An anti-Modi mood, intense social media propaganda, deep caste allegiances and cash for votes has gripped Theni constituency
“Four of our village students who scored more than 1000 marks, were unable to make it to medical college due to NEET,” said Nadarajan (52) a weaver from T Subbulapuram in Andipatti taluk.
In this village, famous for its Khadi products, Nadarajan and his friends were engaged in serious discussions on poll promises proposed by various political parties in fray, holding tea glasses in one hand and a Tamil daily in the other.
“We want our children to move up the social ladder through education, but now NEET has dashed our dreams,” said the villagers who became aware of the state-wide protests held against NEET in late 2017 thanks to social media messages flooding their phones.
Thanks to affordable smart phones and cheap mobile data, rural Tamil Nadu is up to date on political developments and they know exactly what each political party has promised in its manifesto.
A new trend is perceptible. In previous elections, rural voters voted for candidates based on their allegiance to either of the two Dravidian majors. In 2019 though, most of the people that this reporter interacted with, expressed their anguish over what they called “anti-poor policy” of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In the pastoral farmlands of Theni parliamentary constituency, an anti-Modi mood is evident.
About 50 kilometers away from T Subbulapuram, in an agricultural field near S Chitrapatti village, a few women farm labourers display an indifferent attitude to politics. One of them commented: “Vidinja kaadu Pozhudhaanaa veedu” (In the dawn we are in the field and by dusk we are at home). “We will vote as per the advice of elders in the village,” she said, evading a direct reply as to her political preference.
When it was pointed out to them that this constituency (Assembly constituency of Andipatti) has the distinction of having elected AIADMK leaders like late Chief Ministers MG Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa, the women responded spontaneously with a tinge of sadness.
“Amma was like a god….we are helpless after her demise. Today many of our children are going to school because of the welfare scheme she had implemented for the benefits of subalterns,” they said in unison.
When asked if they had not benefited from the BJP rule, the party which has allied with AIADMK, farm labourer Sathiya (40) shot back: “Are not you aware of student Anitha’s death because of NEET? The poor girl had sacrificed her life to abolish NEET.”
The other women joined her saying – “We all watched the entire episode through mobile while working in the field. We don’t want the same thing to happen to our girl children,” the labourers said, adding that this time they want a political change at the national level.
Anti-Modi Mood Deep South
NEET, coupled with other issues such as demonetisation, LPG users’ complaint against non-receipt of subsidy amount in banks, unemployment, price rise of basic commodities and fertilizers, has had a deep impact among rural voters in Theni parliament constituency.
Most farmers accused Modi as ‘anti-farmer’ who did not even bother to spent a few minutes to listen to their grievances when they conducted a ‘naked protest’ in New Delhi last year. They say the Prime Minister had spent most of his time visiting foreign countries instead.
It is precisely this mood which has given an edge to Congress candidate, EVKS Elangovan, a parachuted candidate who is not local.
Theni constituency has been, thus far, an AIADMK bastion, nurtured by TTV Dhinakaran, deputy general secretary of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK).
Bodinayakanur in Theni district is the Assembly constituency in which Deputy Chief Minister and AIADMK Coordinator O Panneerselvam is the sitting MLA. His son P Raveendranath Kumar, is the AIADMK’s candidate for Theni Lok Sabha seat.
He is facing a disadvantage as TTV has fielded his trusted lieutenant and former Andipatti MLA Thanga Tamilselvan in the constituency.
While many voters in the constituency have a soft corner for Dhinakaran – as they recalled his contribution to renovation of temples, schools and village community halls when he represented the Periyakulam Lok Sabha constituency in 1999 (Theni Lok Sabha constituency was formed in 2008, following delimitation) – his lieutenant Tamilselvan, who is a Piramalai Kallar, is likely to split the Mukkulathor community votes that hitherto went en masse to the AIADMK.
The Mukkulathor community, comprising the Maravar, Kallar and Agamudayar groups, is collectively known as ‘Thevar’, who form nearly 25% of the 6,08,170 voters in the constituency. OPS’ son Raveendranath Kumar belongs to the Maravar clan that has an 8% vote share against the 14% of Piramalai Kallars. “OPS had betrayed our community person (Thanga Tamilselvan). We will teach him a fitting lesson this time,” said Aathi, a farmer from Uppukottai village in Bodinayakanur block.
