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'The cows ate up the posters last night'
A Ganesh Nadar | February 17, 2003 17:34 IST
J Jayalalithaa, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, campaigned for five days in Andipatti last year. Then, she was the candidate.
Today, she begins campaigning in Sathankulam for a by-election being held to fill the vacancy arising from the death of Congress MLA Mani Nadar. She has an absolute majority in the state assembly so the outcome of this election will not make a difference. Yet, she has 10 ministers and 60 MLAs campaigning in this far-flung Tamil Nadu constituency.
This is the first election since the passing of the Anti-Conversion Act in Tamil Nadu. And, as luck has it, 50 per cent of the voters in Sathakulam are Christian. Furthermore, this constituency has regularly elected a Congress candidate for more than three decades.
At the Centre, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhgam has allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party and is part of the ruling National Democratic Alliance. Yet, in this election, the DMK is openly supporting the Congress candidate while the BJP is canvassing for Jayalalithaa's All India Anna DMK.
Kachnavillai village falls in this constituency. While the AIADMK election office is filled with people, the Congress office is empty. Their posters are torn. "The cows ate up the posters last night," explains cable operator Kaladharan. "Jayalalithaa is trying to prove a point. She wants to show she can get a Hindu elected in a Christian-dominant area. The BJP is working all out for her success. They have arranged a special prayer for her success, where 5,008 lamps will be lit."
Further on, in Nazareth, the DMK has allowed the Congress to use its office. It is filled with seemingly disgruntled Congressmen who move around aimlessly. Everybody complains the AIADMK is spending money like water, while the Congress is not doing much. A party worker complains to one leader, "The little money you are distributing is not reaching the cadres." "Why don't you manhandle the distributor?" the leader responds. "At least, the truth will come out." Another worker feels they should have fielded a richer candidate. "The rich are not popular and the popular are not rich," the leader replies.
There is little doubt that Christian-dominant Nazareth will vote Congress.
Sathankulam town is alive with cars. Sumos, Qualises, vans and cars race in every direction. The majority display the AIADMK flag.
Congress candidate Mahendran repeatedly stresses he is a lawyer while his opponent Neelamegavarnam is required to present himself in Sathankulam court every week. It is 1.30 pm and the Congress cadres want to eat. But Mahendran is unrelenting. "You can eat later," he says. "Come on, eat a few bananas and we will be on our way. We can eat after we finish 10 more villages."
Inside a Dalit colony in Sathankulam town, a group of young men insist on speaking to him. "The AIADMK is willing to give us any amount of money. You have not shelled out even a rupee. We will vote for you, but this is not the way to ask for votes. If you think you can come in a jeep and just go away, you will not win. We need money."
Mahendran looks glum, but gamely replies, "I will send it tomorrow evening." "You better," is the parting threat. Back on the main road, another lady says, "I will vote for the Congress. When the DMK ruled, poor girls used to get Rs 10,000 to cover their marriage expenses. Madam has stopped that. I will never vote for her."
In Karunkadal, the AIADMK cadres are in a good mood. "See how much it rains during Amma's rule? Do you know entire villages have promised to vote for us? Some wanted a temple, some wanted roads, some wanted water, some wanted money. Our ministers gave everything. One lakh (Rs 100,000), two lakhs (Rs 200,000)… nothing is too much for our ministers."
Confides one voter, "In the neighbouring village, the self-help group leader got a lot of money, but she didn't share it with the other members. I am a member of the self-help group here. I hope we get some money too. I will vote for them if they give me money. I cannot take their money and not vote for them; that's a sin."
Sathankulam is a badly-neglected constituency. Now, all the roads are new, all the street lights are burning, every house has water and there are no power cuts. The villagers know this bonanza will end on election day, February 26. But they are not complaining. They are making hay while the sun shines.
In Kadaynodai village, an old lady wants to petition Jayalalithaa for monetary help. The tea shop owner yells at her, "I cannot write a false petition. Only the landless can ask for money -- you have your own house." "I only have a house, no fields. I only have daughters, no son," she cries, but the man who knows to write refuses to help her. Two elderly voters decline to say who they will vote for. All they say is, "We will vote for the lesser of the two evils."
In Mavadiapannai village, Ammal, a middle-aged lady, is going to vote for the AIADMK. "I have voted for the two leaves (the AIADMK symbol) since MGR's days; I am not going to change now."
"One must use a big stick to kill even a small snake," says panchayat vice-president Murugesapandian. "It keeps other detractors away." This is exactly what Jayalalithaa is doing, pitting her entire strength against the Opposition. When the Jayalalithaa juggernaut rolls through the sleepy towns and villages of Sathankulam, the Opposition doesn't stand a chance.
She ends her campaign on February 22; the Congress has planned a public meeting in Sathankulam that day. Their star speaker will be M K Stalin, DMK chief Karunanidhi's heir apparent.
Both Mahendran and Neelamegavarnam are from the Nadar community, a strong element in this constituency. The Janata Dal (U) has also put up a candidate. Besides, there are 25 independents in the fray.
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