Narrow lanes, cramped houses, overground pipes and acute water shortage are merely the beginning of the infrastructural problems that the residents of North Chennai list on a humid Friday afternoon. But this election season, as the political heat rises in the working class hub, voters have largely set aside these everyday concerns to discuss what they want from the government that forms at the Centre.
(Narrow lanes of Chennai-North)
The Chennai North constituency consists of six Assembly segments including - Royapuram. Tiruvottiyur, Radhakrishnan Nagar, Thiru Vi Ka Nagar, Kolathur and Perambur. It is considered to be a DMK bastion with the party winning 10 out of the last 14 Lok Sabha Elections here. It was only in 2014, under the leadership of former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa that the AIADMK managed to win the seat for the very first time in this constituency. The battle for this parliamentary seat this time around, however, is not a fight merely between the Dravidian majors.
"This election is not to choose whether we want the DMK or the AIADMK," says Selvam, an auto driver at a stand in Tiruvottiyur. "I am traditionally a DMK supporter but my vote for the party this time is because I want to see Rahul Gandhi as Prime Minister," he says.
(Residents watch the campaign from their homes)
The DMK has announced an alliance with the Congress and other smaller parties to take on the 'Mega' alliance led by the AIADMK which includes the BJP, PMK and DMDK. DMK President MK Stalin has, in fact, already declared that his party wants to see Congress President Rahul Gandhi as India's next Prime Minister.
"The problems with Prime Minister Narendra Modi is all in regard to money," says Selvam when questioned about his choice. "Suddenly he said change the money (demonetisation) and people suffered. It was poor people who felt it, the upper class got everything. The poor had to leave their jobs and go stand (at banks/ATMs)," he points out.
Kesavan, a jewellery maker on North Mada Street, however, disagrees vehemently with the auto driver.
"There is no problem with the Modi government so far. Yes, his decisions regarding the economy like GST and demonestisation may seem problematic now but it will help our future generations," he argues.
And the candidates fielded on ground too are hyperaware that their party's legacy in the state alone is not enough to garner votes in this election.
The campaign trail
Snaking in and out of Tiruvottiyur's narrow by-lanes, the campaign vehicle of Dr Kalanidhi Veerasamy, DMK's Lok Sabha candidate for the constituency, blares loud music praising the party's late President M Karunanidhi. 'Aasai Aasai, Kalaignar Meedhu Aasai' (Love Love, Our love is for Kalaignar) is the tune the vehicle moves to but the poster on its side, tells a different story.
(Poster on DMK candidate's vehicle)
On one side of the yellow banner is the candidate with images of Congress President Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia Gandhi flanking him as he stands with his hands folded. On the other side is a smiling DMK President MK Stalin. Karunanidhi, the leader the song is actually professing love for, has been relegated to a small spot above his son.
Speaking to TNM on the sidelines of his campaign, Dr Kalanidhi Veerasamy, son of former state minister Arcot Veerasamy is confident of his party's prospects in the parliamentary polls as well as the 18 bye-elections that will be held in Tamil Nadu on April 18.
(Kalanidhi Veerasamy campaigning with his father and former minister Arcot Veerasamy)
"By the end of this election, DMK will be ruling in the state and Congress will be ruling in the Centre," he says, matter of fact. "People are terribly upset with the way the BJP is treating Tamil Nadu, especially during the farmers issue. There was also a cyclone and the Prime Minister was not available for several months. When the farmers went and protested for several months in Delhi, he wouldn't even see them but at the time of elections he comes running, where he comes 3 or 4 times in a period of one month. In fact, I think Manmohan Singh's period was a much better period. Prime Minister Modi is abusing his constitutional powers," he alleges.
And while the DMK has already begun canvassing for votes, R Mohanraj, a former DMDK MLA who is the mega alliance’s candidate was still meeting local functionaries to plan his campaign. His party's limited presence in the constituency meant the support of ground level workers of alliance partners was crucial for this fight. On Friday, he held a meeting with AIADMK leader and Fisheries Minister D Jayakaumar at the Annai Sivagami Mahal to lay the road ahead for functionaries.
And when TNM caught up with him at the Villivakam junction, it was clear that the agenda of the campaign was near decided.
"A vote for me in this election means a vote for the BJP," agrees Mohan Raj. "Prime Minister Modi has done so much for the country and introduced so many schemes. The opposition is saying economy is affected by GST and demonetisation. But even though there were delays when it was implemented, these are long term measures. Not only that, the recent Pulwama attack has shown India's strength to the world. He has also brought us the satellite missile, making India only the fourth country to have this capability," he adds.
(DMDK candidate R Mohanraj)
But while the two candidates fight it out over the Prime Minister's achievements or lack thereof, a looming threat to electoral democracy is evident on ground.
Cash for votes
It is no secret that the RK Nagar bye-polls held in North Chennai in December 2017 saw large scale bribing of voters. In fact, the bye-elections that were initially scheduled for April that year were cancelled owing to the largescale distribution of cash and gifts.
44-year-old Anandhi, a photographer from the constituency alleges, "Taking money for votes has now become synonymous with North Chennai. This is not something we can deny. We all know how in RK Nagar everybody changed their mind on who to vote for overnight. And when we are paid money for votes, we can't ask the representative anything."
(Anandhi, photographer from Chennai-North)
Situated just minutes away from Anandhi's studio, the local DMK office in Tiruvottiyur is a modest room with just one hall. On the sides of it and inside, pictures of MK Stalin and M Karunanidhi dominate the walls. Local functionaries stand outside, ready to lock the building as campaigning for the day comes to an end. Quick questions to these members on the possibility of parties bribing voters show that the photographer's fears are not without reason.
"We have to give and they have to take. It has become a practice. Without that, nobody is interested to vote," alleges one DMK functionary. But another member is quick to cut in, alleging, "Other parties do it, the DMK doesn't."
But Anandhan, a grocer from Tiruvottiyur railway station road says it is voters who need to be more responsible.
"Whichever party it is, they will not stop giving money. Everyone gives money for vote. But we must vote without taking money. We should decide which party we want. If we take money and vote, we will not get a good government," he points out, noting, "Then, he (the representative) will say I bought your vote, I will do what I want. It will be the same situation every time."