Aathi showed the Facebook post of his 12-year-old son to illustrate the popularity the AMMK candidate enjoys among Piramalai Kallar. “Our youth are dead set against AIADMK,” he claimed.
Members of other dominant castes and Dalits, particularly the youth have developed a dislike towards Raveendranath Kumar after his community-oriented speech went viral during the election campaign. “It is not the question of whether he spoke this during election time. He might have spoken on some occasion, but it reflected what was on his mind,” said a group of youth who belongs to a Telugu-speaking linguistically minority community.
Referring to Muthuramalinga Thevar (a freedom fighter from southern Tamil Nadu appropriated by the Thevar community as a symbol of caste pride) as their cultural capital, OPS’ son Raveendranath Kumar narrated a fictitious story relating three clans of Mukkulathor to Tamil Kings of Chera, Chola and Pandya dynasty in a speech sometime in March 2018.
Raveendranath referred to Agamudayar groups as descendants of Cherar kings; Kallars as Cholas who constructed the Thanjavur Periya Kovil or Bruhadeeswarar Temple; and indirectly referred to Maravars (the caste to which he belongs) as Pandiyas, who constructed the Meenakshi Amman temple and ruled Madurai.
Though the allocation of the ‘gift-pack’ symbol for AMMK was initially seen as a disadvantage to its party candidate, middle-aged and young voters have become familiar with the symbol.
“If people had voted for Cooker symbol in RK-Nagar by-election, why will they not vote for Gift-Pack symbol,” asks Madhan (27) voter of Rajathani village near Andipatti.
60-year-old Kongiamma near Devaram town said though she was confused with the symbol initially, she got it clarified when Tamilselvan and his supports came with Gift-Pack symbol for seeking votes.
The strong community attachment of Piramalai Kallars might also divide the vote bank of DMK as some people in the community decide to vote for TTV. “I will vote for DMK, but have asked my sons to vote for AMMK,” said Saroja, a fish vendor.
Minority & Dalit Votes To DMK-Congress
However the minority votes (nearly 20% of Dalits, 8-9% Muslim, 4% Christians), who feel that the re-election of Modi would be a threat to their existence, would go for the DMK-Congress alliance.
“We feel hurt when BJP leaders make statements that Muslims should leave this country and go to Pakistan. What they fail to understand is that our ancestors are not from Pakistan, we belong to this country and our forefathers were from some caste group or the other,” said Zakir Hussian, a businessman from Cumbum. The same views are held by many members of the Muslim community, spread across Uthampalayam and Periyakulam.
Dalits from Kottur and Seelayampatti villages were deeply hurt by the lynching of Dalits by Hindutva forces in the north. “We can’t tolerate such incidents in our country,” said a group of Dalits.
Though Congress candidate Elangovan emphasised that he is a grand-nephew of Dravidan movement leader EVR Periyar during the election campaign, a section of Telugu speaking Naidu, Kamma and Naicker communities want to elect him this time because he belongs to their own caste.
Show Me The Money!
With Raveendranath Kumar facing opposition from various quarters, the AIADMK has started distributing money among voters to win over them. When this reporter visited B Dharmathupatti village near Bodi, women voters approached him asking whether he had come to distribute money in the second round.
When enquired, a woman voter Lakshmi (60) from the village said that the AIADMK functionaries had distributed Rs 200 for most of the voters in this area and asked them to vote for OPS’ son. “They assured us to give more money in the next round that is close to the election,” said the villagers.
Women voters who used to seek refugee with iconic figure Jayalalithaa until the last election, are now feeling helpless. Some are confused about who to vote for this time. “We are trying to win those voters to our side by distributing money,” said a senior AIADMK functionary on the request of anonymity.
But the common complaint of the people in the constituency was on the postponement of the local body elections indefinitely. With no local bodies in place, people are finding it difficult to resolve their everyday problems like water and sanitation among others.
But despite local issues dominating the elections, many voters were eagerly waiting to hear Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi later in the week.