It is summer. Politicians have hit the roads under the blazing sun to woo voters in Tamil Nadu. Even as the elections near, there is no wave anywhere from Ambur in the north to Coimbatore in the west, except the cool breezes blowing in the evening from the Nilgiri Hills to the plains below.
Majority of the voters say results are not easy to predict in this closely fought poll battle. In the showdown between MK Stalin’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), both fronts appear to be equally poised in parts of Arcot region and Kongu Nadu.
For the first time in Tamil Nadu’s history in the last over 50 years, the 2021 assembly election will not feature charismatic, larger-than-life politicians such as MGR (MG Ramachandran), M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa.
Four years ago, after Jayalalithaa’s death, Palaniswami became an accidental chief minister. But he has now emerged as a popular politician with a loyal following. It is a remarkable achievement for the leader known as EPS. Many had predicted the fall of his government within a week of him assuming office. But he has held the party together and ran an effective government, proving critics wrong. His supporters say they will for the first time vote for a CM who is not a demi-god.
However, that doesn’t guarantee a victory for EPS. There are factors beyond his control that are pulling him down. After 10 years of AIADMK rule, some MLAs are facing anti-incumbency and corruption charges. Sections of the voters seeking a change, and some are unhappy with the AIADMK’s alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
But the good news for EPS is that people are largely happy with his government. Even those who openly say they will vote against the AIADMK agree that the CM has done a good job.
Sarathkumar, a highway restaurant manager at Krishnagiri, says EPS is popular among many and that he expects the middle-class to vote for the CM. “He has done well. Not a bad CM at all. However, it may not guarantee him another term. The DMK may return to power in a tight fight,” he says.
Senthil, a farmer at neighbouring Vaniyambadi, says he will choose rattele (the two leaves symbol of the AIADMK), though many in his area are planning to vote for surya (the DMK symbol of the rising sun).
In the Muslim-dominated towns of Vaniyambadi and Ambur, which are known for leather industries, majority of the voters look undecided, though the DMK might have a slight upper hand.
Sameer and Rafique, two young software professionals, admit that they have no complaints against the EPS government. But the AIADMK’s tie-up with the BJP could go against EPS.
Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) has fielded three candidates in this region where Muslims speak Urdu, unlike many other places where they speak Tamil at home. Owaisi has joined hands with TTV Dhinakaran, the nephew of Sasikala Natarajan. But many locals dismiss the AIMIM as a “vote cutter” that may not win any seat.
“We know him (Owaisi) well. If we vote for him, the DMK alliance will lose. He has no support, except among some youth,” says a leather shop assistant, Faizullah, at Ambur.
Many in this region feel that the DMK may pull it off in a closely fought election. But once one crosses Thoppur Ghat and enter Salem area, the support for EPS is visible. The CM hails from Edappadi near Salem city, where people say they should back the son of the soil.
In the 2016 assembly elections, which Jayalalithaa narrowly won, Kongu Nadu played a major role in the AIADMK victory. In Salem, out of the 11 assembly seats, the party bagged 10.
EPS is hoping to repeat the same performance. Caste sentiments are also expected to play a big role in this region. EPS is a Gounder and the people of his caste are more or less backing him.
A Palanisamy, a cashier at a saree shop in Salem, says he backs EPS for two reasons. “He is also a Gounder like me…He is from our own region,” he says.
Some also feel that Dhinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) and Seeman’s Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) could play a spoilsport in some seats.
Meanwhile, the debate over anti-incumbency is on. “(After 10 years)…naturally, you feel like voting for the alternative…with no big reason or justification. The same may happen this time,” says K Velusamy, a farmer on the outskirts of Salem city.
Except EPS and his deputy, O Panneerselvam, no other top minister is crisscrossing the state for campaigning. Instead, they are largely focused on their own constituencies. It has prompted the DMK to claim that even before voting, the AIADMK has conceded defeat.
Nonetheless, the DMK, too, is facing discontent in some seats — and it could hurt the party in case of a close contest.
Women voters, meanwhile, are guarded in their response. Some still admire MGR and Amma (Jayalalithaa), and respond with a smile when asked about their choice.
Yamini, a luxury hotel employee in Salem, says she has voted for the AIADMK in the past, but this time she is undecided.
“I will decide a day before the voting day. We have nothing against the AIADMK or the DMK. It is a tough call. Most of the women are yet to make their choice, or they are not revealing it,” she says.
The business community in Salem, a highly industrialised city, is upset with the BJP, says a local journalist, requesting anonymity.
“Demonetisation, GST (Goods and Services Tax), lockdown have ruined some. Certainly, they are not happy with the AIADMK for going with the BJP. If the DMK wins, it will be good for the business…,” he says.
He also adds that if the BJP wins seats, it will be because of the AIADMK, as the saffron party has no base anywhere in the state.
In a seemingly wave-less election, where the majority of the voters are not ready to reveal their preference, the outcome can go in any direction. Some local analysts claim that whoever wins will get fewer than 140-150 seats in the 236-member assembly.