You can almost hear Karti Chidambaram saying, “Count me in, please.”
Seven out of eight times Sivaganga has elected his father P. Chidambaram since 1984. Today, it would have been understandable if it had seen Karti as a worthy son trying to fill his father’s shoes.
But what the father and son seem to have discounted is the simmering anti-incumbency against the Union finance minister and the lack of allies that could bolster the Congress vote bank.
This has so emboldened the three main candidates — the AIADMK’s P.R. Senthilnathan, the BJP’s H. Raja and the DMK’s S.P. Durariraj — that they have confined the contest to themselves.
Karti, who is making his electoral debut, admits he is battling heavy odds. “That is the electoral reality I have to face. Unless there is a massive consolidation of the minorities and the Dalits in favour of the Congress, it might be difficult. But I am still confident that the fear that the BJP will scrap the (rural job scheme) MNREGA would work in my favour,” he says.
Karti, 42, has been touring villages on his own during the day. At dusk his father joins him and the two address meetings to wind up the campaign for the day.
On his trip to Sooraanam village that sits at the tail- end of this sprawling constituency, Chidambaram spoke for about 30 minutes, exhorting voters why the Congress should be their first choice.
“Jayalalithaa has said that I have only opened bank branches in this constituency. What has she opened? Only TASMAC (liquor) shops…. The DMK and the AIADMK would both vie with each other to support a BJP government in Delhi, whereas only the Congress will have no truck with any communal party. Also, the BJP has declared it will discontinue the 100-day scheme (MNREGA). So think twice,” Chidambaram exhorted the villagers.
“Why is he talking as if the BJP is all set to form the next government? If that is Chidambaram’s own mindset, how will the voter feel like voting for his son?” wondered Kumaran, a young mechanic in Sooraanam.
Karti’s hopes of a minority consolidation do not appear to be happening. Even at Ilayangudi, a small town that is predominantly Muslim, the anti-incumbency against Chidambaram, visible elsewhere across Sivaganga, is equally palpable.
“There is so much he could have done in the past 10 years. He claims to have established an LPG filling station outside the town. It is owned by a north Indian who has employed only north Indians, even for the watchman’s post. No local has benefited,” says Mohammed Meeran, an auto driver.
Muslims, he asserted, will vote only for the DMK.
This growing anger against PC has boosted the confidence of the BJP candidate, Raja, a diminutive lawyer who had in 1999 pushed the Union minister to the third spot when Chidambaram had contested with no major allies, like now.
Raja is being backed by the MDMK, DMDK and the PMK. He also claims to have the support of M.K. Alagiri’s loyalists following a tactical visit to DMK chief M. Karunanidhi’s son after his expulsion from the party. “The power cuts and water scarcity are hurting the ruling AIADMK and the DMK is weakened by Alagiri’s revolt. Chidambaram’s non-performance comes in handy while projecting Narendra Modi’s performance,” Raja says.
The Modi factor is tangible even in villages. “Yes, we know about Modi. Some of us even attended his Tiruchy rally. If he can bring drinking water to this village, why not give him a chance?” says Radha Velmurgan, a 60-year-old squabbling over a pot of drinking water in Aathukaadu village and blaming PC for it.
It’s funny that villagers expect an MP and that, too, a central minister to address their water problem, usually the responsibility of the state or the local panchayat.
But the Union minister did not help matters when in the past he had ticked off villagers complaining about water scarcity, saying that it was the headache of the panchayat president. “He could have at least assured them he would speak to the district collector,” said K. Arunagiri, a former Congress functionary who has joined Raja’s camp.
Many local residents feel that the Modi surge may pick up closer to election day. “If Modi addresses a public meeting in Sivaganga, that could prove decisive,” said M. Ramesh, a bakery owner.
The AIADMK candidate, Senthilnathan, refuses to give any weight to the BJP’s presence. “Our leader (Jayalalithaa) may have targeted Chidambaram in her speech, but the DMK remains the enemy No. 1. We will win comfortably,” he says.
One can almost hear Karti pleading: “Do count me in. I am also in the race.”