It is a rare day that Palanippan Chidambaram (64) has earmarked entirely for campaigning.
The previous evening the Union home minister had to chair a high level meeting on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue before rushing off to catch the flight to Chennai. In Chennai he briefed Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi on its outcome, retired briefly for the night, only to leave early morning to catch another flight to Madurai. His constituency, Sivaganga, which he is contesting for the eighth consecutive time, is another 60 km away.
Yet Chidambaram — or ‘PC’ as he is universally called here — looks fresh and composed as ever as he alights from his vehicle at about 10 am, outside a community hall in Sivaganga, clad in his trademark white shirt and white mundu, and acknowledges the greetings of hundreds of Congress and DMK workers. (The two parties are fighting the election together.) His security having been increased after the Mumbai terror attack last November, five vehicles chockfull of security men screech to a halt as well.
Chidambaram strides up to the podium inside the hall and starts his first public meeting of the day. He explains to his listeners why there is no point in voting for his rival, Raja Kannappan of the AIADMK.,
“Small parties like the AIADMK cannot form the government in Delhi,” he notes. “Only the Congress can do so.”
There are a fair number of women, including burqa clad Muslim women, in the crowd. Chidambaram turns to them as he begins enumerating the UPA government’s achievements. “We’ve made bank finance available to women at very low interest rates,” he says, “while the AIADMK supports usurious moneylenders.”
He asks the women a rhetorical question. “Raise your hands if you agree,” he says. All the women duly do so. “The hand is also the Congress symbol,” adds Chidambaram. The audience guffaws.
Most of the half an hour speech is devoted to the achievements. “I have brought two Kendriya Vidyalayas to this constituency,” he reminds his listeners. “I got the DMK to lay underground sewage systems in three towns. I got a Rs 95 crore medical college built here.” A printed booklet of his contributions as MP is distributed.
Yet Chidambaram is nothing if not discreet. As home minister he prefers not to utter a word about the most burning issue in the state — the fate of the Sri Lanka Tamils.
There follow two more similar meetings — the first near the Collectorate in Sivaganga town, the second at Kaliyarkovil, 16 km away. Chidambaram also takes care never to attack his AIADMK opponent directly. “I’ve no cases against me,” is his only indirect reference. The audience knows Kannappan is facing several corruption charges, and smirks.
At 2.30 pm, Chidambaram takes an hour’s break at his ancestral house in nearby Kandanur town for a frugal vegetarian meal and discussions with party workers. Then it’s the campaign trail again, visiting as many as 10 villages until night falls.
No halls in the villages: Chidambaram must manage with shaky, makeshift podiums; sometimes even address his audience standing up on a campaign jeep.
“I was initially reluctant to become home minister,” he reveals at Sevinipatti village. “But I took the job realizing it was a recognition that a person from Tamil Nadu deserved to sit in the same chair that Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had once occupied. This has brought laurels to Tamil Nadu.”