Dusk is setting in a village on the outskirts of Salem when a section of the busy highway leading into the city comes to life. Bright tubelights light up fluttering party flags. The highway connects three of Tamil Nadu’s top six urban agglomerations in an arc. Two middle-aged men are waiting for M.K. Stalin, the DMK’s heir-apparent, to pass by on a canvassing tour. One of them, a DMK supporter, thinks that party ought to come to power because Jayalalitha has had her five years in office. However, he adds, with a shrug and a laugh, “There’s no difference between them really.”
Casual cynicism of that sort is inescapable in a state where the DMK and AIADMK have ruled by turns for the past 25 years. It’s much the same in this northern region, which is gearing up for a close fight between the big two, with Anbumani Ramadoss’s Pattali Makkal Katchi too holding considerable sway, especially in places like Dharmapuri.
Across Tamil Nadu, many would say Jayalalitha doesn’t face the kind of visible anger that routed the DMK in 2011. Then, it was chiefly a dire power supply situation coupled with the 2G scam taint that did the DMK in. But there’s some degree of anti-incumbency this time around. “She has changed her candidates seven times. It is out of fear,” says Pala Karuppiah, 73, a writer and former AIADMK legislator who was thrown out of the party in January for criticising it in public functions, a grave sin as far as the AIADMK is concerned. “If the opposition parties were united, they will lead hands down. During the parliamentary elections there were three fronts and Jayalalitha won easily. She expects the same thing in this assembly election also,” he says. “But I don’t know. If the anti-incumbency votes are strong then she will lose.”
Says K. Pandiarajan, the AIADMK candidate from Avadi, an industrial hub near Chennai. “This is the first time in Tamil Nadu’s history that a large party is contesting all seats on its own symbol. I think it shows phenomenal self-confidence in the welfare schemes that have been implemented and the developmental projects we have undertaken. We are hoping to sweep the election.”
Retired bureaucrat M.G. Devasahayam feels the anti-incumbency mood is much broader. “It’s anti-incumbency not just against the ruling party, but the past ruling party also. That’s the fundamental difference this time,” he says. This explains why People’s Welfare Front, a grouping of six regional parties fronted by actor-turned-politician Vijayakanth, fancies its chances, as does the PMK, also going solo. Ramadoss is, of course, also battling the perception that his party is a caste-based outfit.
Industrial investment has been low in Tamil Nadu in the last five years, says V.G. Ramakrishnan, MD, Avanteum Advisors, adding that the state has lost some of its leadership in the auto space, primarily because of the nagging power situation, which eased up in the last couple of years. “Quite a few companies, which would have ideally invested in the state, moved out. Today, the situation is no better because it has coincided with the cycle of lower investments globally,” he says. “Now, if the state can put together its policy and implementation, it can bring in investments in the next wave.” However, the AIADMK’s Pandiarajan, better known as MaFoi Pandiarajan after the HR firm he started, says provident fund data for the last five years shows TN has brought in an additional 1.08 crore people under PF coverage, much higher than the country’s average. The state’s per capita income, he says, is currently around Rs 10,750 a month, much higher than in the previous government’s term, and indicating economic growth. “It’s not mere sloganeering, there’s concrete evidence in terms of industry and agriculture,” he asserts.
The DMK believes it has clawed back some support with M.K. Stalin’s much-vaunted outreach programme Namakku Naame over the past year, which saw him undergo an image makeover designed to appeal to the youth. In places like Salem, for instance, where the AIADMK did well in 2011, Stalin has been speaking about setting up a textile park and an auto town. “Where is the MSME cluster and the 10,000 jobs promised by the chief minister?” he asks.
Election material on sale at a shop in Chennai
But not all are taken in. “Neither is talking about jobs. All they talk about is giving things free...free wifi, free laptops...,” says Selva, a mechanical engineering student in Coimbatore who doesn’t fancy any party, but whose family has always voted DMK. There are dozens of engineering colleges in the vicinity and Selva is concerned that his degree alone isn’t going to guarantee him a good job. Besides, it’s also common to hear complaints about how freebies like mixers and fans which the AIADMK distributed didn’t last too long. Gopinath, who works for a private firm in Vellore, says there are two televisions at home (one given by the government in 2006) which, he jokes, keeps the peace when television serials are on in the evening. The fan and mixer the AIADMK distributed is working, but there’s not much use for the grinder when its easier to get the job done for Rs 10 at the local mill.
Ironically, the DMK, which started the trend of handing poll gifts when they distributed colour TVs to every poor household in 2006, has now changed tack. “What we understood from Stalin’s (statewide) tour last year is that people don’t want freebies, they want development. That’s why we did not announce freebies,” says DMK spokesman T.K.S. Elangovan. For the record, the DMK’s election manifesto promises smartphones for poor families and data connections for students. “The freebies given by Amma have not reached people, except one or two things like Unavagam (canteen),” claims Elangovan.
It’s a little after noon, and people are trickling in through the gates of an Amma Unavagam in central Chennai. Under a large, shady tree in the middle of the driveway Chandran, a homeless person, squats down to a meal of lemon rice and ‘sambar-sadam’ that cost him Rs 10. He’s one of the early birds; by the time he’s done, many more are file into the government-run canteen. A few fromally dressed office-goers carrying backpacks ride in on motorcycles; other dhoti-clad lunchers cycle in. Siva Ammaiyappan, a 70-year-old retired headmaster is loathe to bring politics into a post-prandial chat, but the former Tamil teacher would give the canteen initiative full marks, actually 110 out of 100.
‘Amma’, or Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha, reminds voters of much the same at her massive election rallies, where she reads out lengthy report cards of promises kept. She’s doing what the AIADMK hasn’t ever done before, even when its charismatic founder MGR was alive: going all out for Tamil Nadu’s 234 assembly seats on her party’s two-leaf symbol (just seven seats have been allotted to minor allies).
But even as she rides into battle wearing an armour forged out of Tamil Nadu’s famed populist schemes, her massed foes would target the gaping chinks opened up by the sorely disaffected.
By Ajay Sukumaran in coimbatore, Salem and Chennai