'What is the point of having this money when my constituents don't?'
The Congress has been out of power in Tamil Nadu for almost half a century, but nevertheless, the richest candidate in the state in this election belongs to the party.
Harishankar Vasanthakumar needs no introduction to most people in the state, who know him as the owner of Vasanth & Co, a multi-branch retailer of FMCG products on easy terms.
He also is a media baron of sorts, owning his television channel named, aptly perhaps, Vasanth TV.
The Congress candidate from Nanguneri in Thirunelveli district has declared assets worth a whopping Rs 337 crore (Rs 3.337 billion).
"What is the point of having this money when my constituents don't?" he asks disarmingly when we meet him during his election campaign in Perumalnagar village where he has just met a gathering of adoring constituents in a temple.
On the way out he is mobbed by villagers, with who he evidently shares an easy camaraderie, with no sign of the giver and the taker between them.
Vasanthakumar represented the constituency in 2006 but was trounced in the Jayalalithaa wave five years later. Undeterred, he stood for the Lok Sabha election in 2014 from Kanyakumari, when he had declared Rs 287 crore (Rs 2.87 billion) worth of assets, ranking as the richest candidate even then.
He lost that election by a narrow margin to the Bharatiya Janata Party, beating both the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam and the All India Dravida Munetra Kazhagam to the second place; no mean feat in Tamil Nadu for a Congress candidate.
In 2006 Vasanth Kumar had won from Nanguneri when the Congress had an alliance with the DMK. This time too the two parties are in an alliance. So is it a cinch? The question hangs easily in the agrarian constituency, as we drive through the mud lanes and past hutments, Hindu shrines and Christian prayer halls.
"Aiyya, eppadi irukeenga? (Sir, how are you?)," an old man exclaims, his mouth open in a toothless grin, as the small convoy of vehicles halts at a crossroad for the candidate to press some flesh.
Nanguneri falls on the National Highway that goes from Kanyakumari to Bengaluru. Despite the dustbowl look of the place, tracing the candidate is not difficult. Just follow the trail of burst crackers, passersby offering help in moments of indecision.
For all his wealth and reputation, Vasanthakumar, one finds, shares warm vibes with the villagers. Most of them seem to know him personally and he talks to them with a familiarity that comes from regular interaction.
His convoy is very small, unlike the ones the state has witnessed in the past when the DMK and Congress campaigned together. Apart from the open-top jeep which we clambered up eagerly, there is his personal car and a Maruti Omni that is being used by the Vasanth TV crew busy recording his every word, every move. Two others in the jeep with us are distributing cardboard fans with his symbol on it.
The convoy follows a predictable pattern and phraseology. Selvaraj, who was in the front seat with a mike, announces the candidate's arrival with a flourish only seen in Tamil Nadu. "Ungal veettuppillai Vasanthakumar, Kamarajarin vaarisu, ungal kanneerai thudaikka odi odi varugirar (the son from your home, heir to Kamaraj, Vasanthakumar has come to wipe away the tears from your eyes)," Selvaraj talks up the candidate as we amble along the mud roads.
Vasanthakumar has also put out a 44-page, all-colour, glazed newsprint magazine size booklet listing what he had done for the constituency the last time he represented it. And it is an impressive list, which perhaps explains why the people are so visibly warm towards him.
Now, in the afternoon heat, unfortunately for him, however, there are not many people around in the village, only a gaggle of people here and there. "Ellam velaikku poyirukkanga (all are out on work)," he tells us apologetically. "There will be more people in the evening."
Numbers or not, the complaints come pouring in, the subject of litany the usual in a top-down democracy like India. At one place there were complaints that a certain bus was not stopping at their village.
One of his assistants notes this down, "I will make sure it stops. How many places do you want it to stop?" he asks. The villagers are happy with just one stop.
