As you step into RK Nagar in North Chennai, the first thing you are bound to notice are the buildings that have been crammed against one another. In the space for what should have been one house, stand three multi-colour buildings with no compounds or even gates.
What seems to have been newly tarred roads at the entry of the suburb, soon gives way to pockmarked streets and bumpy lanes.
The area far removed from the centre of activity in the city, fails to fit into the 'metropolitan' Chennai image. But come April 12, this constituency will become a political epicentre, as its people decide the winner of a fierce battle for J Jayalalithaa's legacy.
The RK Nagar constituency has been under the AIADMK's control from 2001, when PK Sekar Babu won the Assembly Elections there. Fifteen years later, it was handpicked by Jayalalithaa to show her might at the 2016 Assembly Elections and she won with an impressive 97,218 votes. The DMK however, was not too far behind with 57,673 votes, a result of the graft charges that the Chief Minister bore. With the victory, however, Jayalalithaa had sealed her standing as an undefeatable leader and the people of RK Nagar proved their unwavering loyalty to the two-leaves symbol.
"The AIADMK had been in power for a long time here but it was only after Amma took over that we saw real development," says Arumugam, a 40-year-old construction worker as he sips rose milk. "She made sure we had new streetlights and whatever roads you see were even worse before. She made communicating with the government much easier. We just need to submit a petition and there will be instant communication," he says. From the time Arumugam was old enough to vote, he claims he has been voting for the AIADMK. But this time, he says things are different.
Jayalalithaa's death and the political developments following that has brought change to RK Nagar. While the AIADMK has fielded its Deputy General Secretary and VK Sasikalaâ€™s nephew TTV Dhinakaran, Jayalalithaa's niece Deepa Jayakumar has announced her intention to fight the polls. The DMK meanwhile, in a surprise move has decided to field local leader Maruthu Ganesh, who is the partyâ€™s East Division Secretary.
"This time, we want O Panneerselvam to take the reins. We are waiting for him to announce the candidate. If Deepa joins OPS, even better. We will happily vote for them. We are just afraid that if the vote splits between the two, the DMK will make inroads and that is unacceptable. We used to have a DMK MLA called SP Sarguna Pandian and she did nothing for us. She would hardly even visit her own constituency," says Arumugam.
In this animated discussion, not once did this construction worker even consider voting for the AIADMK, a party that he had stood by the last 5 times. The owner of the rosemilk shop, 33-year-old Bhuvana (name changed on request) explains why.
"This entire area is angry with Sasikala. We all cannot stand her and anybody who emerges from within her shadow will be rejected. We blame Sasikala for Amma's death. We don't know what happened in Poes Garden. Why was Amma not taken to the hospital earlier? That whole family is to blame," she says. Bhuvana was amongst the 1100 women who lifted pots of milk from RK Nagar to the Murugan temple in Netaji Nagar, when Jayalalithaa was hospitalised. "Nobody can take her place," chokes Bhuvana. "But if I was to vote, I would vote for OPS anna. Till today, the one regret we have is that Jayalalithaa did not have a clear political successor. But OPS is as close as we can get to Amma's rule," she explains. What about Deepa, Jayalalithaa's niece?
"She is too inexperienced in politics and administration," dismisses Bhuvana.
70-year-old Baby Ammal, however, swears by Deepa. "We believe in Deepa because she is Amma's niece. She can be the only one to carry forward her legacy. To us, she is another form with the soul of Amma. The others don't stand a chance against her," she says.
Her neighbour John, a retired sub-inspector is however sceptical about Baby's declaration. "We have lot of problems here," he says practically. "There is a shortage of water and no proper sewage system. The water we get in the corporation taps smell of sewage. The other day, even the colour was brown. What we need, is a leader who knows how to tackle these problems and only the OPS camp can provide us with one. We are hoping they allow Madhusudhanan to contest from here. He has won here before and knows what to do for the people," he adds.
Even as several people echoed John's statement, they seem to be forgetting that the last date to file nominations is March 23 and the OPS camp meanwhile, is still fighting for the two leaves symbol. The former chief minister had even met with members of the Election commission on Wednesday to fight for his right to use the symbol.
"How does it matter, who comes to power?" scoffs 35-year-old Eshwari. "At the end of the day, people from the middle class like us, have to slog for an everyday living. We are suffering from the rocketing prices of rice and pulses. We don't get palm oil and urad dal anymore. For two months we have been waiting in front of these ration shops to no avail. This shortage started when Jayalalithaa first went to the hospital. These are new people standing now, how will they even understand our difficulties?" she asks.
When asked about how familiar the residents are with DMK candidate Marudu Ganesh, vague replies follow. "He is DMK leader, lives closeby." Eshwari shrugs.
John meanwhile says, "Yes, he is a good man but I doubt anyone will be voting for him."
A little further from RK Nagar 3rd street, where John resides, however, a different story unfolds. 45-year-old Vijaya runs a shop that manufactures parts meant to be assembled into a tiffin carrier. She and her husband, who is lying down in the shade have been taking care of the business for 15 years now. "Do I even look like the owner?" she asks bitterly as she bends metal to the shape that will fit the container. Their manufacturing unit is merely a room, with its blue paint chipping off. She has two employees, she claims, who she is struggling to pay. "For fifteen years we have been toiling and are yet to see any returns. Industry is suffering in Tamil Nadu and inflation is leading to its slow death. We are very clear. We want thalapathy," she says, referring to none other than DMK Working President MK Stalin.
"The time has come for change and the DMK is capable of bringing it. There is no way any of us will vote for Dhinakaran. There is a brewing anger against that family, she says," before collapsing into giggles at the idea of her photograph being taken.
To some youngsters, in RK Nagar however, change means something different. "I donâ€™t plan to vote for any of these leaders," says 27-year-old Guru. "We don't trust them. They have taken us for a ride long enough. Let some youngster stand for elections and then the youth here will take the initiative to vote," he says, before riding off on his motorcycle.
In Arani Rangan street too, the narrative is similar. "There can be nobody like Jayalalithaa but if forced to choose, we will vote for O Panneerselvam," says 45-old-Srinivasan, a tailor. "We don't want anybody who supports Sasikala to be in power," he says. "Marudhu Ganesh, stays in the house next to mine. He is an affable man. But he knows where our loyalty lies," he says smiling.
But it was 48-year-old Sivagami, standing between a poster of Deepa and Stalin, who hit the nail on the head. When questioned about which leader she prefers, she laughs and says, "We will vote for the leader who wants to do good for us and not only himself."