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Superman in a veshti: 12 hours with A Raja

Last updated on: April 21, 2014 19:22 IST

Superman in a veshti: 12 hours with A Raja

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Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com

The popular perception is that Raja will be fighting with his back to the wall, given the enormity of the charges against him in the 2G scam, but all it takes is for one to follow his campaign trail for 12 hours to be disabused of such a notion.

Rediff.com's Saisuresh Sivaswamy spends time with the controversial former telecom minister's road show in Ooty on April 19.

If it is Tamil Nadu, the hyperbole must fly thick and fast, especially in an election campaign.

And if it is the election campaign of one whose name till a few months resonated across the nation for one reason alone, then it must have an extra dose of hyperbole.

So it was at former telecom minister A Raja's road show on Saturday, April 19, in Ooty-Gudalur, which forms part of the Nilgiris Lok Sabha constituency.

The popular perception is that Raja will be fighting with his back to the wall, given the enormity of the charges against him in the 2G scam, but all it takes is for one to follow his campaign trail for 12 hours to be disabused of such a notion.

It is clear that neither is Raja defensive about the legal case against him, nor is the public that greets him on his many halts curious to know what the scam was about. Is he guilty or not, no one seemed to be interested in knowing.

But more on that, later. What is interesting is the punishing schedule Raja maintains in his bid for a second term from the constituency that spans both the Nilgiris hills and the plains.

It is an unusual Lok Sabha constituency. Of the six assembly constituencies, three fall on the mountains: Udhagamandalam (popularly known as Ooty), Coonoor and Gudalur. And three fall in the plains: Mettupalayam, Avinashi and Bhavanisgar.

Delimitation has also ensured that the constituency spills over into other districts. Mettupalayam is in Coimbatore district, Avinashi is in Tirupur and Bhavanisagar is in Erode.

The constituency also abuts Kerala and Karnataka, plus there is a healthy mix of migrant worker population from states, so it is very normal to hear a patois of all the south Indian languages in restaurants and other public spaces.

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Image: A Raja addresses a gathering of villagers from the campaign vehicle. He must have addressed at least 50 small meetings from the van on Saturday.
Photographs: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com

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Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com

A Raja's campaign day begins early, by 9 am. The schedule his team hands out for Saturday is daunting, and makes you wonder if he has got wings or if he is Superman in veshti.

There are 42 scheduled halts on the way -- what his team calls 'points' -- plus there could be as many unscheduled halts given how these things go.

Having finished his campaign in the plains on Friday, Raja has devoted the weekend to the hills. Setting off from the member of Parliament's office in Ooty -- its creation and its counterpart in the plains, in Mettupalayaam, he claims credit for in his speech, as the only MP to have set up two offices in his constituency -- at 9.30 am on Saturday, he quickly makes an unscheduled halt with a Jain monk before reaching Thalaikundha, the first halt, in his Pajero SUV.

The crowd is sparse here, and is mostly party faithfuls and passers-by rubbernecking to see what the commotion is all about.

"The crowds were there saar, in the morning, when the rally was supposed to start," one DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) functionary says. "How can you come late and expect people to be waiting?"

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Image: A band of drummers kept up the beat on the campaign trail.
Photographs: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com

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Superman in a veshti: 12 hours with A Raja

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Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com

The next couple of halts involves the convoy -- whose size varies through the day, from 10 to 20 vehicles, plus assorted motorcycles -- whizzing past hamlets, Raja quickly climbing aboard the campaign van, a sturdy Mahindra vehicle whose load-carrying capacity must commend it to the Guinness Book of Records, whenever a clutch of people is seen on the road side.

His speech is brief, to the point, covers all the bases, and will be repeated with minor variations though the day.

"My dear voters, I have come to you once again to seek your vote, asking you to order me to serve you. In 2009 when I came before you I was a stranger, not from these parts, but you have known me these past five years. Today I am one of you, you know my work for you, for the constituency, on the basis of which I am seeking your votes."

Raja, who represented his native Perambalur in the Lok Sabha for four terms, moved to Nilgiris after his constituency ceased to be a reserved one following delimitation. He fought and won the 2009 election from the hill station, and his hoping for a repeat now.

The work he mentions in his speeches are mainly two. One, is the two MP's offices he set up to enable his constituents to reach him; and two, his involvement in the relief work in the floods and landslide in November 2009 -- which he calls "nature's fury" at one point, "cloudburst" in another, "landslide" in yet another -- when he set aside his duties in New Delhi and stayed among them, ensure that "relief work that would ordinarily take six months was completed in one month."

"However high a bird flies, it knows that in the evening it must return to its nest. Similarly, whatever be my duties as MP and minister, I know my home is with you people."

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Image: A Raja greets some of his constituents. Women showed up in strength on his campaign trail, offering aarti, performing the poorna kumbh, applying tilak on his forehead...
Photographs: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com

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Everyone I spoke to about this last claim endorses what Raja said. "Yes sir, he was really helpful during those days," says one voter, which explains why the people are not paying much heed to the oozhal (scandal) that the Opposition talks about.

