The by-election in R. K. Nagar is in the bag for the AIADMK, but the booze and biryani still flow.

BY JAYASHREE ARUNACHALAM

There is a hectic bustle in Chennai’s R. K. Nagar this morning, with residents queuing outside the 230 polling stations. Campaigning officially ended two days ago but some AIADMK workers still linger. “Senior leaders have left but there are still young party members in the area, trying to do last-minute work,” says a fisherman who claims houses in his area received an assortment of food from the party last night.

There’s heavy security: 450 police personnel are on patrol, and six surveillance teams and 23 flying squads have been set up. Two weeks of chaos in R. K. Nagar culminates in today’s vote, with results to be announced on June 30.

When Jayalalithaa was acquitted in May and resumed her chief ministership, the AIADMK MLA of R. K. Nagar, P. Vetrivel, promptly resigned, clearing the way for her to contest in a by-election, the results of which will be announced on June 30.

The selection of R. K. Nagar isn’t surprising. Jayalalithaa has previously contested from Srirangam or Andipatti, but both are large constituencies while R. K. Nagar is one of the smallest. The area has been an AIADMK stronghold since 2001. It has a voting population of about 2.5 lakh of which over 50 per cent are women, who historically have been seen to support Jayalalithaa. It’s an easy decision for what is turning out to be a non-election.

To seal matters even further for the AIADMK, the only other large political party to field a candidate is the CPI, who fronted C. Manoharan, with CPI workers making their way to R. K. Nagar from Salem to campaign. Every other major party—the DMK, BJP, Congress, DMDK, PMK—has bowed out of the election, leaving a total of 28 candidates, 26 of whom are independent. The motley crew includes activist “Traffic” Ramaswamy—who has been frequently seen in the area, at one point with a supporter dressed like Mahatma Gandhi—and Dr K Padmarajan who calls himself the “election king”, having stood for 168 elections and lost them all.

And yet the rites of passage continue in the AIADMK campaign here: canvassing, freebies, party workers filling the streets and tracking down lists of voters. The election might be in the bag, but the spectacle continues.

***

It’s evening on June 25, two days before voting at the Dr Radhakrishnan Nagar (R. K. Nagar) by-elections in north Chennai. A group of young men wearing white shirts and khaki pants are gathered around an autorickshaw behind a tea-shop near Tiruvottiyur High Road, unloading cartons from the vehicle. One of the men uses his thumbnail to rip through the adhesive tape sealing the box and shows me stacks of small glass bottles.

The manufacturers’ labels have been removed but these are quarters of brandy, ready for distribution to the vote bank. All this is part of the seamless operation that has been taking place in this area for the past week.

R. K. Nagar is small and crowded, with twisting, narrow roads and blocks of buildings in bright colours. Residents are predominantly labourers, struggling with twin issues of too much uncleared garbage and too little potable water. Roads are potholed and the area has a history as a centre for crime, with gang wars being common in the 1980s.

Now, AIADMK party workers have descended on the area, going door-to-door to proselytise in the name of Amma. All the members of the Tamil Nadu cabinet visited the area to do the rounds, since that is what is expected of them. Jayalalithaa has visited twice for periods of 10 to 15 minutes each, tucked into the front seat of her sealed vehicle, a light shining on her face as she spoke to people using a microphone, though the CPI’s C. Mahendran and other independent candidates have frequently been in the area.

Shanmugavel is one of the battalion of AIADMK workers who has camped out in R. K. Nagar since June 6, the day after Jayalalithaa filed her nomination papers for the by-election. A seasoned party worker in his 40s, he followed Jayalalithaa during her election trail last May, and he knows precisely what to do.

“We divided the streets into sections, which includes houses, shops and other buildings, and went door-to-door,” he explains. “It is important to make a personal appeal rather than distribute papers or speak from a loudspeaker. We ask specifically how people are and what they do, and we explain how Amma will help them. The next day, someone else will do a follow-up at the house to ensure that no one has been forgotten or left out. We cross-check to make sure all houses are covered.”

This is a microcosm of AIADMK’s routine during last year’s general election, except that this is far less of a contest. A godown in R. K. Nagar is stacked with saris and dhotis, and plastic packets of biryani are brought every evening for distribution. Cash is also liberally handed out along with quarters of liquor. “This is how it’s always done,” Shanmugavel says. “And it is my job to do it this time as well.”

“Amma will win, there is no question this time,” says Muthu, a 23-year-old AIADMK youth worker from nearby Kolathur, who was roped into the carnival at R. K. Nagar. “But our job is to make sure that people are happy.” Muthu spent the first three days of this week accompanying senior workers to houses, distributing flags and photographs of Jayalalithaa. It’s a regular cottage industry of AIADMK paraphernalia, with photos, rings, chains, flags, and hand fans all printed with her face.

Residents of R. K. Nagar are enjoying the attention. Roadwork began as soon as Jayalalithaa’s nomination was filed, though the Election Commission called it off once the opposition protested. AIADMK workers have been handing out bottles of drinking water to some houses, which is the greatest blessing since much of the water in the area is brown from sewage and contaminants.

“Every morning for the past 10 days, an AIADMK worker has come to my house with two water bottles and a packet of food,” says Varshini, who lives with her family of four in a two-room house and works as a housemaid nearby. “No one will take any interest in us after the election so we might as well get as many things as possible now.”

Dinakaran, a construction worker in his 50s, says he has routinely voted for the AIADMK. He shrugs. “Who else is there? Here they are saying we’ll get more Amma canteens and medicine shops, and that there will be no power cuts. We are used to promises but no other politician is offering us anything.”

The CPI has been campaigning as well but their presence is far more low-key. “We obviously do not have the money that other parties have,” says Janardhanan, a CPI worker from Salem who was in Chennai to campaign. “We are hoping we will do well since we are a strong alternative. At least we have raised a candidate! It is disappointing that not a single other party has bothered to have a candidate. They have let down their followers.”

The DMK’s boycott of the election is disappointing to several young DMK workers. “We should have had given some competition at least,” says Sundar, a member of their youth wing. “Maybe then everyone wouldn’t say that the election has already been won.”

Karunanidhi had hinted that democracy wouldn’t be a part of these by-elections in any case, and that the DMK would hold on for Assembly elections next year.

 

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