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|February 16, 1998|
Anger is the most dominant mood in Tamil NaduShobha Warrier in Madras and Pondicherry
Anger, rage, bitterness, frustration, cynicism -- one can sum up the feelings of the electorate in these words, especially that of the rural folk and the poor. This was the impression one got as one travelled with Jayalalitha's entourage from Madras to Pondicherry.
The anger of the people is not directed at any particular party or politician, but at all politicians who visit them during an election campaign and promise a land of prosperity but disappear from their sight till the next election.
Election after election has taken place, and the same or different politicians have appeared in front of them asking for votes, but their life remains the same, in abject poverty. It is mass helplessness and anger against the political system itself. Many of those we spoke to said they would not vote at all. If at all they voted, they would cast only an invalid vote.
The second leg of Jayalalitha's campaign began on the 12th of February. We were to report at her Poes Garden home at 1245 hours as her motorcade was to start at 15 minutes later. We had initially decided to follow her entourage but then decided against it as the roads near her home were flooded with vehicles, ready to get behind her. As we motored to Mahabalipuram ahead of the group, either side of the road was decorated with life-size cut-outs of Jayalalitha. Suddenly I was reminded of the days when we saw only her face and figure everywhere. Those were the days!
Mahabalipuram had a festive look, with banners, posters and pictures of all the parties everywhere. A small dais was built at a junction in Mahabalipuram and a few pictures of Jayalalitha were pasted on it. But the spot did not look like the place where Amma was going to visit after a very, very long time. There was nobody there!
Why was there no enthusiasm, I asked Rathnam, a shopkeeper. He hesitantly asked, "Are you from the Tamil press?" As if to clarify his stand, he said, "I don't want any trouble." I assured him that he would not land in trouble. "Do you think the people of Mahabalipuram have forgotten all that had happened? No. They may say, public memory is short. No, our memory is not short. We are well aware of what has happened then and what is happening now. You may know about the houses Sasikala has acquired. We have seen all that. We saw the wedding on television. We read about her in the papers. Do you think we will forget those five years, the marriage and the flaunting of the wealth? No. We did not see her at all when she was in power. Now that she is out of power, she is coming here."
His unhappiness against the DMK regime is only in respect of one aspect; that there is no money in the market. During her time, it was better, he agreed.
Rathnam was sure about one thing, He did not want the BJP to come to power at the Centre. "It is a religious party. I do not want a religious party at the Centre. The United Front was not bad."
Rajamma had walked 15 kilometres from her village to Mahabalipuram just to see Amma. She raged with anger when I asked her whether she would vote for Amma. "How can you ask me such a question? There is only one Amma and only she can save us. Otherwise, do you think I would have walked in this heat? I would do anything to see Amma. I like only Amma and nobody else. I like only her party and no other party. Who says Amma is corrupt? I don't believe what other people say," she walked away angrily. Rajamma is illiterate. She is poor and does not own a television set.
Nasser Ahmed felt pity on us standing in the hot sun at three in the afternoon. He pulled out a couple of chairs from inside his bangle shop and let us sit in the shade. And we talked. He used to vote for AIADMK as MGR was like a 'god' to him. But after Jayalalitha's five-year rule ended, he voted against the AIADMK and for the DMK, a party which he never liked, as if in vengeance. He will again vote against her as he did not want the BJP at the Centre.
"I am a Muslim. I prefer any other party in Delhi than this BJP. Are they not the people who hate Muslims? Are they not the people who demolished the Babri Masjid? Are they not the people who have formed a party on the basis of religion? Are they not the people who want to build a Ram temple at Ayodhya? No, I will be scared if they come to power in Delhi. Let anyone else come to power in Delhi except this BJP."
We first had cold drinks at Hermes's shop and then talked. Hermes, like many others hate all political parties and politicians. "I like only one politician, that is MGR. He was genuinely interested in the welfare of the people. But all the others come to see us only when they need our votes. Another thing that really annoys me is, why can't they move around like ordinary people?"
There is only one person in India whom Hermes admires, and he is T N Seshan. "Did we know about a post called chief election commissioner till then? Only after he occupied the post did we understand the CEC had so much power. How did the 1996 election go? It was so quiet and peaceful then. I wish we had such elections. That is why I feel only Seshan can rule this country. I do not know whether he also would be like all the other politicians."
By then the road was full of policemen. In fact, there was more cops than people. Suddenly Jayalalitha's entourage entered the road. She did not get out of her van, but spoke from inside itself. "See, this is what I said. She cannot even come face to face with us," somebody said angrily. I was surprised to see many shopkeepers refusing to come out of their shops to see her or listen to her.
Before she finished her speech, we rushed in front. On the way, we saw many villagers crowded on the road to get a glimpse of her. Wherever there was a big crowd, she stopped and spoke from inside her vehicle.
The crowd was quite impressive in a village called Puthupattinam. We were sure that she would stop there. So we stopped the vehicle well ahead of the village and waited. I spoke to a group of women who were crowded together on the road, anxiously waiting for Amma to come. All of them still give credence to her, support her and admire her. Why, I asked. "We admire her because she is a woman. See, those men tried to harass her such a lot by arresting her and putting her in jail. She courageously faced all that. That is why we support her. We do not believe those stories about saris and sandals and jewellery. See, she was an actress and a very well known one too. So, it is unfair to show all that on television. We will definitely vote for her," all of them said in unison.
The pilot car tried to whiz past the village but the villagers jumped on to the road blocking the way and the cars came to a screeching halt. We could not start before Amma finished her short speech. The pilot car and the police cars and the vehicles with the Black Cats pushed us to the sides of the roads and moved forward. One by one, the other vehicles carrying the press also overtook us at maddening speed.
