The ruling AIADMK is leaving no stone unturned to win the Vellore Lok Sabha poll and push its tally to two in the state, with its candidate even donning the skull cap to woo minority votes.
But the DMK's stars are clearly on the ascendant in the lone constituency that goes to the polls on August 5.
A Ganesh Nadar reports.
The Vellore Lok Sabha constituency is the only seat where elections were cancelled in April 2019 following the seizure of large amounts of cash during the run-up to voting day.
But when you ask the voters of this constituency how it feels to be in the only constituency where elections were cancelled, the answer is, “Money is distributed everywhere in Tamil Nadu, don’t know why we were singled out.”
And what about money distribution in this election on August 5? “That will happen after August 1, both parties will give. If they don’t people won’t come out to vote,” said a middle-aged man in Gudiyatham.
Vellore is famous for Christian Medical College Hospital which is ranked next only to the AIIMS, Delhi. There is a Central Jail made infamous by the presence of the Rajiv Gandhi assassins and a world class university, the Vellore Institute of Technology.
Ambur, one of the assembly constituencies here, has a cluster of leather tanneries. The people also find jobs in neighbouring Ranipet and Sriperumbudur where there are huge industrial estates.
There is no river flowing through this constituency and so agriculture is totally dependent on the rains. Farmers cultivate groundnuts and pulses which do not require much water.
There are lots of water bodies which are badly maintained, most have so much silt that their depth is barely two feet. One could see plenty of encroachments everywhere and most water bodies have become dump yards.
The constituency has over 13 lakh voters, with men marginally more than women. In the last election the voting percentage was 74%.
The last Lok Sabha election here, in 2014, was won by the AIADMK. Before that the Congress and the DMK have won this seat five times each.
In this election A C Shanmugam is contesting on the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam symbol though he has his own party, the Puthiya Neethi Katchi.
In the 2016 assembly elections former chief minister Jayalalithaa had insisted that all allies have to contest on her party symbol and the tradition continues. The DMK's MK Stalin followed her lead in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and made his allies stand on his party's symbol.
The DMK has renominated party strongman Durai Murugan’s son Kathir Anand. Durai Murugan has been an MLA nine times, he has been a minister in the DMK government and is currently its treasurer.
There are 28 candidates in the fray but the main contest is between the two rival Dravida parties.
Both the candidates are heavyweights where finances are concerned. Both also run numerous educational institutes.
In the elections conducted in April 2019 the DMK and its allies won 37 of the 38 seats they contested, and the AIADMK won only one.
The election result of Vellore will be known on August 9. If the DMK wins, it will be one more to crow about and if the AIADMK wins it will double their presence in the Lok sabha from one to two.
The party offices of both parties in Vellore were buzzing with activity. There was a large presence of party cadres from all over the state, and particularly from Chennai which is only four hours away.
All of them had cars, mostly SUVs. The parties' district secretaries are the head honchos for election campaign. They were briskly giving instructions to the other district cadres as to where they should go and what they should do. They were also told gently that they should leave on August 3, when campaigning ends.
Vellore has six assembly constituencies: Vellore, Gudiyatham, Anaicut, Vaniyambadi, Kuppam and Ambur which is famous for its biryani.
On July 30, both candidates were campaigning in Gudiyatham.
At around noon there was a lot of activity in Pallikonda village, with AIADMK cadres lining the road with flags. A van arrived with a crowd of women. They were showing their two fingers (for two leaves, the party symbol) out of the window, clearly letting everyone know their allegiance. They got down laughing and giggling noisily. Soon there was a large number or women sitting under a tree, as the menfolk arrived on bikes and on foot.
All wore the trademark veshti with the party colours of black, white and red stripes. We were then joined by party cadres of the Pattali Makkal Katchi and Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam of actor Vijaykanth all waving their flags. There were even two BJP flag-bearers but the AIADMK men were clearly in charge.
An autorickshaw parked nearby was playing movie songs of yesteryear matinee idol and party founder M G Ramachandran. Every little while the songs would stop and we had a recorded voice telling us to vote for AC Shanmugam.
At 1.30 pm a party leader was screaming into his phone above the crowd's noise, “It’s lunch time, you better come soon otherwise people will start going home to eat.” Then he nodded at the crowd and said, “They will be here shortly," even as a young boy was giving out water bottles to the leaders.
On one side of the road is a Gandhi memorial. Outside this one old lady was selling vadas. Next to her, lots of women were sitting and chatting. One young lady asked a party worker, “When will I get the money, I have six tokens,” and her neighbour chimed in, “I have five.”
“Each token is worth 500 rupees,” an old lady told me innocently. The man demanded to see the token. It was a white paper as small as a bus ticket, on it was written one number, ‘6’. The other lady’s token was showing ‘5’ -- all indicating the number of persons they had brought along.
Another more aggressive woman shouted, “I have brought 10 ladies, where is my token?” The man retorted equally angrily, “I asked only 50 people from your village to come, if 500 come you don’t expect me to pay everyone,” before stomping off with, “You will get the money after the candidate leaves,” while another person chimed in, “He is a liar, he won’t pay.”
