Sivaganga, one of Tamil Nadu’s most economically backward districts, located some 450km south of the state capital Chennai, is witness to a close and engaging electoral fight between two principal contestants with distinct campaign styles.
Union home minister P. Chidambaram, representing the Congress party, is ranged against Raja Kannappan of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or AIADMK, a party leading an alliance widely expected to trump this general election in the state.
Sivaganga has elected Chidambaram, one of the more high-profile ministers in the outgoing United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, government, six times in 25 years, but electioneering in the dry and sparsely populated constituency is firmly anchored in local bread-and-butter issues this time. Even the emotive Sri Lankan Tamil issue is irrelevant in ground-level campaigning here.
At around 10.30am on the Tuesday gone by, the buzz is building in Arasunur village which, according to a local Congress party worker, has 2,000 voters. Chidambaram is to shortly make a scheduled stop and about 150 people have gathered around a small building to listen to him.
A line of women carrying metal plates for the traditional ritual of aarthi gather near a mike, even as a party worker on a public address system tries to animate the audience ahead of Chidambaram’s arrival. Chidambaram is described as a man who is requested by his party to become a minister, not one who chases positions. The allusion is to rival Kannappan, who quit the DMK (the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the ruling party in Tamil Nadu and AIADMK’s main rival) in February, claiming that the state government had not done enough for his Yadava community.
Congress workers say Kannappan was upset because he was not made a minister.
Chidambaram arrives to an increase in the decibel level of the crowd. As he walks up to the mike, he asks people to calm down. His campaign speech takes 10-12 minutes.
The 63-year-old, who was Union finance minister during four-plus years of record economic growth before being moved to the home portfolio, starts by referring to the positive impact sugar cane cultivation has had on the rural economy in the last 15 years, and his role in it. Sakthi Sugars Ltd has a mill in the constituency.
Chidambaram also lists the UPA’s flagship programmes, including the employment guarantee legislation and farm loan waiver. Some state government schemes, run by the DMK, which is an electoral ally of the Congress, are brought up at this stage.
The last part of the speech links local issues to national politics, particularly the inability of AIADMK, unlike the Congress, to form a government when it is competing in just 23 seats. Chidambaram promises that the Congress will enhance the benefits of schemes if it returns to power.
Chidambaram’s approach is businesslike, except for the occasional chiding of women in the crowd who he feels are inattentive. Pay attention, he tells them, and be role models for the children.
At another village, Mathoor, in the shadow of a temple for Ayyanar (guardian deity of the village), he is received to the sound of the kuravai oli, a ululating sound made by women on auspicious occasions. Chidambaram draws attention to the nutritive value of eggs, reintroduced in the noon meal scheme for schools by the DMK government, and stresses its impact on the mental and physical development of children.
Rival Kannappan’s campaign contrasts with that of Chidambaram in every way. Kannappan rejoined AIADMK about five years after he left the party. A minister in the first Jayalalithaa state government (1991-96), the Yadava leader, like Chidambaram, is from Sivaganga.
Kannappan, with vibhuti, or sacred ash used in Hindu rituals, smeared across his forehead, has a more interactive style of campaigning, and is discernibly more at ease mingling with people. His convoy of some seven cars also seems to make more unscheduled stops as Kannappan gets out of his Hyundai-made sports utility vehicle to chat up people and drum up support.
The focus of Kannappan’s campaign is Chidambaram. No issues, just a straight attack on his main rival. In village after village, Kannappan asks people if the six-time winner did enough for the constituency. Chidambaram has time for the Ambanis and Tatas, but not for us, he tells a gathering of 50 people in Paganeri village. In contrast, win or lose, I am always going to be here and accessible, he adds.
"Once he rolls up his window after an election meeting, he rolls it down again only at the next election," Kannappan tells the crowd in Chokkanathapuram.
At Silandhagudi, he asks people how many times Chidambaram had come to their village after winning election the last time. Not once, says a voice in the crowd. "This dal will not cook any more," responds Kannappan.
In an unscheduled halt at Kovilpatti village, Kannappan uses the English word "bourgeois" to describe Chidambaram, and in the same breath calls himself a villager.
