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Jaya-vs-rest contest gives Cong edge

Sattankulam (Tamil Nadu), Feb. 24: The Congress seems to have an edge in Wednesday’s Assembly byelection here that has boiled down to a big fight between Jayalalithaa and Sonia Gandhi, particularly after the ADMK chief’s tirade against Sonia’s Italian origins last year.

L. Neelamegavarnam of the ADMK is locked in a straight contest with the Congress’ A. Mahendran after the DMK and the BJP officially boycotted the bypoll. Besides the two lawyers from the dominant Nadar community, Janata Dal (United) nominee Sundarapandian and 22 Independents are in the fray.

With two days to go before polling, the “Sonia motif” seemed to have penetrated to the remotest villages. The changing political equations were made clear in a huge advertisement in a local Tamil daily. It speaks of a “tug-of-war” between “one woman (Jayalalithaa) and the rest”.

Communist leaders Harkishen Singh Surjeet and A.B. Bardhan and a host of Congress leaders are pictured lined up on one end of the rope with blessings being showered on them by DMK president M. Karunanidhi, MDMK leader Vaiko and PMK founder S. Ramadoss. Jayalalithaa stands alone at the other end with only the late MGR as her guardian angel above.

The chief minister does not have the open support of the BJP here, but the Hindu Munnani, a Sangh parivar outfit, has been canvassing for the ADMK. The “Congress and (the) DMK, both enemies of Hindutva, should be defeated,” they are saying.

On the other hand, the political coupling of the Congress and the DMK is quite open. The two Left parties and the main Dalit outfits have joined them, too.

While local DMK functionaries trail Congress campaign vehicles, the CPI and the CPM are lending support at the field level quietly. DMK youth wing leader M.K. Stalin called for “defeating the autocratic Jayalalithaa” at a rally on Saturday night, clearly indicating that DMK cadre would vote for the Congress.

The re-united Congress in the state seems to be taking this contest, including the possibilities of making new friends, as a preview to the 2004 Lok Sabha polls.

Sandwiched between Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts in the deep south, rural Sattankulam, with an electorate of a little over 1.55 lakh, has more wasteland than arable acres.

Significantly, it has a sizeable minority population largely engaged in trade and government services. This section has been hit hard by the cut in pensions, the sacking of thousands of road maintenance workers, the anti-conversion law and the government’s decision to downsize the administration.

Jayalalithaa has sought to overcome the anti-incumbency factor by announcing that she is above “any caste or religion” and promising several new projects, like a cement plant to utilise Sattankulam’s limestone deposits. She has harped on the “neglect of the constituency by Congress MLAs in the past” and even offered to change Sattankulam’s name to “Devankulam”, meaning the abode of Gods, as “Sattan” in Tamil means the devil.

“But can a chief minister announce such a package few days before the polls'” asked state Congress working chief E.V.K.S. Elangovan and CPI state secretary R. Nallakannu, charging the ruling party with “gross violation of the poll code”.

In several villages, people are talking of generous gifts like saris and dhotis from ADMK activists and even assurances of assistance for small works like local temple renovation.

Party MP T.M. Selvaganapathy denied these accounts, saying a sensitive electorate could not be induced with such “small things”.

“People feel it is advantageous to vote for the ruling party in a byelection so that their constituency could get some schemes. This is being resented and exaggerated by the Congress,” he said.

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