A massive crowd at Villupuram, 150 km South of Chennai, turned hysterical as All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) chief J Jayalalitha (61) built up her speech. She dedicated a good deal of time to elaborate on a cause she has opposed all her life but taken to her heart over the last week - a separate state (Eelam) for Tamils in Sri Lanka.
After she finished and the dust settled, KM Kannan, a middle-aged farm labour, vowed to vote for Amma for several reasons other than Lankan Tamils. "Rowdyism is on the rise and DMK men are running amok. There are frequent power cuts…" Nothing about Sri Lanka, until prompted. Sivasankari, a young housewife who traveled 30 km to listen to Jayalalithaa also had her reasons, but Lanka wasn't one of them. Only when she was asked about the Lankan Tamils did she say, "Yes, that's an issue."
Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi (85) matched his archrival's rhetoric: "We have ensured large relief for the Tamils and as a next step, they should get a separate Eelam (state)."
India's official position on LTTE-Lanka conflict is that it should be resolved within the framework of the island nation's territorial integrity. But both Dravida parties are stretching the limits to reject this stance.
However, the electorate is more nuanced and thoughtful than politicians, while talking about Sri Lanka. "Sri Lankan question is an electoral issue among the cultural elites. Among the masses, it is only a marginal deciding factor of voting preferences," said R. Sridhar, political scientist at Madras Christian College.
As late as March this year, Jayalalithaa had specifically declared her support was limited to the civilians caught in the crossfire. However, by April end she suddenly declared her support for a separate Tamil state, echoing her foe-turned-friend Vaiko (65), leader of the MDMK. Jayalalithas even declared that she would push for Indian army to be sent to Sri Lanka to carve out a Tamil Eelam. The DMK front has parties ranging from pro-LTTE Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi (VCK) to anti-LTTE Congress. In effect, both fronts have parties that represent extreme positions- currently or until recently- on the Sri Lankan question.
However, the common man in Tamil Nadu does not connect the Sri Lankan issue to his current voting preferences.
Still parties want to milk the issue for whatever it’s worth as the stakes are very high. They are also taking into account the consequences of Lanka's final push against the LTTE just before the May 13 elections. "If Prabhakaran is captured or killed nearer to the election day it could cause an emotional upheaval with unpredictable electoral implications," said a Congress leader in Tamil Nadu who did not want to be identified.