Inconsequential to the state government yet fought fiercely – the effort of many aspirants to establish themselves as Jayalalithaa’s ‘true political heir’ makes R.K. Nagar a key by-poll.
Candidate: E. Madhusudhanan
Party: All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK, Puratchi Thalaivi Amma)
Age: 75 years
A papier mâché streetlight model hangs high over K. Pandiarajan, the charismatic voice of the O. Panneerselvam (OPS) faction of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). This is their new symbol for the R.K. Nagar by-poll, which has been scheduled for April 12. The ‘electric pole’ symbol came about when the ruling party split in the wake of J. Jayalalithaa’s death and Panneerselvam’s subsequent ouster as chief minister in February this year.
Scampering for a pamphlet of the manifesto with tables tipping over, the promised schemes are read out with a conviction in Pandiarajan’s voice. “A new manifesto for a new generation. For the first time in India, we have a mobile MLA app where people can voice grievances,” he exclaims, the fifth mention of the scheme reducing his voice to a drawl. The faction’s 75-year-old candidate, however, has just started finding his way around a smartphone.
After 30 years of not having contested a single election, Madhusudhanan is back. Known to rub shoulders with bigwigs in the R.K. Nagar area and enjoying a local following, the tremor in his hands are visible and his feet drag along in an effort to keep up with his weary body. Reeling from the Sasikala faction dethroning him from the post of presidium chairman of the party, he rubbishes the family’s legitimacy. “The reason why I could barely contest or be an active participant in politics is because of (Sasikala’s family). They asked me for sand one day, water the next day, cement the day after that. They wanted me to steal,” he recounted.
OPS, he proudly says, has given him a new lease of life. “Who is Sasikala? Who is T.T.V. Dhinakaran? Amma had not made him anything. He is not a member of AIADMK. He has no right,” he shot back, on being questioned about his sacking from the party. “Do you see Sasikala’s picture anywhere in T.T.V. Dhinakaran’s campaigns? We wear OPS’s name proudly. What does that say?”
Both the rivalling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party and the Sasikala faction had accused OPS & co. of asking for an enquiry into late Jayalalithaa’s death only after Panneerselvam had been ousted. “Well, we couldn’t see Amma for 25 days. They didn’t show us. At her funeral, the Sasikala family had the audacity to stand close to her, along with their benami Thambidurai (AIADMK MP and Lok Sabha deputy speaker) and Vijay Bhaskar (health minister),” Madhusudhanan says.“Of course we are suspicious.”
He had earned the Election Commission’s ire after first submitting an affidavit clearing Sasikala of all corruption charges in a case filed in the Madras high court – and then alleging corruption and bending of the rules after he switched sides. “Karunanidhi was close to MGR but he turned against him after he saw his character. I did the same.” This is Madhusudhanan’s explanation for the U-turn, referring to former chief minister and actor M.G. Ramachandran.
“When I first entered, MGR asked me to see Amma and be with her. When this family entered, they would erase people close to Amma, including me. Thirunavukkarasu, Raghunathan and Selvaganapathy were all wiped out by the mafia,” he claims.
Madhusudhanan is an old timer in the locality. He knows most of his older voters by name and teases them as he campaigns. The constituency has a sizeable population of native Telugu settlers and Madhusudhanan is one of them.
The anger and conspiracy theories over Jayalalithaa’s untimely death have both spilled over in R.K. Nagar. “Amma was our uyir (life),” says 35-year-old R. Vasantha, a resident of Netaji Nagar. “She was killed by the Sasikala family. We have voted only for Amma. She was more important to us than our own father and mother. We will vote for Panneerselvam.”
Her neighbour S. Esakki, 40, a homemaker, agrees. “I like Panneerselvam’s panivu (humility),” she added. Raasathi cannot remember her age but she recalls Madhusudhanan’s stint as MLA. “At least he did some good things for the constituency. After him, no one has bothered about us. I will vote for Madhusudhanan,” she says.
But as the campaign gets into high gear, the OPS faction is showing signs of desperation. To widespread disgust, a replica of Jayalalithaa’s body was fitted onto the front of a campaign van on April 6. It was a last ditch attempt to stoke the electorate’s sentiments over Jayalalithaa’s death. Party seniors claim they were not aware of this and condemned the move, which it blamed on an “enthusiastic worker”. But in the process, they have revealed they are not above scraping the bottom of the political barrel, either.
Candidate: T.T.V. Dhinakaran
Party: All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK, Amma)
Age: 53 years
Dhinakaran has sunscreen lotion smeared all over his face as he clambers up on to the modified auto-rickshaw fitted with loudspeakers for his campaign. He is all smiles and folds his hands appropriately in a vanakkam (salute) at the electorate.
His speeches do not differ widely. “These traitors and bad eggs are trying to ruin Amma’s party,” he says. “Do not fall for them. We are the true legacy of Amma. I will complete all the work that Amma would have done for this constituency had she been alive,” he promises.
