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February 14, 1998


Constituency Profile/Madras South

Despite middle-class backing, BJP has little chance

N Sathiya Moorthy in Madras

One is a minister in the outgoing Gujral government, and the other is being propped up as a minister if a A B Vajpayee government is formed at the Centre. And between Minister of State for Petroleum T R Baalu and Bharatiya Janata Party Vice-President K Jana Krishnamurthy, the prestigious Madras South constituency could not have asked for more.

The electoral battle is also between brain and brawn: while Krishnamurthy has been the party's 'desk man' at Delhi for over four years now, Baalu has all along been a grassroots organiser for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

The constituency counts a substantial number of rich and poor among its voters as slums jostle along side huge bungalows and other upper class localities. Middle-class apartments in the area have also been increasing.

"It is this middle class that we are counting upon," says BJP worker Ramanathan at Besant Nagar. He is busy distributing pamphlets outside a temple where Jayendra Saraswathi, the shankaracharya of the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt is blessing the devout. The pamphlets give reasons on why one should vote for the BJP-All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

"The upper class, whether in business, or holding executive jobs, are tired of the 'unsettling United Front experiment', and wants the BJP," claims Ramanathan. "So are the middle class, who are the worst-hit whenever there is instability. And our alliance-partners, the AIADMK, along with the Marulmarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Pattal Makkal Katchi are sure to bring in the lower-class votes that we otherwise lack."

Though it all looks good on paper, the situation is not so easy. Baalu had won the seat in 1996, polling 538,697 votes while the AIADMK's Ganesham came a poor second at 199, 516. The popular film actress Revathi, standing as an Independent, obtained 41,000 votes; the BJP's Dr S Maithreyan got 34,000 votes. The MDMK and the PMK respectively polled 29,838 votes and 18,540 votes respectively.

The huge gap is what makes the DMK confident of an encore. "Even granting that all the votes of the various allies go to Krishnamurthy, the DMK is still way ahead," points out Paramsivam, an autorickshaw driver working for Baalu. "True, there are no 'waves' this time, but then the DMK has been traditionally strong in the city, whereas the BJP does not have cadres here."

Moreover, says Paramsivam, the AIADMK and MDMK cadres working for the BJP are bound to go to the constituencies where their own candidates are contesting on polling day.

All this must no doubt be unsettling for Krishnamurthy. Baalu is an orgnaisation man through and through, and has spearheaded the DMK's poll machinery effectively in the past. He has strong second-line leaders, the legislators who won the six assembly segments that makes up Madras South; people who can convert possible votes into sure victories.

The DMK has done its homework and groundwork thoroughly since the last elections. It has enrolled every prospective voter left out of the list. The electorate in Madras South has grown in 18 months by a whopping 361,610 voters to 1,934,552, and ensuring that they all vote requires an organisational setup which the BJP simply does not have.

Madras South is considered Tamil Nadu's most prestigious constituency, having been represented by persons of stature in the past. These include two former finance ministers: T T Krishnamachari (1952, 1957), and R Venkataraman (1977, 1980) who went on to become president; and DMK founder C N Annadurai, who quit when he became the state chief minister in 1967. Murasoli Maran, present industry minister, took over the seat in a byelection and retained it in 1971.

In 1984 and 1989, the seat was represented by actress Vyjayanthimala Bali of the Congress, while in 1991, the AIADMK's R Sridharan won the seat.

Krishnamurthy's success lies in the fact that both the DMK and its candidate Baalu have taken notice of the contest. There is no denying the surge of middle-class sympathy for the BJP in the city, but this is matched by the revulsion of its substantial Muslim and slum population. While the DMK can get its supporters to vote, how far the BJP can motivate more prosperous segment to cast its votes is yet to be seen.

A disadvantage for Krishnamurthy is that he is known only in political circles, and that too mainly among the Hindutva clan. Also, he was been away in Delhi during the past four years. On the other hand, Baalu, though a streetfighter sort, has never been involved in any controversy and even BJP sympathisers have no complaints against him. Nor do the BJP backers have any grouse against the DMK government, but it certainly does have against the AIADMK, the the BJP's ally. Moreover, Baalu has always been around to help his constituency's citizens, whether in or out of office.

Both sides have their quota of problems. The floods last November and the slow response of the DMK government have left a bad taste in the mouth of some slum dwellers. There is also the case of the slum dwellers being roughly brushed aside when they surrounded the car of Madras Mayor M K Stalin (and son of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi) at Kotturpuram locality in the constituency. The slum dwellers feel slighted that the chief minister ignored their presence when he drove in a few minutes later.

The BJP is afflicted with the new problem of internal dissent, though few are willing to talk about it openly. Dr Maithreyan was hoping to contest this time also, and was one of the few persons who had kept communications with AIADMK chief J Jayalalitha open, even when she was out of power. Now, with the new agreement drawn up by the AIADMK, Maithreyan finds himself sidelined and is no longer the BJP's negotiator.

Few give Krishnamurthy much of a chance. Says Selvarathinam, an autorickshaw driver in the posh Adayar locality in the constituency area, "'I find the BJP making deep inroads into the DMK votebank, particularly among the middle-class. I wish Krishnamurthy well, but know from my own experience, I think he is no match for Baalu's organisational skills and the DMK's machinery."

While Selvarathinam is a former DMK worker, who is not involved this time because of some problems with the local party bosses, he also reflects the general sentiment.

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