A political rally at Saidapet in Chennai can never be good news, except for the party cadre. The roads are narrow, and the neighbourhood is crowded. On Sunday April 24, all roads lead to the DMK rally as M Karunanidhi kicks-off his political campaign for the 2016 polls from the politically charged constituency. In a DMK strong-hold like Saidapet, Kalaignar remains a crowd-puller and supporters throng the venue to listen to the 91-year-old regale them with his literary skills, even if one can now barely make out what the wheelchair-bound veteran is saying.
As one walks towards the venue of the rally, set in one of the busiest streets in Chennai, the political culture of Tamil Nadu, and the DMK, unravels beautifully. Songs set to the tune of hit Tamil songs but with lyrics hailing Karunanidhi fill the arena while make-shift shops sell party paraphernalia to one and all. DMK cadres and government workers’ union members affiliated to the DMK are arriving. The red and black striped party flag flutters from open windows of vans carrying hordes of ‘supporters’ to the make-shift venue. Orange-coloured T-shirts with the name of M Subramaniam aka Ma Su, former Chennai Mayor and DMK’s Saidapet candidate, are being distributed among his supporters.
Journalists and tired cameramen standing in the sweltering heat jostle to grab bottles of water and juice thrown at them. DMK’s mouthpiece Kalaignar TV has installed giant jimmy-jib cameras for live coverage of the event. Party members, calling each other by their posts like “mavattam”, “vattam” or “thogudi” (district, ward and constituency) are cracking jokes as they wait for their leader. Apart from DMK members, partymen from allies like the IUML, MMK and the Congress are also present at the venue. A blue-collar worker, seemingly part of one of the government unions, asks another with a wide grin, “Shall we ask if there is any arrangement for alcohol?”
Soon enough, Karunanidhi arrives in his refurbished and swanky campaign van, flanked by Kanimozhi, Dayanidhi Maran, EV Velu, Jagathrakshakan and other senior leaders. As he takes the stage, AR Rahman’s mellifluous rendition of Tamil Semmozhi anthem, which has now become the DMK anthem, plays out. At the first glimpse of Kalaignar, the crowds go crazy. The nonagenarian is still a rockstar.
The man at the helm of the rally is M Subramaniam, or Ma Su, as he is popularly known. A former mayor with an image of being a good-governance man and a hands-on party organizer, he is on the stage, taking charge of the event, asking cadres to assemble in peace, directing his men to help the attendees and organize the event better. Politely, he asks over-enthusiastic partymen to stop crowding near the stage and is met with some obedience.
DMK and Saidapet share considerable political history. Karunanidhi contested from here in 1967 and 1971, and went on to become the CM. “Saidapet is no doubt seen as a DMK stronghold. It’s the party’s bastion and they have strong support here,” says political analyst Ramu Manivannan.
Ma Su is one of the DMK candidates believed to have a strong chance at winning his seat in Saidapet. He has been a party district secretary in Chennai, has a personal relationship with the voters and has the image of the man who hits the streets and gets his hands dirty. During his stint as the Mayor of Chennai between 2006 and 2011, he gained immense goodwill among the people of the city. He is also a hardcore MK Stalin-groupie, which gives him a rock-solid position within the party.
He has a sober smile, talks in a calm and composed manner, speaks sense, and most importantly, speaks the language of development, not just petty politics.
Speaking to The News Minute on the sidelines of the event, Subramaniam says, “All the development which has happened in Saidapet has happened during the DMK period, when we were in power at the state assembly or the city municipality. In the past 5 years, nothing has happened here. We built the bridge in Bazaar Road. We built the large bus-shelters in the area. We modernised slaughterhouses. The government hospital was improved when we were in the administration, and we have created and looked after parks in Saidapet. We improved the drainage system. What has AIADMK done?”
But even if Ma Su speaks development at every interview and rally, it is clear from Karunanidhi’s speech that the central issue to be raised at Saidapet is the Chennai floods. “The arrogant AIADMK government did not do anything for the people of Chennai when the floods hit. When we were in power, we got out to help people,” says Karunanidhi, who loses no opportunity to take a dig at Jayalalithaa, stating that the “Maharani” just went around in a helicopter.
“In Saidapet too, it was the DMK which did all the relief and rescue work. More than ten people died in Saidapet during the floods. Houses and businesses have been lost. There is anger among the people,” says Subramanian to TNM after the event. And as if on cue, an old and frail-looking man holding a DMK flag steps in, and shouts at us, “I lost my home. It was worth Rs. 40 lakhs, just like that it went down, and it’s all rubble now. The government has not helped me, what will I do?” asks the frustrated Abdul Taher who says he is a resident of Saidapet.
The anger over the floods is palpable. “They did not come help us in time. I understand that this was unexpected, but they could have warned us,” says Selvam, a worker at a petty shop in Saidapet who lives on the banks of Adyar River. But there are those who think blaming the government completely is not fair. “What could they have done? There was too much rain, even if DMK was in power this would have happened,” says Pasha, a resident of Bazaar Street.
Religion is going to play an important role too, and DMK has an edge over the AIADMK since it has allied with Muslim parties like IUML and the MMK. “Traditionally, DMK has been seen as a natural ally of the religious minorities. And there is a good concentration of Muslims in Saidapet and Triplicane. This will help them get the numbers,” says Ramu Manivannan.
When questioned about his AIADMK opponent, Ma Su does not hit out at C Ponnaiyan who is the ruling party’s contestant from Saidapet. Instead, Ma Su takes on Chennai Mayor Saidai S Duraisamy.
In Saidapet, if Ma Su is DMK’s face, Saidai is AIADMK’s. As the city’s mayor for the past 4 years, Saidai has been at the receiving end of a number of controversies including receiving much flak for being unable to handle the floods and not communicating enough with people through the media. “He has not done anything for the people here,” says Ma Su, repeatedly. There have been murmurs of a rift between Jayalalithaa and Sadai too, and that he has been kept in the Mayor’s post only so there is no electoral fallout of ousting him. Many believe that this could favour the DMK. “But I don’t believe that. They are creating stories of a rift between Jayalalithaa and Duraisamy, the fact is that Duraisamy has failed,” says Ma Su.
The DMK has plans to counter Ponniyan too. Ponniyan is a veteran AIADMK man from Tiruchengode in west Tamil Nadu, and has been parachuted into the constituency. “If the people knew anything about him they could think about voting. He is not from here, he does not know anything about Saidapet,” says Ma Su, “but he was the finance minster responsible for sacking thousands of government staff in 2003 under ESMA. Government workers will never forget him for that, they are still angry at him,” says Ma Su while pointing to a bunch of MTC workers who have assembled at the rally.
But the corruption taint doesn't seem to have worn off the DMK. "Now we know all of them are corrupt, why does it matter who we vote for? Everyone comes to power and loots," says an auto-driver on my way back. What flashes across my mind is that image of Karunanidhi publicly shaming AIADMK for corruption even as his grandnephew Dayanidhi Maran sits just beside him.
All images: Nishanth Krish