Making a clear distinction of the demography with imagery, a giant statue of Muthuramalinga Thevar, a popular leader of the Thevar community, encased in a structure resembling a temple overlooks the Kovilpatti bus station. Thevars are a dominant community here. The statue covered in unblemished glass, like a priceless possession, has an additional protective layer of iron mesh to guard against vandalism that could fan caste tension in the area.
As the smell of deeply-fried fresh puris and bajjis waft through the bus stop, two campaign vehicles of the CPI(M) and the ruling AIADMK cross each other. The high decibel songs and announcements from both vehicles cause a dissonance, which does not seem to bother the waiting crowd.
The frequency of the campaign vehicles buzzing through the streets with blaring speakers sets the tone of the intense battle in the region with a significant Thevar population. The reason: TTV Dinakaran, founder of the AMMK, who pulled off a spectacular feat by winning the 2017 bye-poll in RK Nagar, has decided to contest against sitting MLA and Information and Publicity Minister Kadambur Raju of the AIADMK in Kovilpatti.
It's a three-cornered fight between TTV, Raju and K Srinivasan of the CPI(M), which is part of the DMK-led Secular Progressive alliance. Kovilpatti is a town in Thoothukudi district that is previously known for matchstick making units. With automation replacing labour, a large number of employees relying on this occupation have made a shift to agriculture and work as farm labourers. Presently, the industrial town is known for kadalai mittai or peanut brittle. The constituency has 2,64,900 voters.
While Kovilpatti faces a major drinking water shortage and the slow pace of construction of the Ilayarasanendhal subway has irked people, the election is going to be fought on caste lines, say residents.
"Drinking water is a huge problem. The conflict between the municipality and the state government has deprived us of water,” says Murugesan, a hotel owner. The AMMK had emerged successful in the 2019 local body elections with 13 of its councillors being elected to the Kayathar panchayat union, which is one of the two unions in Kovilpatti. The AIADMK had managed to win only one seat while the DMK won two seats in the same union.
Murugesan adds, “Even the roads... The road near Ilayarasanendhal is so bad. If someone is ill, no vehicle can reach there. People have to carry them manually on stretchers. This has been highlighted many times.”
As the conversation veers towards the popularity of the Kovilpatti candidates, Murugesan, says, "This election is a contest of dominance between the two communities (Thevars and Naickers)." Murugesan, who belongs to the Thevar community, coincidentally runs a hotel right opposite the Muthuramalinga Thevar statue.
The sitting MLA Kadambur Raju is from the Naicker community. In the 2016 Assembly election, he had managed to just scrape through, defeating his DMK opponent by a razor thin margin of 428 votes.
Statue of Muthuramalinga Thevar
Ponnuchamy, another shopkeeper, joins the conversation and says, "Politics in Kovilpatti is always centred around caste, and this time it is no different." He believes that the recent delimitation of the constituency has given an advantage to TTV Dhinakaran as Thevars are now numerically strong.
The polarisation due to the caste dynamics is evident in the constituency. Youngsters like 22-year-old Kumar allege that Thevars have been discriminated against, and elections are their opportunity to prove their dominance.
Kumar, a resident of Inam Maniyachi village, alleges, "There has been serious discrimination, particularly against us. The Naicker dominated villages like Srinivas Nagar, Suba Nagar, Indira Nagar get prompt help on all fronts while we continue to face problems. Our village has a major drinking water problem. Water supply is only once in 10 days. And all our pleas to the Minister had no effect.”
"The Minister cannot step into our village seeking votes," Kumar says.
While the AIADMK legislator has the support of the Nadars and Naickers, the anti-incumbency factor may be a stumbling block. The Information and Publicity Minister has been representing the constituency for a decade since 2011.
Sudalai Muthu, who runs a retail store a few metres from the Kovilpatti bus stop, however, alleges, "There's no major grievance against the MLA. He enjoys the goodwill of all the shopkeepers for helping us out against harassment by the police, who cause a ruckus even if there's a minor delay in closing the shop.”
“But how can he be of help if the DMK comes to power in the state? His victory would mean nothing," he observes, referring to the pre-poll surveys that predict a unanimous victory for the DMK alliance.
CPI(M)'s Srinivasan is also a popular candidate, having been councillor and municipal chairman. He also leads a matchstick union. Having earned goodwill for making the right interventions when somebody seeks his help makes him an ideal candidate across communities, say residents. "He's a good man and an accessible leader. But the money factor might ruin his chances I think,” says Selvam, a hardware retailer. He notes, "Though this constituency was traditionally a Left stonghold, the politics has changed a lot in the last two decades. Ippolam kaasu dhaan ellamme (Only money works these days).”
The CPI has represented the constituency seven out of 15 times. Along with the support of labour union leaders, and the backing of the DMK and MDMK, which had polled nearly 29,000 votes in 2016, Srinivasan is expected to put up a tough fight against his more high-profile rivals.