Raja's arrival in hamlets is announced by the campaign vehicle, which also doubles as some sort of praetorian guard, keeping a protective eye on, and arm around, their MP whenever he wades into the public, which is often.

Of course, the reference to Raja among the team is not 'saar', 'MP saar' or even 'aiya (brother)'. He is referred to as "Minister", a position he ceased to hold from November 2010, when he resigned as telecom minister over the 2G scam.

Nor is he, for that matter, Raja (with or without the A), but "Raasaa", the Tamil phonetic version of his name.

The campaign vehicle alternates between a town crier sort of chap, whose job description for the day is to belt out paeans to "Minister" or a CD which is full of catchy tunes.

"Vivasayin/paattaaliyin thozanae (friend of farmers/workers), ungalil oruvar (one of you), namma veettu pillai (our own son)..." The words flow free and fast.

And, then, there is the clincher: "Neelagiriyin rosa, namma Raasaa (Nilgiris' rose, our own Raja)."

When The Voice flags, which is not all that often, the party CD takes over. "Odi odi varugiraan Udaya Suriyan (the Rising Sun, the DMK's symbol, comes running to you) is one song that refuses to leave my head, given the number of times I've heard it from close quarters on Saturday. Another song, more martial, exhorts the 'Dravidian bulls' to set forth for battle.

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Image: A Raja, the DMK nominee from the Nilgiris constituency, goes campaigning past a tea garden in Ooty.
Photographs: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com

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After a lukewarm road show so far, Raja drives into Sholur, a Badaga hamlet. The Badagas are the indigenous people of Ooty, their language akin to a mixture of Tamil and Kannada. They account for around 22 per cent of the electorate, and make a difference to the final outcome.

That Raja is their man is evident from the welcome they accord him, the whole village turning out to greet him under the noon sun. After the customary Tamil practice of wrapping shawls is gotten over with, Raja makes a speech, his first major one of the day.

Apart from the two points mentioned earlier, he for the first time on this road show brings up the 2G scam.

"There is a case against me, you all know about it. It was built up like a balloon, but it grew holes, and as Dr Kalaignar (M Karunanidhi, his party chief) said, it has gone fooos like a balloon."

"What was my mistake? I took the cell phone, which at that time was the preserve of the rich, and made it available to poor people. From 30 million, I raised the mobile phone user base to 90 million, to benefit poor people like you."

"But some people like owners did not like this. So they singled me out. But the case against me is about to end, and before that verdict I want your verdict, I am now in your court."

And this remains the recurring theme of the around 50 speeches he makes during the day, with minor modifications.

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Image: A Raja meets Badaga tribals while campaigning in Ooty. The Badagas are estimated to form 22 per cent of the electorate in the Nilgiris Lok Sabha constituency.
Photographs: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com

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Raja's introduction to the Badaga gathering is done by the DMK's district secretary, Ramachandran. The MP, he tells them, must have visited the constituency at least 100 times in his five years, a record of sorts.

From this point on, the campaign acquires a life of its own. Gone is the tepid response seen earlier; now on, Raja is given a rousing welcome wherever he goes, villagers turn up in numbers, to greet him, to wish him, to wrap a shawl around his shoulders, touch him, call out to him. He has also, by now, moved from the Pajero to the Chevrolet Madera. Incidentally, his election affidavit filed recently mentions only a Toyota Corolla.

And the women don't lag behind in showing their regard for him. Performing aarti, presenting a poorn kumbh, applying tilak on his forehead, they are with him all the way. And Raja, too, makes sure he does not neglect this demographic.

Whether it is calling out to the tea garden's women workers on the way, coming down from the campaign vehicle to be greeted by the women, he mingles freely with the crowds.

His speech sticks to default mode, with the only minor deviation introduced by Ramachandran who refers to the 2G scam as an "Aryan conspiracy", a point Raja neither rebuts nor repeats or reacts to in his own speeches.

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Image: A Raja being offered aarti at a halt during his campaign in his constituency.
Photographs: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com

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By now we have been on the road for more than six hours, and as the afternoon sun beats down mercilessly, throats get parched, tempers fray, and stomachs get hungry.

The discussion in the campaign vehicle revolves around how soon the convoy will halt for lunch, and where. The practice, team members say, was that packed lunch is served to them at a predetermined hour, usually by 1.30 pm, at a predetermined spot. Now it is 4 pm, and there is still no sign of food.

Finally it turns out that there has been some misunderstanding, some goof-up because of cell phones not answered. By the time the convoy pulls up for lunch at a village home, a scrimmage is on the cards. The villagers want to meet the "Minister", but his entourage want food.

Ultimately a crisis is averted, lunch is had, which is also the time when a mystery is solved: How does Raja remain in spotless whites despite the heat and dust of campaigning?

An aide hand over fresh clothes, and after a quick meal -- of curd rice for Raja, as he is nursing an upset tummy, and egg biryani and raita for the rest -- and a change, the convoy resumes its journey.

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Image: Party workers interact with the gathering.
Photographs: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com
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The talk in the campaign vehicle -- I am the only outsider in it, blessed by Raja's nod to be there -- now revolves around how important it is for the DMK to not only win the seat for the second time, but win it big.