In another village, Vasanthakumar reminds a woman that he had built a water tank in their village and she must vote for his 'hand' symbol for further 'development.' "The biggest problem in this area is water and power and that is why I built the water tank." Actually he built not one but two water tanks "for the two groups, one this side one that side."
In the next village, Thattankulam, a woman tells Vasanthakumar to lay a cement road near her house. "But there is a road there already there," he points out. "It is only 50 feet long, please take it further, into the field," she requests. "Sari, manu poduma (okay, please put in a petition)," he responds and she is happy. "My son works for you, he is a driver," she tells him proudly. "He works for our channel sir," the know-all assistant chips in.
At one place there was a small gathering of women, their natural shyness in the presence of city folk abandoned for the candidate. One young girl was poring through the electoral list of the village, checking it against voting slips. An important exercise to remind the voter of the candidate with elections just four days away.
As we leave one village to go to the next, the heat seems to have got the better of Vasanthakumar, who asks his assistant if he could travel in his car that is trailing us. "The next village is nearby, please stay on the jeep," he is told. "You have no problems, I am the one that has been standing in the heat for the last 30 days," the candidate replies with a sigh.
What marks the convoy out is the absence of alliance partners in the campaign, notably the elephant in the room, the DMK. "If I invite one person, someone else gets upset, so I don't call anyone. When they join me, I welcome them, if they don't, I don't bother," is Vasathakumar's quick reply.
Though the DMK depended on the Congress to form a government in 2006, they did not share power, keeping intact Tamil Nadu's reputation for eschewing a coalition government. "This time it will be different," insists Vasanthakumar. "If we win more than 40 seats, we will this time."
The Congress has been allotted 41 seats by the DMK, against its demand for 70.
Some things don't change in Tamil Nadu’s electoral campaign -- like the bursting of crackers. The ornate talking up of what the candidate can do. Aartis on the way (which perhaps would be seen in the evening, when there are more people). And the custom of ponnadai (wrapping a shawl around the candidate). The latter was in evidence all through both the villages we traversed.
In Thattankulam, a constituent greets Vasanthakumar with a shawl, a small bouquet while another complains, "There is a lake in our village, but even when it rains it does not store water as the walls have collapsed. Please do something." Asking his assistant to take a photograph of the same, Vasanthakumar tells him, "Kavalai padaadheenga (don't worry), I will get it done, manu podunga."
At another home he askes a young girl what she is doing. Just appeared for the SSC exams, and would score 450/500 marks, she tells him. "You score 499 marks, and I will give you one lakh rupees," he tells her, and she is agape.
"Every year, I give the topper from my constituency one lakh rupees," he tells us. "And Rs 10,000 for everyone who scores above 95%."
"Padippu thaan sir mukkiyam (education is everything). (The legendary Congress leader K) Kamaraj told the people to study, learn English, but the last 50 years they have only been told to study Tamil. And because of that, they have stayed where they were."
As we take his leave, one wonders if a top businessman like him who lives in distant Chennai will have time for his constituents. How will you manage, we ask him. "When I was the member of the assembly earlier, I came here every weekend, and I will come here again," he says, adding with a twinkle in his eye, "With lots of money."
Vasanthakumar is the brother of Kumari Ananthan, the erstwhile president of the Tamil Nadu Congress whose daughter Tamizhisai Soudararajan heads the state BJP.
"We are a 100-strong family," Vasanthakumar chuckles, "but we don't discuss politics."
Though politics, for the time being at least, seems to have put a freeze in the relationship between uncle and niece. "We have not spoken to each other since," he adds. "Yaarukku theriyum saar (who knows) how it will be presented to the high command!"
The 'high command,' the popular euphemism for Sonia-Rahul Gandhi, is clearly favourtably disposed towards Vasanthakumar.
In the 2014 election, his constituency Kanyakumari was the only one that Sonia Gandhi campaigned for in the state. In the present election, his seat was among those Rahul was expected to visit before fever put paid to his Tamil Nadu plans.