|Raja campaigns in a tea garden in Gudalur. Residents of Gudalur, near Ooty, wait to greet him. Pictures by Imran Ahmed Siddiqui
Andimuthu Raja loves 3G. Far away from Delhi, where he is facing trial in the 2G scandal, the former telecom minister is seeking “justice” from the “people’s court” in the picturesque blue mountains of western Tamil Nadu.
“You are the best judge and I have come here to seek justice from you…. I was framed by the CBI. I am sure the trial court judgment will be in my favour but before that I want your verdict first,” he says from an open jeep, waving to a crowd that had gathered.
Raja, out on bail after 15 months in a Tihar cell, has been playing the “victim” card. Posters his supporters have pasted in this popular hill station show him being led to the CBI court.
No one refers to him in these parts as “2G Raja”.
Popularly known as Raasa here, the sitting DMK MP had landed here about a fortnight back after taking permission from the 2G court. On Sunday, his halt was Gudalur, one of the six Assembly segments that make up the Nilgiris parliamentary constituency.
Perched on a podium on his Invader jeep, the 50-year-old lawyer-turned-politician greeted people with folded hands and his trademark smile as his 10-car convoy drove into interior villages.
His sense of humour too appeared to have weathered the gruelling campaign. “Forget 2G, it is old and slow…. Use 3G, it is better and faster,” he winks.
Raja flashed his iPhone5 to drive home his point. Local DMK leaders accompanying him broke into laughter.
Nearly 80km from Ooty, Gudalur is a gateway to three states — Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. Tea plantations dot the region and the population is a mix of Sri Lankan Tamil repatriates (mostly Dalits), Malayalis, Tamils and Adivasis.
Around 500 villagers, mostly women, waited at a junction to welcome Raja, who got off his jeep. Both young and the elderly did an aarti and put tilak on his forehead as firecrackers went up a little ahead.
In a veshti and white shirt, the former minister addressed the crowd through a public address system. “I am a victim of conspiracy because I am a Dalit. The CBI arrested me because of political pressure and will soon close the case. I am innocent and will come out clean. If you think I am guilty, then I am ready to serve a life sentence in jail,” says the prime accused in the scandal.
At his next stop, Pandalur, Raja interacted with elderly villagers who gifted him shawls.
On Monday, in Ooty, he defended himself saying he was being punished for revolutionising the telecom sector by bringing down call rates. “Now you see everybody has a mobile phone. But I am being labelled a criminal for bringing in a revolution.”
He attacked the CBI, too. “The CBI thinks money grows on trees. If I accumulated Rs 1.76 lakh crore (the presumptive loss figure), why did they fail to find even a single rupee of the alleged bribe amount during raids at my house,” he says.
“Those who are corrupt should be punished. Nobody likes corruption,” he told The Telegraph on the sidelines of his campaign in Ooty.
The scam, which contributed the most to the UPA government’s battered image, is not an important issue for people in this region. They remember Raja as a “good and humble” person who executed a number of development projects. Residents also recalled that he flew down from Delhi after the 2009 landslide and floods. He is also popular among minority voters. The AIADMK, which has fielded C. Gopalikrishnan, has targeted Raja over the 2G scam but voters here are more concerned about their immediate problems: water shortage and power crisis.
“Raja is always with us in times of crisis. Jayalalithaa blames him for being corrupt but she needs to do some soul-searching about herself and her party,” said Abu, a trader in Conoor, another Assembly segment in the Lok Sabha seat.
In Mettupalayam, one of the three Assembly segments in the plains, life insurance agent Babu said Raja may have made some mistakes. “But it’s only because of his policy that the poor have mobile phones now. Raja comes from a poor family and cares about the poor,” he said, but added that he would vote for the BJP. “This is a parliamentary election, so we have to think about the larger national interest. My vote will go to Narendra Modi.”
The BJP candidate has, however, been disqualified because he submitted his papers after the deadline. Some people here allege a DMK role behind the late submission as the presence of the BJP candidate would have split the anti-AIADMK votes. Raja has trashed such suspicions.
Raja’s main fight here is with the AIADMK, though the Congress has also fielded a candidate, P. Gandhi — no relation of the party’s first family.
“It won’t be a cakewalk for Raja this time but he seems to have the upper hand,” said Mani, a tourist guide in Ooty, referring to Raja’s 85,000 victory margin in 2009. “The margin will be less this time.”