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Wednesday, Oct 23, 2019

EPS hopes to retain grip on western Tamil Nadu home turf

There is a new flyover everywhere, freshly coated in parrot green paint — a nod to the two leaves election symbol of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

india Updated: Apr 13, 2019 07:39 IST
TR Vivek
TR Vivek
Edappadi Palaniswami (EPS)
Edappadi Palaniswami (EPS)(PTI file photo)

A common quip in Salem, once famous for its steel plant and mangoes, is that the city should now be renamed ‘Palam’ (bridge in Tamil). There is a new flyover everywhere, freshly coated in parrot green paint — a nod to the two leaves election symbol of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

Several more are under construction. A new two-tier flyover, apparently the first in south India, is the city’s new pride. The relentless road building in Salem, a city of about 900,000 in west Tamil Nadu, would make many of India’s big cities turn green with envy. Salem is also the home town of chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami (EPS).

Western Tamil Nadu — known as Kongu Nadu — has seen frenetic road construction in the past few years. The region is not only important for the AIADMK to strengthen its tenuous grip on office, but also for EPS to retain his position in AIADMK after J Jayalalithaa’s death in 2016.

The Kongu region was a veritable AIADMK fortress. In the 2016 assembly polls; the party won 41 out of the 47 seats in the region’s Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Salem, Erode, Karur and Namakkal districts. The Gounders, an intermediary caste of landowners and now entrepreneurs, classified as backward, comprise up to 40% of the population in these districts, and form the foundation of AIADMK’s loyal vote bank. It’s the caste group EPS belongs to, and is in large measure why EPS, dubbed “accidental CM” by the opposition, pulled off an unlikely power grab in 2017.

The CM’s undivided attention to the region and his almost weekly visits here is nothing but political bribery, alleges the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the main Opposition party in Tamil Nadu.

“Even when the Cauvery delta region was devastated by Gaja [a tropical cyclone that hit Tamil Nadu’s coast in November 2018], he was more interested in inaugurating a flyover in Salem,” says Mohanraj, a DMK worker in the city.

Given AIADMK’s strengths in the Kongu region, the DMK has farmed most seats out to its allies, contesting only Salem and Pollachi.

Building a vote-bank

In this election, the first since the death of both AIADMK and DMK stalwarts Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi (who died last year), both parties are considerably weaker, but neither knows the true extent of the opponent’s decline. “It’s like two drunk boxers in the ring with each hoping the other may have had one more than himself,” says a Coimbatore-based industrialist.

The AIADMK’s weakness is more apparent. TTV Dhinakaran, the nephew of VK Sasikala, an associate of Jayalalithaa, formed the breakaway Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) in 2017, after the Sasikala faction lost control of the AIADMK and the state government, in a battle in which EPS and his deputy O Panneerselvam — called OPS — prevailed.

When Dhinakaran wrested Jayalalithaa’s RK Nagar seat in the subsequent bypoll, the AMMK claimed it was the real inheritor of Jayalalithaa’s political legacy. Indeed, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and National Democratic Alliance fronts are fighting for not just 39 Lok Sabha seats, but also the crucial assembly seats facing simultaneous by-elections, which will decide the fate of the EPS-OPS-led AIADMK state government.

Of these seats, 16 were vacated when the Speaker disqualified 18 MLAs who supported the Dhinakaran faction and are now in the AMMK. The AIADMK needs to win at least eight to 10 seats to retain its majority in the state assembly. The better the AMMK performs, the brighter the DMK-led UPA’s chances in both the Lok Sabha polls and the assembly bypolls, though the two do not have an alliance. Ergo, EPS is not leaving anything to chance in his backyard.

The small municipality town of Edappadi, around which are EPS’ family farmlands, lies 40 km to the west of Salem. One breezeless and baking hot evening here, the town’s AIADMK head C Raman and a dozen workers wait for pedestal fans to arrive at the newly opened party campaign office. “EPS is our region’s unexpected jackpot,” he beams.

It’s not hard to see why. Even by the generally high standards of Tamil Nadu’s roads and its public services institutions, Edappadi and other towns in the Kongu region look remarkably well kept. Edappadi’s citizens can’t hide their surprise at the new projects sanctioned for the region.

Besides roads, the town’s government hospital and bus stand are spruced up; a big veterinary hospital has come up; there’s an industrial zone in the works; and drinking water woes have disappeared. EPS clearly seems to be inspired by Maharashtra strongman Sharad Pawar, who assiduously nurtured his constituency.

Cashing in on caste

Despite speculations about Dhinakaran’s vast wealth, can he play poll-time Santa in 22 assembly seats and 39 Lok Sabha seats statewide, especially in Kongu Nadu, where the Thevar community from which he draws his political capital is numerically insignificant? In any case, both the AIADMK and DMK-led alliances have the ability to outspend him.

In Coimbatore, the Kongu region’s biggest city, the NDA’s organisational might and money power is most visible. BJP considers its prospects the best in Coimbatore. Its election hub in Coimbatore’s upmarket Avinashi Road is as slick as a corporate workplace. Key office administrators can watch their candidate CP Radhakrishnan’s roadshows streamed live on phone screens.

Party flags of NDA partners seem to outnumber the BJP’s at a roadshow where AIADMK bigwigs, OPS and Gounder strongman SP Velumani, one of the most powerful ministers in the state cabinet, are campaigning. In the bigger event later that evening, BJP president Amit Shah is the big attraction.

The BJP’s sophisticated, digitally enabled campaign management in its high-stakes seat of Coimbatore is trumped by ally AIADMK’s analog, but far more robust organisation in EPS country.

Each AIADMK worker is assigned to target and deliver “whatever” necessary to 20 people on the voting list, claim party workers. Instead of apps, the AIADMK workers are armed with booklets with profiles of voters to be targeted.

“Combined with what we are delivering, if the Gounders and the young vote for AIADMK and BJP, we will win Kongu easily. If only there wasn’t the problem of Goods and Services Tax (GST), we could have won with record margins,” says Kaliswaran, a 30-year-old AIADMK Dalit leader from Kurumbapalayam in Coimbatore who sells prepaid mobile cards for a living. The convulsions experienced during the transition to GST by small and medium firms in the heavily industrialised regions of Kongu Nadu, including the textile export hub of Tiruppur, have reportedly cost more than 50,000 jobs.

Pitted against BJP’s CP Radhakrishnan is the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s PR Natarajan, a former MP form Coimbatore. The CPI(M)’s election office, loaned temporarily from ally Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, smells of the chicken biryani that is being served to visitors.

“Elections are not about money alone. AIADMK says it has built flyovers and roads. When GST has killed industry in the western region, the flyovers are nothing but suicide spots for unemployed workers. The bungled GST alone will ensure EPS’ defeat,” says Natarajan.

If Natarajan’s prediction for Kongu Nadu comes true, Edappadi Palaniswami might end up not as Jayalalithaa’s legatee, but a mere signboard on the highway of Tamil politics.

First Published: Apr 13, 2019 07:38 IST

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