Dhinakaran is careful about whom he speaks with. The hat symbol is his for this election and he wears it with a grin. When asked for an interview, he smiles and says, “Yes, yes.” But he is unapproachable, surrounded by privately hired security personnel who don’t even let questions near him.
A Lok Sabha MP from 1999 to 2004, elected from the Periyakulam constituency with the help of none other than Panneerselvam, Dhinakaran is well-known in the Theni area for his work as a lawmaker. But in R.K. Nagar, he is viewed with suspicion, even disdain.
In the first week of campaigning, crowds did not follow Dhinakaran the way they had for Jayalalithaa. They showed up in the second week – from out of town. Tamil Nadu’s health minister Vijay Bhaskar was seen frantically running on the roads of Hari Narayanapuram, attempting to mitigate the traffic. An announcer was at the microphone set up with loudspeakers: “Pudukottai cadre, please help regulate the traffic. See, the minister himself is doing it. Please organise yourselves and allow the traffic to move.”
Local residents sat around looking bored at the drama unfolding before them. “Enna angittu, ingittu (What, here and there),” sniggered a couple of young women, both residents of Hari Narayanapuram, sitting on the sidewalk. They were mocking the Pudukottai slang alien to that part of Chennai.
Dhinakaran has his task cut out if he is to win R.K. Nagar. Two Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) cases from 1996 hang over his head. He has challenged a court order to pay a fine of Rs 28 crore in these cases.
Worse, the rank and file of the party is upset and angry over the party having been taken over by V.K. Sasikala and her family. While many walk alongside Dhinakaran’s van, they are reluctant. When The Wire asked some of them about Dhinakaran, they said, “Who is he? We are still with the party because of our love for Amma. We don’t know whether he will win or not.”
Dhinakaran may have 122 MLAs on his side, enough to hang on to power by a slender majority in the 234-strong House – but for him, the battle has only just begun.
Candidate: Maruthu Ganesh
Party: Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)
Age: 42 years
Battle has also been joined by the DMK and its new acting president, M.K. Stalin, who needs a show of strength.
They are betting on a horse called N. Maruthu Ganesh. At Korukkupettai, Ganesh is only too happy to answer questions, being a first time candidate. “It is only outside the constituency that people do not know me, but within the constituency I am welcomed. Since I live here as one among the constituents, I know what their needs are and what their problems are,” he says, beaming.“During the interview for selecting the candidate I impressed upon Thalapathy (Stalin’s moniker) that even if he did not give the candidacy to me, he should give it to a person who hails from the same constituency. This will make victory easier. Since 1980, not one person hailing from this constituency has ever been selected to contest the polls, and that is the same reason why the problems facing the people here have not been solved as yet. I was happily surprised when the ticket for the polls was given to me.”
Ganesh knows every nook and corner of this constituency because he once covered it for the Tamil daily Dinakaran. “When I was a reporter, not only did I report news but I took part in several social welfare projects. Now as an advocate too I continue my work for the people here and this has endeared me to the people of this constituency. Not only that, I have represented the party and held demonstrations to highlight the problems of the people of this constituency. Such acts of mine are helping me in this election,” he says.
Another strength for Ganesh is his mother Parvathy Narayanaswamy, a ward councillor in the area between 2006 and 2011. She had won the ‘Best Councillor’ award during her tenure. The DMK is confident of a win, especially because they possess the iconic ‘rising sun’ symbol while the opposition is not only fragmented but has lost the familiar ‘two leaves’ symbol of the AIADMK. Introducing Ganesh to the people, DMK deputy general secretary Duraimurugan said, “All these years this constituency may have been the fortress of the AIADMK, but from now on this constituency will become the fortress of the DMK.”
The wild cards
Candidate: Gangai Amaran
Party: Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
Age: 69 years
With his hair slicked back and a half smile, the BJP’s celebrity candidate Gangai Amaran pulls up in an SUV and sprints to his door for a quick lunch. “Didn’t he bring any protection?” asks Selvam, his neighbour. No entourage either, all signs of a first-time campaigner. Photo ops await him in his home, adorned with Ganesha idols and incense cones in every crevice.
His pristine white coat with the BJP’s lotus symbol doesn’t fit. His palms cupped, he bends forward to receive the customary blessing, the Gayatri mantra playing in the background.
A music director often viewed as second fiddle to his brother, the legendary music composer Ilaiyaraaja, Amaran waxes poetic with his couplets and haikus for an audience of two.
“I was born in a small village in Theni into a family of labourers. My first love for politics [goes] back to when P. Varadarajan, from the Communist party, went on a campaign run. On hearing his speeches I knew I had to stand up for the oppressed,” he recalls. As a result, his work as a music director has subconsciously revolved around villages, labourers, livestock breeding and farming. His past and his social standing have followed him through most of his life.
