Holding on to rapidly melting ice cream bars, party workers stand under the scorching Thoothukudi sun, taking a bite every now and then to beat the heat. The luckier ones, who came well in advance, have found a spot under the shamiana. The gathering includes cadre from the spectrum of parties that have now grouped themselves under the Madhacharbatra Murpokku Kootani (Secular Progressive Alliance) led by the DMK. They await the arrival of DMK’s Thoothukudi candidate Kanimozhi, whose agenda for the day includes inaugurating the party office in Vilathikulam and addressing cadre.
A two-time Rajya Sabha MP and the daughter of late former Chief Minister and former DMK President M Karunanidhi, Kanimozhi is facing her first direct election from Thoothukudi. The constituency in southern Tamil Nadu is nearly 600 kilometres from Chennai, where Kanimozhi has spent most of her life, but the DMK’s women’s wing leader dismisses the idea that she’ll be seen as an outsider to the voters in Thoothukudi. “I have been working in Thoothukudi, the village I adopted in my second term as a Rajya Sabha MP is in Thoothukudi. I have taken up a house. I will be living here. So, I don’t think I will be seen as an outsider here,” Kanimozhi tells TNM.
The leader has been grooming the constituency for the past four years, spending a small sum of her MPLAD funds on 14 works in Thoothukudi district. Explaining why she chose the constituency, Kanimozhi says, “It is an area with a lot of potential but unfortunately there have not been enough industries here, a lot of agricultural industries can be brought here which hasn’t been done. The basic infrastructure facilities are there, like the airport can be expanded, the port can be expanded. A lot of employment opportunities are possible in Thoothukudi.”
Stealing a march over her rivals, Kanimozhi began her poll campaign days after her candidature was officially announced by the DMK. Significantly, she chose to launch her campaign on March 22 from the temple town of Tiruchendur, an attempt to woo Hindu voters, many whom have traditionally seen the DMK as an ‘atheist’ party.
Kanimozhi on the campaign trail (Image courtesy: Twitter/Kanimozhi)
The crucial Nadar vote
Thoothukudi Parliamentary constituency was formed after the delimitation exercise in 2009. It comprises six Assembly segments – Thoothukudi, Tiruchendur, Vilathikulam, Kovilpatti, Ottapidaram, and Srivaikuntam. And while the DMK and the AIADMK have won the Lok Sabha seat in 2009 and 2014 respectively, the latter won four out of the six seats in the 2016 Assembly Elections. However, two are now lying vacant with bye-polls to be held to Vilathikulam simultaneously along with the Lok Sabha Elections.
To win the constituency, gaining the Christian votes is important, given the community makes up a significant chunk of the population. But it is the votes of Nadars, a powerful BC community in the region, that is crucial. A prosperous community comprising mostly of small traders, the Nadars hold significant influence in Thoothukudi. It is for this reason that political parties have consistently fielded candidates from the Nadar community. The DMK’s decision to field Kanimozhi reflects this trend, given that the leader’s mother belongs to the community.
‘Healthy competition between two women’
Kanimozhi’s rival, the BJP’s Tamilisai Soundararajan, also hails from the Nadar community, and proudly proclaims her roots to Nagercoil in the neighbouring district of Kanyakumari. “I want the southern part of Tamil Nadu to enter into developmental mode,” says the BJP’s state President and Thoothukudi candidate. A doctor by profession, Tamilisai is the daughter of Congress leader Kumari Ananthan. She also happens to be the niece of Congress MLA H Vasanthakumar, who will take on Union Minister and sitting Kanyakumari MP Pon Radhakrishnan of the BJP. And although she has unsuccessfully contested in two Assembly Elections and one Parliamentary Election in the past, Tamilisai is upbeat about her chances against Kanimozhi.
