMK's idea was to give the electoral battle an ideological edge, whether or not we win it, and stay away even from street-level tension, which our own cadre could handle against the RSS," says Razak, a CPI-M cadre working in a 'mixie factory'.
With the TMC standing firm on not giving the CPI-M the two seats it demanded for rejoining the DMK alliance, the party is going it alone in two other constituencies, but supporting the United Front elsewhere, including Coimbatore.
After much dilly-dallying and delays, the DMK has now fielded K R Subbaiya, a lawyer with a clean image and some popularity. But the cadre mood is yet to pick up, they having sat idle for most of the past weeks, concluding that the CPI-M's 1996 candidate P R Natarajan would be fielded by the 'reunified' United Front.
That was not to be, and that has given both the BJP and its candidate, C P Radhakrishnan, an 'early bird' advantage. The party had named him even before other constituents of the AIADMK front had finalised their seat-sharing formula.
For all the upbeat mood in the BJP-AIADMK camp, there is no denying two factors. That the massive margin of the DMK victory last time is too big by any standards for an upcoming political adversary to bridge within a short time. Even while conceding that most of the Congress votes last time came from the AIADMK, and also a minor share of the CPI-M votes owed it to the MDMK, it needs a real hard push for the BJP to win.
For another, the 'BJP wave', as the party would call it in Coimbatore, is confined to the urban localities. "Even there, the poor, daily wage-earners and the like, who really matter in electoral politics, were at the receiving end of the November violence. So were the rural population, who have not understood the issues on hand, but were nevertheless victims of the same, they having to come to the urban centres every day," adds the intelligence officer.
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