Rs 500 a person for a street corner meeting was on the higher side. During the elections in April it was Rs 200 a person. “This time it is only cash, last time it was also lunch, water bottle and a quarter (bottle of liquor) for the men,” disclosed a party cadre.
Suddenly there was a burst of activity. Party young men started distributing T-shirts which had the candidate's picture, leaders' pictures and the party symbol. They were also distributing caps and plastic hand fans. Both had the candidate's name and party symbol. Even as you wonder how much all this costs, you realise that both candidates were heavyweights.
Crackers were soon burst signalling the candidate’s impending arrival.
The first to arrive was the open jeep from which candidates canvass. There was a man on the mike informing us that Shanmugam had arrived, even as the candidate got out of his car and a few local leaders greeted him with the traditional ponnadai (shawl).
Then he got onto the open jeep. A man presented him with a Muslim skull cap which he placed firmly on his head. The AIADMK was clearly leaving no stone unturned to woo the Muslim vote which people say has deserted it because of its alliance with the BJP. There are 2.5 lakh Muslim voters in this constituency.
In the April Lok Sabha elections the Indian Jananayaga Katchi's T R Paarivendhar had contested and won the Perambalur seat on the DMK symbol. During his campaign he had promised to give 50 free seats in his engineering college from each of the six assembly constituencies and true to word, he admitted 300 students without fees in his college.
Here in Vellore, the man who was speaking on behalf of Shanmugam announced, “Our candidate will give 100 students from each assembly free education in his engineering college.” He had doubled the Perambalur promise.
“Will Kathir Anand give free seats in his college?” he wanted to know. The DMK candidate has time till August 3 to respond.
One cynic nearby said, “Engineering colleges are closing down for lack of students. He has solved that problem in his college.”
The speaker went on to add, “We will build a multi-speciality hospital here and also free marriage halls. We can make sure that every state government scheme and central government scheme is implemented here,” underlining the fact that they are the ruling party in the state and an ally of the central government in Delhi.
About five km away, on the road to Vellore, the DMK cadres were in full flow. Party flags were going up and people were excited.
At 4 pm the venue started filling up. The place was very crowded as schools get over for the day at that time and the bus stop was filled with students.
There were people waving DMK flags everywhere, so much so you almost missed the lone CPI flag. The major ally, Congress, was conspicuous by its absence.
In both street corner meetings the customary band was in attendance. But what was different here was suddenly you saw a group of young ladies marching down the street with DMK flags. They walked for 100 metres and came back. Next the young men set out with flags and marched up and down.
An open jeep arrived not with the candidate but with a group of party cadres who were announcing the arrival of Udaynidhi Stalin, MK Stalin’s son and former chief minister M Karunanidhi’s grandson. Stalin Jr, an actor, was recently appointed general secretary of the party youth wing. “He will arrive in a short while,” they announced. An old lady grumbled, “They have been saying that for more than an hour now.”
Karunanidhi’s grandson is a third generation leader but not for the DMK. The announcer was saying, “We are here to welcome the fifth generation Dravida leader amongst our midst.”
Which is Periyar, Annadurai, Karunanidhi, Stalin and now Udaynidhi.
Among other grandiose things the speaker also called him a future chief minister -- this when even his father has so far been unable to make it to the gaddi.
There was one more line he spoke that did not sound very welcoming. “He is coming among our midst but people must not come within 20 feet of him. Keep your distance.”
Crackers soon went off signalling the arrival of the young leader.
Udaynidhi arrived on top of an open jeep. He is a film star so is easily recognisable. He had a pleasant smile on his face. The candidate Kathir Anand was standing next to him with a fixed smile. He did not say a word. He was clearly in awe of his young leader.
Udaynidhi spoke with the natural ease of a film star. “I have come here to ask for your votes for the DMK. We have already stopped Modi in 37 constituencies in Tamil Nadu. We have made it clear to them that there is no space for them in Tamil Nadu. After that defeat you think Modi is going to come here to do good for you? He will not.
"We have to teach a lesson to Modi and his two slaves in Tamil Nadu. I don’t need to name the slaves, you already know them. We have to defeat them. Will you?" he asked in a style perfected by Jayalalithaa. “Yes!” roared the crowd.
He waved to the crowd on both sides of the road and also to the people on a terrace nearby.
The crowd thronged his open jeep but nobody tried to touch him, nobody asked to shake hands with him, nobody even tried to take a selfie. The DMK does have disciplined cadres.
The energy level in this meeting was certainly much higher than that at the AIADMK's meeting.
Another fact that we noticed in both meetings was that the party cadres directed traffic during and before the meetings. There were no police present at either meeting. At the Udaynidhi meeting, a police car passed by 10 minutes later.
Both candidates' convoy had a separate SUV for the press. In Udaynidhi’s case there was a TV camera in front of him in another jeep that was permanently focused on him.
The DMK swept the Lok Sabha polls in April, and looks set to capture the last bastion.