Virudhunagar, May 11: Like his ‘idol’, LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, MDMK general secretary Vaiko alias Y Gopalasamy is an elusive person — at least in this constituency, from where he is contesting as the candidate of the AIADMK-led alliance.
In this final surge of campaigning in the state, as the opposition tries to force the UPA on to the backfoot on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue, Vaiko, one of the most potent speakers on the topic, is absent from his constituency. After a few initial meetings, he has shifted his attention elsewhere, leaving the campaign in Virudhunagar to his image — and to the energy of his alliance partners.
“In his first speech itself, thalaivar (leader) made it clear that he will have to campaign in over 2,000 villages across the state,” says Mahalingam, a local MDMK worker.
Vaiko won the Sivakasi Lok Sabha seat — out of which Virudhunagar was created in the delimitation exercise — in 1998, the first time that the MDMK contested elections on its own, and again in 1999. He was in prison during the 2004 elections — Jayalalithaa’s government had slapped POTA on him for speaking in favour of the LTTE in 2002. This time, Vaiko and Jaya are part of the same front.
Vaiko has always been a staunch supporter of the LTTE, and hundreds of CDs with images from the war in Sri Lanka have reportedly been distributed in the constituency. At his initial campaign meetings, he focused on the demand for Eelam, using soaring rhetoric to describe the sufferings of Tamil civilians at the hands of the Lankan army. His pitch: elect Vaiko to give Lankan Tamils a voice in New Delhi.
Vaiko’s rival at the seat is Manik Tagore, a 34-year-old Youth Congress leader said to be close to Rahul Gandhi. The candidate decided earlier was changed to make way for Tagore, who is also related to party leader Sudarshan Nachiappan.
Workers of the AIADMK-led front say Vaiko’s profile — and Tagore’s relative obscurity — would make it easy for them, especially given the pro-Tamil ‘wave’ in the current climate of the LTTE’s military defeat and an escalating humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka.
The Congress, on the other hand, believes Vaiko’s advocacy of the Lankan Tamil issue would have only limited impact. “If he was so concerned, why didn’t he do anything while he was in power with the NDA government,” asked a Tagore aide.
On the ground, despite the noise and the posturing, events now unfolding across the Palk Straits do not seem to be the main election issue in Virudhunagar.
The poor say they know “something bad” is happening in Sri Lanka, but are not sure about the details. They also have enough problems of their own to worry about.
“I can’t read and I don’t have time to watch TV. When the leaders campaign here, I listen to them but I also have to I carry on my work,” says Kamaraj, who sells raw peanuts and guavas by the roadside.
For a majority of voters, high prices remain the biggest issue, followed by the shortage of power and drinking water. A large number of labourers who work for daily wages at the innumerable match and firecracker factories and printing units for which Sivakasi and its neighbourhood are known, went jobless after power shortages hit production.
In their modest dwelling off the Madurai-Virudhunagar highway, Jayakumar’s family is struggling to cope with rising prices. The family of four, including two small children, spent Rs 750 on groceries last month, Rs 150 more than what it cost them the month before. “We keep each bill to understand price-rise and cut expenses, but this is getting out of hand,” says Jayakumar’s wife. To collect drinking water, she walks for over a kilometre every day. Jayakumar is sympathetic to the Tamil cause, but the family has other mundane concerns.
For Jayakumar’s neighbour Jayaprakash, a senior citizen, corruption and the arrogance of the political class are key issues. He sympathises with the suffering Tamils of Sri Lanka, but does not sound sympathetic enough to make a political choice for that reason alone.
Caste is an important issue too, explains Karunakaran, a teacher at a government school. The Sivakasi region is known to vote along community lines.
Nayakars, Thevars and Nadars are the dominant communities. Vaiko, belonging to the Telugu-speaking Nayakar community, is expected to draw Nayakar votes, and his alliance with the AIADMK is likely to get him Thevar votes as well.
The Nadars, the community to which K Kamaraj belonged, have been with the Congress for years. This time, however, the Nadar vote may be split between the Congress and the DMDK’s Nadar candidate, the millionaire businessman K Pandia Rajan.
A Sivakasi industrialist says Nadars — mainly traders and businesspeople — have never benefited from political leaders of the community. “Pandia Rajan has been working in the area through his charitable foundations and self-help groups for over 15 years. He has gained the goodwill of a large number of people.”
Pandia Rajan may, in fact, get some Naidu (Nayakar) votes as well — for his leader, the DMDK founder and Virudhunagar MLA, actor-politician Vijayakanth, is a Naidu himself.
Similarly, the candidature of actor Karthick, who floated a new outfit after being expelled from the Forward Bloc, may wean away some Thevar votes from Vaiko.
So where do these caste equations leave the Tamil issue in Virudhunagar? A flag with a leaping tiger on it, is a pointer. It is not the LTTE flag, it belongs to an Opposition alliance partner, the All India Forward Bloc.