BJP, according to Amaran, was a natural choice for his political foray, which has so far spanned four years. Smitten by the party’s anti-corruption pitch and the third alternative claim it holds in the state, Amaran had forgone his caste identity – that of a Dalit – to the surprise of many. “I realised that I wanted to join a party which was free from corruption and dynasty politics. I am thankful to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. All the people in this constituency need change,” he said.
Amaran was likely chosen by the BJP with a specific purpose in mind: the emotional atmosphere in the R.K. Nagar by-poll surrounding the death of Jayalalithaa. Amaran had testified against Sasikala in the disproportionate assets case, for which Sasikala is currently in prison. He had been elated by the conviction of both Jayalalithaa and Sasikala, and asserted that his political debut had little to do with what he terms his personal problem. But then Amaran makes the personal the political: “There are many people in Mannargudi and Thanjavur and Theni who have had their land snatched away from them and extorted. I am standing up for those who have gone through the same thing. I am making a point, yes,” he says.
Winning an election in R.K. Nagar won’t lead to control over the state but it’s a point of prestige. Emotion and money run high in a constituency ridden with debt. But Amaran dodges the emotion question, gunning straight for the AIADMK’s silence in the face of multiple allegations of corruption. “The schemes (the people were promised) were not implemented. They have not done anything except swallow the money that was supposed to be for the environment and infrastructure.”
Candidate: J. Deepa
Age: 43 years
After Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5, 2016, inconsolable voters and her ardent followers wanted her niece J. Deepa to take her place in the party. Deepa Madhavan, who realised the value of being a blood relative of the late political queen, began to call herself Deepa Jayakumar and, later, J. Deepa. And despite being a political novice, she has jumped into the electoral fray in R.K. Nagar.
As the two AIADMK factions campaign day and night, lashing out at each other, as the DMK works tirelessly to ensure a victory and as even the BJP walks from door to door to canvass for votes, Deepa is missing in action. Despite being the first person to announce that she would run for R.K. Nagar, she was the last of the candidates to show up in the area.
A small introductory meeting in Tondiarpet was to begin at 5 pm. The media had been invited. A large and curious crowd had gathered to see Amma’s niece. Deepa finally arrived at 9 pm along with ten bodyguards. She was dressed similarly to Jayalalithaa and walked onto the dais to introduce her poll symbol – a boat. By this time, half the crowd had melted away tired of waiting.
“We need justice for Jayalalithaa’s death, please vote for the boat symbol and make it win. We should also rescue the party that was nurtured by Jayalalithaa,” said Deepa. She spoke for 15 minutes and then sped away in her car. As she was leaving, she was asked what her chances of winning were. “I am welcomed in the constituency and I will see to it that all the other candidates lose their deposit,” she said, displaying an astonishing confidence. “The people from this constituency have utmost faith in me and that has made me stand for the election and I am sure that they will make me win.” This – after speaking for 15 minutes on stage preceded by a four-hour delay.
Voters in R.K. Nagar don’t miss her striking similarity to Jayalalithaa. “She looks just like Amma, the same colour. Even the colour of her eyes are the same as that of Amma” – comments like these are easy to come by, especially from women.
Deepa in turn appears to be following in her aunt’s footsteps even before her political career has taken off. On the first day of campaigning, Deepa got into her vehicle, swarmed by security personnel, at 8 am from Korukkuppettai, smiling at everyone outside with folded hands. Only two women were allowed near her, one of them to hold an umbrella over her head. She toured in the vehicle for 10 minutes and then got into her air-conditioned car for 15 minutes of rest, followed by 10 more minutes of campaigning and a 15-minute break. Four to five such cycles, and that’s it for the day.
When asked about this schedule, Deepa told The Wire, “I am canvassing like all the other candidates. I walk on the streets, meet the people and there is a good response from them.”
Women though do gather around Deepa in large numbers. They cry when they see her. “Deepa is a blood relative of our Amma. We see Amma in Deepa. They killed Amma in the hospital. Only Deepa can get justice for Amma. We will vote for her and make her win,” they say.
However, some of them are also frustrated: though all other candidates start campaigning in the morning, Deepa comes to the constituency only at 8 pm. “Such actions are reducing her popularity among the voters day by day,” laments one of her supporters.
Recently, Deepa’s husband Madhavan floated a new party of his own. The move hasn’t helped Deepa. “They are using my husband to threaten and subdue me. They will never succeed. I am not scared of them. They are saying bad things about me to the people and trying to change their minds. It will never happen. R.K. Nagar people are going to make T.T.V Dhinakaran and O. Paneerselvam’s candidate Madhusudhanan lose this election,” Deepa maintains confidently.
She is not likely to win this by-poll. She is not even likely to come second. But what she and the BJP’s Gangai Amaran could effectively do is to help the DMK win by further splitting the already fractured AIADMK vote-bank.