With fine dust swirling up in the sharp summer winds, a faint smell of the greenish neem blossom pervades the air. This is summer in Madurai. But this season, there’s stifling heat not just in the air but also in the district’s political arena.
With Madurai, the burgeoning central Tamil Nadu city, heading for Lok Sabha elections, on an important and iconic annual festival day no less, the stage is set for an exciting political drama to unfold.
Madurai Lok Sabha constituency with over 10 lakh voters has always been an Indian National Congress stronghold, having won 8 out of 15 Lok Sabha elections since 1957. It is made up of six Assembly segments - Madurai North, Madurai South, Madurai Central, Madurai East, Madurai West and Melur, with four of the six belonging to city areas.
For the first time in 2014, AIADMK’s R Gopalakrishnan was elected from this constituency.
This time, the battle is between the DMK-led alliance’s Su Venkatesan of the CPI(M), a Sahitya Akademi winning author and the AIADMK-led alliance’s VVR Raj Sathyan, son of former Mayor and sitting Madurai North MLA VV Rajan Chellappa.
Raj Sathyan, AIADMK’s present IT wing joint secretary and an MBA graduate, has had to deal with inner party tussles. This after Revenue Minister RB Udayakumar and Minister for Co-operation Sellur Raju had demanded a ticket for former MLA R Tamilarasan but were turned down by the AIADMK leadership, who picked Raj Sathyan.
But Raj calls it a “difference of opinion”. “It is not a misunderstanding. It is just a difference of opinion. It is a very democratic party that we have. They have to voice out their opinion. At last the better candidate has been chosen by the heads of the party. Having been chosen, all the party is working for me and we have only one thing in mind – victory,” he says emphatically.
Brushing aside the nepotism tag, he says, “I’m not walking in my father’s footsteps. I am walking in Amma’s footsteps.” Voicing his developmental plans for Madurai, the AIADMK candidate states, “Water management is my priority. Infrastructural changes, we certainly need to do. Transport facilities will also be increased. It is a burgeoning city, and is growing at a rapid rate right now. There are so many sub urban areas which has not had developmental of infrastructure for the past 10 to 12 years.”
His main rival, writer Su Venkatesan, President of Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artistes Association (TNPWAA), a full-time CPM worker for the past 28 years, and the author of award winning novel Kavalkottam is all for upholding the city’s heritage. With Mohan Ponnusamy, the late CPI (M) leader who was elected consecutively twice form Madurai - 1999 and 2004 - no more, Su Venkatesan’s nomination from the party comes with challenges of its own. CPI(M), however, has had better success in the past having won a total of three Lok Sabha Elections.
“Madurai has to be announced as a historical heritage city. This holds a place in history. Our priority will be to make the Centre announce heritage city. Modi contested from Varanasi. A lot of amount has been invested and spent for the city. Madurai too is a big city, therefore it is my first request to declare Madurai as a heritage city in my manifesto,” he tells us.
Famed for its jasmines and temples, Madurai grapples with developmental issues like poor roads and a looming threat of water scarcity. The people are also disgruntled by the Centre’s implementation of demonetisation and GST.
Malaimuthan a lawyer from Therkutheru in Melur points out that the Congress manifesto has more beneficial plans for people in the lower rungs of the society than the BJP’s. “They have announced monthly Rs 6000 plan for poor people. They have also said farmer loans and student loans will be waived off. This will be of much help for the working class.”
Dissatisfaction with the Centre runs deep, a tea shop owner in Therkutheru has decided that his vote would not be in favour of the BJP-led government that had least regard for Tamil Nadu farmers. “Countless farmers protested in Delhi but were ignored. They physically strained themselves for months but the Prime Minister did not pay any attention to them. He preferred travelling around the world instead,” he says.
However, AIADMK, the party that is currently in power, still retains a good amount of goodwill among people. While TNM was waiting for Raj Sathyan’s convoy to arrive at Viratripattu, a crowd of eager women spoke to us of their unwavering support for Jayalalithaa. “Amma Katchi (party), two leaves, should only continue. The old should only come back!” says one of them. Another says, "Modi has not kept his word. Never delivered on his promises but AIADMK has been doing everything."
With its growing urban scape, Madurai has plenty of scope for infrastructural developments as well. While CPI(M)’s Su Venkatesan says his party’s agenda will focus on unique developmental plans for Madurai, “We have around 120 rubber industries around Madurai. Specific parks can be opened for it. IT industries too can be developed here.” AIADMK’s Raj Sathyan envisions cable cars along the Vaigai River. “It is a possibility. We previously proposed metro train but it didn't happen. This cable car should be connecting with public transportation. Tourism will also improve,” the AIADMK candidate tells us.
The topic of Keezhadi too features in an important place in Venkatesan’s manifesto. “When Rahul Gandhi becomes Prime Minister, we are sure Tamil Nadu will get its due. We don’t know why they stopped Keezhadi excavations. They were sure on stalling it. Modi has come here to campaign in 4 areas, has promised to spend several 1000 crores but they have not even spent Rs 5 lakhs for Keezhadi. It has been stopped today. If our alliance is voted to power, we will surely begin works in Keezhadi. Tamil traditions and requests will surely be given due priority by Rahul Gandhi’s government,” he says.
This election season in Madurai will for the first time clash with the temple town’s most important festival season - Chithirai Tiruvizha - with poll date of April 18 on the day of the Ther Tiruvizha. Pointing out that voter turnout is bound to decrease in Madurai on the date of polls, Venkatesan says, “The very fact that the Election Commission and the state machinery has not considered a festival as big as this is very condemnable.”
Raj Sathyan on the other hand is hopeful that people would manage both. “They want to pray first before voting. They have to get a better government right? Basically, what I would suggest is that as soon as you pray to the god please make sure the better government for the next generation is elected.”