"To be honest, saar, we have internal divisions in the local unit of the party, but we have decided to bury our differences and campaign for Minister, so he wins this seat by a bigger margin than the last time." In 2009 Raja won the seat by 86,201 votes.

Why the resolve?

"You see, saar, our party has been given a bad name by everyone, Raja in particular. But you can say what you want, we want to show the people's verdict, which alone matters in a democracy, is in his favour, in our favour."

This unity, alas, is evidently not too deep, as soon a vocal argument ensues over who is responsible for the fiasco over the late arrival of food. One group blames the other, since till Saturday it had been organised without a hitch, with the other group accusing this one of deliberate non-cooperation.

A more serious argument breaks out when some are told to get off the campaign vehicle, which groans under the weight of more and more party enthusiasts clambering on board. This escalates into a nasty war of words, over who was the "real worker" as against the "non-working worker".

Truce is called only when it is pointed out that there is a stranger in their midst, worse, a journalist.

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Image: A Raja being offered aarti at a halt during his campaign.
Photographs: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com
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At the next halt, as Raja goes through the routine of alighting from his SUV 100 metres ahead, clambering aboard the campaign vehicle and driving in to deliver his barely two-minute-long speech, a new point is added.

After rounding off his past record, and the glossy mention of the 2G scandal, he mentions that the Central Bureau of Investigation, income-tax department and Enforcement Directorate, who collectively probed his and all his family members' wealth, have concluded that "unlike Chief Minister Jayalalithaa he had neither amassed ill-gotten wealth nor had a rupee beyond his known sources of income."

Aside: According to his 2014 election affidavit, Raja is worth Rs 3.16 crore (Rs 31.6 million), including the assets of his dependents.

The attack on the chief minister continues. Raja points out that Nilgiris alone enjoys uninterrupted power supply in the state -- thanks to his and Ramacandran's initiative to spare the tea gardens such a disaster and which was backed by his party chief and then chief minister Karunanidhi.

"But please go to the rest of the state to know the reality of 10-hour power cuts," he says, and goes on to list the promises unfulfilled by Jayalalithaa.

His election from Nilgiris, and the DMK's win in the state, will be the beginning of the end for such a regime, he tells the villagers to loud applause.

Raja's ire at the Tamil Nadu chief minister is understandable. In 2011, she rode to power over the DMK's alleged corruption, exemplified by the 2G scam, with Raja as the chief villain.

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Image: A Raja meets women workers of a tea garden in Ooty.
Photographs: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com

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By now it is dark and there is a slight change in the composition of the villagers coming out to meet his convoy. There are a lot of green flags fluttering in the crowds.

As the road show enters Muslim-strong areas, there is another addition to Raja's speeches.

"To ensure that a secular, non-discriminatory government comes to power at the Centre, please strengthen Dr Karunanidhi's hands by electing the Democratic Progressive Front in the state. Please bear in mind that any other outcome will not bring you a secular government," he covers both the Jayalalithaa-led front and the BJP front in Tamil Nadu.

The next few halts are through Muslim boroughs, and this remains the template for Raja's speech.

"If you want India to remain a country where Muslims, Christians, Hindus and all faiths live together in peace, without riots and communal violence, please vote for me, for the DMK."

He also makes it a point to thank the Indian Union Muslim League, and other alliance partners of the DPF, like the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi whose activists turned up in numbers on motorcycles for his road show.

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Image: A Raja on his campaign trail in Ooty
Photographs: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com

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Raja's speeches, while talking about his past record, the 2G scam case, etc, doesn't make a mention of what he will do for the constituency and its people if he was re-elected.

Asked about it later, Raja told Rediff.com, "You are right, I did not make any promises about the future. But if you see my parliamentary election record, I have never made any claims about what I will do."

The Election Commission is closely monitoring his road show; so closely that they even ask to see my credentials to ensure that I am not a party worker they are not told about. And just as Raja is about to retire for the night, his SUV is halted by an Election Commission-led police team for an inspection, to which he willingly submits.

Raja, mindful of the diktat against campaigning beyond 10 pm, winds up his road 10 minutes ahead of deadline. Many 'points' on the day's schedule have not been covered, with workers unsure if they will be met the next day.

"Each is a cluster of votes, saar, and if the candidate announces that he will come and doesn't turn up it could lead to votes going away from us," says one DMK worker.

How much the candidate's visit matters is made clear when the convoy skips one of the 'points', leading to a heated argument with the leaders from that area and the campaign vehicle. The former wins, and as the rally reachs the area it is given the biggest welcome of the day, with people flooding the road, immobilising the campaign vehicle and visibly moving Raja with their support.

"This turnout you saw is nothing sir," says Raghu, "this is not even 10 per cent of how big it usually gets."

Whether it is typical Tamil hyperbole, or bears any semblance to truth, will become known on May 16. But indications on the ground are Raja will be home and dry in Nilgiris.

If only one could say the same about the 2G scam case against him.


Image: A Raja in his campaign vehicle as the day comes to an end.
Photographs: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com

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