Driving across the arid and sparsely populated Sivaganga (275 people every sq. km to the state average of 480), from where young men migrate in search of jobs, largely low-skilled, there is little evidence to suggest the candidates have answers to the region’s problems.
"The main problem is employment (the lack of it)," Kannappan tells Mint during one of his unscheduled stops. Neither candidate has a specific solution.
Economic history would suggest the odds are stacked against Sivaganga. Located in a poorer and drier region of Tamil Nadu, the district fares poorly when compared with the more prosperous northern and western districts such as Chennai and Coimbatore.
Tamil Nadu, which according to the World Bank has to make do with 3% of India’s freshwater resources while supporting 6% of the population, has had a tough decade in agriculture. The average real annual growth rate of Tamil Nadu’s agriculture between 2000-01 and 2006-07 was 1.1% compared with a national average of 2.8%.
Sugar cane, a water-intensive crop subject to commodity cycles, may not be the best solution currently, especially given declining yields. Adhi, a sugar cane farmer from Pachiyasi who uses only one name, says the current returns of Rs1,270 for a tonne of sugar cane are inadequate to cover costs of Rs25,000 an acre. In the last crop cycle, he managed to get just 13 tonnes from his acre—about one-third of what he used to get a few years ago when he started cultivating sugar cane.
Outward migration, at least on the basis of anecdotal evidence, seems to be common among young men across the district. In Annanagar, a 400-house village off the road linking Sivaganga town with Karaikudi, people at a tea stall say young men from at least 300 houses are abroad in Dubai, Singapore and Malaysia, engaged in low-skilled construction work.
While official data on outward migration is not available, the district’s sex ratio statistics hold a clue.
According to the census data for 2001, Sivaganga’s sex ratio (number of females for every 1,000 males) in the 0-6 years age group was 952, broadly comparable with Chennai’s 972 or Coimbatore’s 963. Migration is irrelevant for children up to the age of six.
Sivaganga’s sex ratio for the entire population jumps to 1,021 (indicating a lower number of older males in the district) while the metric in Chennai and Coimbatore remains roughly at the same level as the under-six sex ratio.
Balasubramanium, a farmer’s son, is back home in his village Arasanur on a holiday from his job at a steel mill in Dubai. Some 50 other young men from the same village work in the same mill. Balasubramanium hopes to come back and live in Arasanur some day, but rules out farming as a viable option.
Chidambaram’s tenure as finance minister has coincided with public sector banks opening a disproportionate number of branches in Sivaganga. According to Reserve Bank of India data, the number of bank branches in Sivaganga for the four-year period ending 2008 increased to 140 from 111—a jump of 26%. The comparable increase for Tamil Nadu was lower lower at at 18%, from 4,822 to 5,706.
The usefulness of the increased financial intermediation is open to question. Sivaganga’s relatively poor social indicators suggest people might not yet be equipped to put credit to a profitable use. Compared with the state overall literacy rate of 73.5% in the 2001 census, Sivaganga’s literacy rate was 61.7%. Average annual growth in employment between 1991 and 2001 was 0.1% in Sivaganga compared with 2.4% and 2.2% for Chennai and Coimbatore respectively.
While caste does not get overtly mentioned in the public meetings, its dynamics are expected to influence the outcome. The census of 2001 indicates Dalits make up 16.3% of the electorate. The other major castes are the trading community of Chettiars, to which Chidambaram belongs, Kannappan’s Yadavas and the Thevars, a land-owning caste with a martial tradition.
Precise data is unavailable on the strength of each group. But, according to a senior police official acquainted with Sivaganga, the Thevars are the largest group, followed by Yadavas and the Pallar sub-caste among Dalits who are of roughly equal strength. The Chettiars are a smaller group concentrated around the town of Karaikudi, added the official, who didn’t want to be named.
If true, this could be favourable for Kannappan. Traditionally, the AIADMK has found strong support among the Thevars of the southern districts of Tamil Nadu.
As the election campaign runs into its last leg, Chidambaram, who won easily with a majority of some 162,000 votes in 2004, battles both such caste dynamics and an image issue. The AIADMK’s campaign has, for all practical purposes, converted Sivaganga’s 2009 election into a test of not just the Harvard-educated lawyer’s performance as a lawmaker, but also his personality.