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The Heat Is On
At about 40 degrees Celsius and 80 per cent humidity just past noon, there isn’t a single spot of shade in the entire rally ground in the town of Namakkal. People are passing out. In stark contrast, the leaders we are tracking, in this case, Tamil Nadu CM J. Jayalalitha, barely feel the temperature: alighting from helicopters, they are driven up to the stage, where two massive pillar airconditioners keep the heat at bay. One has to wonder if the Election Commission, which comes up with enough reasons—from school exams to harvest season—to insist that general elections be held over a two-month period in April and May, has any idea what the gruelling schedule means for the electorate and its representatives. I wonder why the EC doesn’t legislate rally timings better. Instead of allowing rallies in the peak hours of the sun and ordering loudspeakers shut off at 10 pm when it is relatively cooler, shouldn’t they do it the other way around? Or maybe the politicians should let people watch their speeches on the free TVs and laptops every government in Tamil Nadu has handed out instead of herding them into rally grounds. That may even prove to be an incentive to provide electricity to them! Thankfully, the organisers have at least been kind to animals. At each rally, Jayalalitha is welcomed by two elephants that shake their heads and trumpet her arrival. It takes me a couple of minutes to realise they are mechanical elephants that are taken from rally to rally, not real ones.
To The Ramparts
Is Jayalalitha making a pitch for prime minister this time? Speculation was sparked off when she chose to contest the elections alone—a first for the AIADMK. Fuelling the speculation was the party’s slogan of ‘Tamil prathamar aagavendum (We want a Tamil PM)’, and the songs that entertain the crowds waiting for Amma—all speaking of her as PM. Even the giant cutouts at the rally drive home the message of ‘Chalo Dilli’: the Red Fort, India Gate and Parliament House are all recreated here. But Jayalalitha makes no mention of such ambitions in her speeches. Most analysts reckon the PM mentions are simply a ploy to energise the AIADMK cadres in an election with few other issues. Others point to the fact that the Thalaivi would be uncomfortable even living in Delhi. She seldom leaves the state and, when she must, almost always flies back the same day. Her last trip abroad was in the late ’80s. This time around, she’s also cut herself off from the media, the same that endlessly waits at her Poes Garden residence or follows her rallies seeking an answer to that prime question.
Money For Nothing, Mixies For Free
As we head down the Southern Grand Trunk Road, I remark to my colleague how I had seen more hoardings and buntings in Kandahar in February (two months before the Afghan election) than I had seen in Tamil Nadu—and it was just weeks to polling day! The EC is the common villain for this in every leader’s speeches. While Jayalalitha rails against the EC’s clubbing of campaign expenses, the DMK and others protest the election commissioner’s reported statement that door-to-door campaigning could continue till midnight, saying it would encourage bribing of voters on the eve of elections. No one, however, wants to ban the most blatant bribery—the promises of freebies made at every speech: from laptops, cycles and mixer-grinders to cows, gold and free grain.
Food, The Great Leveller
The EC is also unable to counter the impact of one of Jayalalitha’s most visible welfare schemes—the eponymously named ‘Amma Unavagam’ or Amma canteens. This is an impressive project that offers subsidised, good quality food—Rs 1 idlis, Rs 3 for sambhar-rice cooked by women’s cooperatives and served through the canteens that dot cities like Chennai and Coimbatore. Inflation has impacted all, and I am surprised to meet well-heeled professionals eating at tables alongside the labourers and security guards. The most popular speciality: north Indian chapatis and dal, for Rs 5 a plate. All photographs of the CM have been covered over now that the model code of conduct is in place, but of course, her name is everywhere—in Tamil Nadu, there is one and only one ‘Amma’.
First Degree Coffee!
Practically the only other constant brand on the well-maintained state highways is that of ‘Only coffee’ or ‘Kumbakonam Degree filter coffee’ chains. You practically need a degree in coffee-making to get the coffee this perfect, but that’s not why it is called ‘degree coffee’. Some insist it refers to the temperature of the milk, others hazard that it signifies the angle at which the coffee is poured. Most likely it means coffee in the “first degree” of purity: referring to the cumbersome process of filtering the beans with coffee and chicory blended (80%-20%) in a double filter, mixed with boiling fresh milk, and then served in the traditional ‘Kumbakonam’ brass tumbler-dawara. During election time, while journalists in other places try to ‘read the tea leaves’, in Tamil Nadu one must ‘wake up and smell the coffee’.
Delhi-based Suhasini Haidar is foreign affairs editor at CNN-IBN