It was then that one noticed the number of vehicles accompanying Madam. It was a fleet of nearly fifty vehicles 'flying' dangerously and taking the curves even more dangerously. We decided to go slow, far behind the mad race. We caught up with them whenever Amma stopped to address people and she addressed quite a few of them on the way. All those enthusiastic villagers shouted, 'Vote for two leaves, vote for two leaves (the AIADMK symbol),' as we went past them.
When the entourage entered the Marakkanam village from the East Coast Highway, we took the bypass and overtook the convoy.
One more village. Hundreds of men were seen crowded near the road and far away, women sat on the sides, anxiety writ large on their faces.
It was like a downpour when they spoke to us. There was no end to their stories of woes, worries, troubles and disappointments. Soon we were surrounded by them and they spoke in unison. Maariamma's sight had become blurred due to cataract. Still she wanted to have a hazy glimpse of Jayalalitha. "I have seen Kamaraj, Anna, MGR and everyone. All of them used to stop their vehicles here and talk to us. MGR was like our god. He was the only person who cared for us. Even after his death, I voted for two leaves because we thought Amma would help us like MGR did."
Before Maariamma could finish talking about her hopes, other shouted angrily, "Now all these politicians come before the election. After that, nobody is there to help us, nobody is interested in us. The whole village was inundated in the rains, still not a single politician came here. During MGR's time, we were given food, shelter and clothes whenever we were affected by the floods. So, why should we vote for anyone? We feel like casting invalid votes. Nobody deserves our votes..." the tirade went on.
Devyani has come from her village to ask Jayalalitha a few questions. "I have seen the world for the last 60 years. I have every right to ask her some questions. I want to ask her whether what I have seen on television and what I have read in the papers is True. I want to ask where she was when we were in trouble. I want to ask whether she was when we were in trouble. I want to ask her whether she has any intention to help the poor. I have so much to ask her and I will..." she was anger personified.
'Do you think you will be able to ask her all these questions?' I asked her meekly. "I want to. If they will not let me, I will jump in front of her vehicle. But I want to ask her."
Amma came, delivered a speech from inside her van, surrounded by Black Cats and policemen, far, far away from people like Devyani and Maariamma, and screeched away. Devyani and scores of other women still wait for the day when they can tell Amma their woes.
There was no colour, no posters, no festivity in Pondicherry where Jayalalitha was to address her first public meeting of the day. We had to seek directions from some policemen to reach the venue; there was no obvious gathering or route visible. Jayalalitha would arrive in 30 minutes, but there was nobody near the dais.
Just outside the area vendors sold oranges. Marumalar Mangai was one among them. She said she would definitely go and listen to Amma. "She is coming here after a long time. We know what had happened in those five years. It was the wedding that spoiled her image. How can you spend crores of rupees on somebody who is not even your son?"
But Marumalar Mangai felt sad for Amma because she was jailed. "It was in 1996, for the first time, all of us, 25 members in my family voted against the AIADMK. I will vote for her this time because I don't agree with the way she was treated by DMK. Let me listen to her speech and then I will tell you my opinion."
By the time Jayalalitha's entourage reached the city, people began trickling in. It was a disappointing crowd. They did not applaud or whistle or dance when Amma spoke except, of cours,e when she mentioned MGR's name.
Mahalakshmi and Kanakavally were two leprosy-afflicted people who spent twenty rupees to travel in an auto from the colony where they live just to see and hear Amma. "She is the only person who has helped us. Nobody cares about us, nobody likes us, everybody shuns us. Amma's party is the only party which cared. Otherwise, we would not have spent so much money and come over here. Please tell everyone that we still live in deplorable conditions and except when they needed our votes, the politicians did not enter our place. Amma might have done some wrong things but didn't she say sorry to the people? We believe her. We hope that she has changed. We are sure that she would help people like us."
Water was dripping from Nagarani's loosely knotted hair. A small child clung on to her sari. "I am a construction worker, a mother of three kids and my husband is a drunkard. I work very hard still I cannot provide food for my kids. I cannot send them to school. To whom can I tell my problems? Who will help me? I came to see Amma with the hope that she would say something about us. I like her and believe her. I believe she is the only person who can help us. I am also sure she must have asked her partypeople to help us. How will she know whether they have helped us or not? That is the problem. Nobody is interested in us poor people. Not a single representative helps us. They come to see us only when they want votes. Please tell me whether I will get some help. Please..."
It was dark everywhere and the crowd had already dispersed. Once again it is business time for Marumalar Mangai. Do you feel happy now that you have seen and heard Amma, I asked her. It was an angry, dejected and disappointed Marumalar Mangai who looked at me. It was quite evident from the way she started her tirade against all politicians that she was not happy with Amma's speech.
Her brother Raju also has switched his allegiance to Karunanidhi. Reason, Jayalalitha's ostentatious lifestyle, the rampant corruption during her regime and the wedding of her former foster son. "Do you think people will forget what she has done? These politicians think that our memory is short. Fortunately it is not. I have decided not to vote for any party this time because they only serve themselves and not the public."
Even though Marumalar Mangai was sympathetic to Jayalalitha, she would not vote this time, she said. "She came with fifty cars accompanying her. When you travel like this, you will not see or meet people. I will vote for her only when she comes in one car, like our earlier leader. I will vote for her when she talks to us. I will vote for her when she listens to our problems. I will vote for her when she decides to serve the people."
Photographs: Sriram Selvaraj
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