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|February 11, 1998|
'A BJP government at the Centre will protect the minorities'
Basking in his image of the fire eater of Indian politics, Janata Party president Dr Subramanian Swamy is once again flexing his political sinews.
Dr Swamy, who spewed vitriol and orchestrated a relentless campaign against All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary Jayalalitha Jayaram in the last poll, has now aligned with the very same lady to take on the combined might of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Tamil Manila Congress in Madurai, known for its famed Meenakshi temple.
Though there are five candidates in the fray, the fight is sizzling into a straight contest between the JP president and TMC's A G S Ram Babu, who is backed strongly by the ruling DMK.
The other three candidates -- P Mohan of the Communist Party Marxist, T Pandiyan of the United Communist Party of India and Rajni of the Puthyatham Kazhagam (Dr Krishnaswamy's recently-floated political outfit) -- are likely to have only a peripheral impact on the 1.3 million electorate here.
The absence of any pro or anti-wave has ensured that local issues will dominate, and this may have a telling impact on the poll outcome. The people seem to have forgotten the alleged misdeeds of Jayalalitha; the talk of corruption does not interest them any longer.
Riding the anti-Jayalalitha wave in 1996, Ram Babu had won the seat with a margin of nearly 200,000 votes, besting the unallied Dr Swamy who polled 144,000-odd votes.
Besides the AIADMK, Dr Swamy has the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Bharatiya Janata Party behind him. His claim is that in BJP-ruled states there are no communal clashes and the minorities are safe. If voted in, Dr Swamy promises, he will fight for minorities's rights.
He also highlights the 'pathetic' performance of Ram Babu, whose family has maintained a vice-like grip on this seat, having represented the constituency for the past five terms from 1977. In all his meetings, Dr Swamy dwells at length on the corruption and nepotism in the TMC-DMK combine and the alleged involvement of Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram in the Indian Bank scam.
Ram Babu belongs to a traditional Congress family. His father A G Subburam represented the constituency for two terms in 1977 and 1980 before the mantle fell on his son.
This family representation is the butt of ridicule for Dr Swamy, who tells voters that their MP has never opened his mouth for them in the Lok Sabha. All he has done is amass fabulous wealth. But given a chance, the former Harvard University professor says, he would attend to their problems and make Madurai an international city.
''A BJP government at the Centre will protect the minorities,'' he assures, asserting that in the 'unlikely' event of something going wrong, he would rise in revolt against the establishment.
Ram Babu, for his part, speaks about Dr Swamy's shifted loyalty.
"How can he be in Jayalalitha's company after filing so many cases against her, including one which has resulted in conviction?" he wonders at rallies and meetings.
Meanwhile, the average Madurai voter appears to be more worried about basic needs like drinking water, skyrocketing prices and lack of supply in ration shops. The hefty hike in bus fare effected recently by the Tamil Nadu government is another factor against the DMK-TMC combine.
"We will not vote for them (the ruling allies)," many say, "They are not interested in our welfare."
A shopkeeper complained that a tube well that broke down a few months ago in his village has been unattended even now.
"My entire village will vote against them," he says.
Some voters draw a parallel between the numerous corruption cases against Jayalalitha and the various human and democratic rights violation cases slapped on Indira Gandhi by the Morarji Desai government after the Emergency.
Like the Janata government's obsession for Indira Gandhi's prosecution, the DMK government's preoccupation with Jayalalitha -- which, incidentally, has not generated much support from the voters -- might boomerang. Realising the full potential of the issue, Dr Swamy and the AIADMK, much like the lady prime minister did years ago, are trying hard to capitalise on it.
The constituency comprises six assembly segments -- Thiruparankundram, Madurai West, Madurai Central, Madurai East, Samayanallur (sc) and Melur.
The CPI-M, which hastily joined the DMK-TMC alliance after the Gujral government lost power and made an equally hasty retreat later on, is contesting on its own in Madurai. This is likely to help Dr Swamy, as it would split the Opposition votes. The UCPI candidate, who is banking on the working class, will again be of advantage to the Janata Party.
While projections on the basis of the 1996 or 1991 elections would give unreal pictures as both the elections witnessed strong waves, the caste factor in this constituency, as elsewhere in the state, cannot be wished away. The thevars are the largest block followed by the yadavs and sourashtras (to which Ram Babu belongs), dalits and minorities.
The violent caste clashes in the recent past has left the dominant thevars angry with the establishment. The dalits, against whom they fought, are also discontent with the government for not protecting them.
The sourashtras, meanwhile, are agitated over Marxist corporator Leelavathi's murder in cold blood. She belonged to their community, and the arrested are all DMK partymen.
Though the contest appears keen, a discernible apathy can also be seen among voters.
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