Terming the battle between two women “healthy competition”, the BJP chief in Tamil Nadu also notes, “I don’t want any negative politics. But I will say I am a non-corrupt person, there is no case against me. I didn’t get my posting because of dynasty and family politics. I toiled in this party for more than 20 years. And BJP is a party which gives recognition to hard workers. I want to serve the people.”
Tamilisai on the way to file her nomination (Image courtesy: Twitter/ Tamilisai Soundararajan)
Besides addressing the drinking water problem in the constituency, Tamilisai promises to bring in more employment opportunities, stating, “Unemployment is more, it is an industrial area. For example, salt-oriented industry – these could be developed much more in a better way, so it could give more opportunities to the youth. There’s a lack of skill development centres also. Education institutions are also less in the district.”
Key issues in Thoothukudi
Voters on the ground, however, point to a range of issues. “I go and do painting work in villages. The roads to villages are very bad. Whichever party comes to power, they aren’t doing a good job,” says Balamurugan, a painter. Kannan, a voter in Vilathikulam, observes, “Whichever party comes to power, they make promises saying they will help us. But they don’t do anything after.” His sentiment is shared by many others. They demand that parties focus on providing more job opportunities. “There are less jobs here. At one point, there were match stick, cracker industries. This has now become mechanised and because of that there are less jobs now. Farming has also failed,” says Kannan.
Vasanthakumar, an autorickshaw driver, says GST has affected daily wage workers like him. “In Tamil Nadu, daily wage workers who are toiling hard, aren’t able to work. I have bought an auto. You should see the GST bill. Why should I pay GST? I am a labourer,” he says angrily, adding, "This autorickshaw is Rs 2.80 lakh. What is the rate of a rich man’s car? Tax him. I am a labourer. The government says they will help labourers? They are only asking us to pay tax."
Anti-Sterlite protests and their aftermath
These issues apart, it is the fate of the Sterlite copper plant that is one of the biggest poll issues in 2019. The Lok Sabha Elections come a year after massive protests by residents and activists who accused the copper plant of causing environmental damage and affecting the health of thousands. On the 100th day of protests, 13 demonstrators were shot dead in police firing. While the Tamil Nadu government ordered the plant shut soon after, Vedanta, the parent company of Sterlite, has challenged the closure in court.
Pethiah, who drives a load auto and participated in the anti-Sterlite protests last year says people in his village still live in fear. “Police and government officials are threatening us. But because the plant is closed, there is no issue. If people open it once again, people will get ready to protest once again. Because of this, the government is using the police to threaten us,” he alleges.
Kingston, a resident in Thoothukudi city, says, “The Sterlite issue is big here. Because of its pollution, people are falling sick and getting diseases. The government hasn’t taken a proper decision. Every party will say we will take a right decision, but no one is doing anything.” His words are echoed by Shanmugasundaram, who says, “They should take out Sterlite. And new companies should come in.”
However, opinion is divided on whether the closure of Sterlite has impacted jobs in the town. While Shanmugasundaram says the copper plant being shut down hasn’t resulted in less job opportunities, Manikandan, who runs a taxi service, points out, “The closure of Sterlite has hit us badly. There’s been no movement at the harbour. This issue has been going on since 1995, why did it become so big in 2018?”
As far as the political parties go, DMK’s manifesto, which promises to scrap the Chennai-Salem Expressway and the Methane project in the Cauvery delta, makes no specific promise about the Sterlite copper plant. Kanimozhi, however, says, “The DMK manifesto has clearly said that polluting industries will not be allowed to continue.”
BJP’s Tamilisai, however, remains ambivalent about the Sterlite issue. “I feel sad for people who were killed in the agitation. It is propagated as if we are the cause for that. Even the fishermen of the area accepted they were motivated to do some agitation. They came out with the truth of that situation. It was unfortunate to lose such lives. But these types of losses should not happen again. Sterlite issue is in court, so let us decide on that,” she says.
For now, however, the Sterlite copper plant in Thoothukudi is a virtual fortress, heavily barricaded with police personnel on high alert for the slightest inkling of unrest.