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September 9, 1999


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Constituency/ Coimbatore

It's the party that sells, not candidates!

N Sathiya Moorthy

Lal Kishenchand Advani addressed an election meeting in Coimbatore. But the crowd was not impressive. The Bharatiya Janata Party workers attribute it to three reasons: one, the fear psychosis flowing from last year's serial blasts at Advani's meeting venue; two, mid-morning is when people are busy at their work; three, coming from the middle class, most BJP voters here 'needed no convincing by Advaniji or Atalji.'

Such claims apart, BJP nominee C P Radhakrishnan has a tough fight on hand. He had won last year's poll with a convincing 150,000 margin. This is much below the 260,000 margin of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam winner in 1996. The BJP attributed the lower margin last year to two factors: the 'fear psychosis' and the stretch Radhakrishnan had to cover before surpassing the DMK and winning by a thumping margin. The victory margin, according to them, thus, was not 150,000, but 410,000 votes.

In essence, Radhakrishnan's problems also flow from three factors: one, there is nothing to call his contributions to the constituency despite the halo around him; two, the DMK ally of this year still feels embarrassed to be seen in the BJP company; and three, a section of the BJP is not favourably disposed to his candidature.

In this, the least trouble flows from the last issue. The BJP still depends on non-cadre, non-party votes in Coimbatore, as elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, and factionalism in the party will have no impact on the voting pattern until it starts affecting the public image.

"That at least is not happening in this case," says a party worker.

The BJP counts on the non-committed voters in the constituency for its base. "They had belonged to the Congress-O of the late Kamaraj. Now they are slowly drifting towards the BJP. Industrialists, businessmen and big-time traders that they are, this vote bank wants a stable government at the Centre, which they think only the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, under Vajpayee's leadership, can provide," says a local journalist. "Their middle class employees, technocrats and others, too, think the same."

"But a good segment of these voters are ours as well," claims a Tamil Maanila Congress official. The party has fielded former Union minister S R Balasubramanian in Coimbatore.

"I have no party affiliation, but I know of many people like me, who sympathise with the TMC for its principled stand against corruption and communalism," says a senior scientist in one of the central government-funded research organisations in town.

"I have all along been a BJP sympathiser at heart, though I do not always get the opportunity to vote for the party as it was non-existent here until very recently," says a college lecturer in his mid-50s. "I had respected its principled stand on various issues, and hoped for a BJP-TMC alliance of sorts to evolve for finishing off this Dravidian rule in Tamil Nadu. Nothing of the sort has happened. Instead, you have the BJP playing the Congress game, of aligning with Dravidian party after another."

The charge of non-performance is being hurled also at Balsubramanian. "He represented the neighbouring Nilgiris constituency when he was a Union minister from 1996 to 1998, but did nothing to help the public sector Hindustan Photo Films unit out of its financial problems. Since losing the Nilgiris seat last time and returning to native Coimbatore, he has been issuing appeals for the Centre to help out HPF," is a standard refrain of the two rival camps.

It's for all these reasons that the two speakers are not sure that they would vote the TMC. "The real choice is between the BJP and the Communist Party of India nominee of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led alliance. While the AIADMK caused this avoidable elections in the first place, the Communists can cause more trouble in the Coimbatore-Tiruppur industrial belt," says a small-time entrepreneur, recalling the 70s. "But the industrial labour is also the vote bank of the Communists."

CPI Tamil Nadu secretary R Nallakannu is the nominee here. The party has some base among the farm labourers, while its CPI-M ally, like the CPI, also has a base among the textile labour in this city. "But the farm labour, mostly dalits, are already gravitating towards the TMC," claims a TMC leader without elaborating.

As may be recalled, various dalit parties and organisations are the poll allies of the TMC this time. While the CPI and its allies are focussing on the 'communal BJP', which can at best divide the Muslim voters in the constituency, between Nallakannu and Balasubramaniam, the former can also bank on the cadre-strength and the traditional vote banks of the AIADMK.

"Coimbatore has been a traditional AIADMK centre along with its community of Gounders, and they are our sure vote banks," says a CPI cadre.

"But that's not the case now," argues a BJP voter. "First, the Gounders, whether in industry, or large-scale farming, are against the trade unionist communists. Secondly, they have shifted from the AIADMK to the BJP, since the 1996 election."

He also pooh-poohed the fact that the TMC candidate is a Gounder, like his BJP counterpart. The real problem for the BJP stems from the DMK indifference in the constituency. "Their hesitation is understandable," says a DMK veteran in private. "Last year, the BJP nailed us to the nearest lamp-post, particularly after the serial blasts. Now, it's difficult expecting the local DMK leadership to come out in the open, defending the BJP, and direct the cadres to put their heart into the campaign."

As may be recalled, the DMK winner of the 1996 Lok Sabha poll, C T Dhandapani was painted as the villain of the piece by the BJP-AIADMK allies after the Coimbatore blasts last year. Both parties even wanted his arrest and prosecution 'for letting Islamic fundamentalism' grow in the city.

"In a way, that finished of his political career and that of a few other top DMK leaders in the city. And the DMK cadres haven't forgotten or forgiven the BJP for that," he says.

Apart from this, the BJP is also hamstrung by the 'ideological moorings' of the Marumalarchi DMK cadre-base in the region, which is basically 'anti-BJP' in content. "The MDMK is a dependable ally of the BJP, but we are not sure how far the MDMK youth in the Coimbatore-Erode belt will be dependable on the poll day," says a BJP functionary. "They have their own ideological differences that run deeper than their personal political ambitions."

But the local MDMK leadership disagrees saying, "Everyone has been brought around to accepting the party's official line."

With the polling day drawing closer, leaders of local alliance partners have done their rounds of the constituency. DMK boss and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, AIADMK leader J Jayalalitha and TMC president G K Moopanar started off with the constituency at the end of their campaign for the first phase of polling held on Sunday. With all three candidates not considered too strong for one another, it's the party label and the strength of their allies that all three are counting on.


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