The Telegraph
Thursday , April 24 , 2014
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Statue mirrors Congress fate

In a country obsessed with statues, this one speaks volumes. All the more so in election season.

At a corner on the busy main intersection in this tourist destination stands a statue on a brick unplastered pedestal. The figure is half-draped with a cloth-like material that bears signs of torture inflicted by the incessant sea breeze.

There is no plaque but inquiries with local residents reveal that the statue is of Rajiv Gandhi.

Work on the statue began in 2010, when the Congress was still in alliance with the DMK, but dragged on for “unknown” reasons. Local Congress leaders are coy to admit, but blame it on a former district president of the party whose trust they say was the brain behind the idea.

“Congress workers are anxious and agitated. But what can we do? It is not a party initiative. But we told S. Rajagopalan, who heads the trust, to unveil it or we will have to do it,” says the party’s current district president, Robert Bruce.

Not many buy the argument. The statue has remained draped for more than two years now, say some shopkeepers, implying that it wasn’t too short a period for the Congress workers to have not acted to quell their “anxiety”. Even the party workers seem to have lost interest, residents say.

The fate of the statue has an uncanny similarity to the Congress’s own story in Kanyakumari — ruined by its makers.

Today, many Congress workers are grappling with the same question. Why did the party ever give the seat — once held by K. Kamaraj, the original “kingmaker” in Indian politics, and which returned Congress candidates till 1999 — to allies, they ask as they struggle to stave off an impending Modi “tsunami” that threatens to galvanise Hindu votes in favour of BJP candidate Pon Radhakrishnan.

A junior minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, Radhakrishnan enjoys support from sections in the mostly Christian coastal community, too.

But then, he could also be reaping the benefits of the seeds sown in the 60s and the 70s by the late RSS stalwart, Eknath Ranade, who outwitted the missionaries in their own game and successfully rallied the country to raise a memorial for Swami Vivekananda on the rock off the southern coastline on which the wandering monk had meditated for a while.

The masterstroke, however, was a statue of Tamil philosopher and poet Tiruvalluvar on the only remaining rock. It helped bring around even the Dravidian parties and in neutralising the opposition from the Church.

For Thursday’s election, the Congress has fielded H. Vasantha Kumar, younger brother of former Tamil Nadu Congress Committee chief Kumari Ananthan. A businessman, Kumar owns Vasanth & Co., one of the largest durable goods retail chains in the state, as well as Vasanth TV. With declared assets of Rs 285 crore, he is by far the richest candidate in the fray in Tamil Nadu.

“Kumar is a formidable opponent but has hardly lived in Kanyakumari where he was born. He is mostly in Chennai,” points out political commentator Manohar Williams.

The others in the fray include candidates from the DMK, AIADMK, CPM, the Aam Aadmi Party and Independents. However, as feelers go, the competition has narrowed to Congress versus BJP.

“People know it’s the Lok Sabha elections and regional parties like the DMK and the AIADMK have not tied up with any national party. So they don’t stand a chance,” says a senior priest of the Church of South India.

Sitting DMK MP Helen Davidson disagrees. “We will win based on our policies. The Church is also backing us,” she says. Asked why she had not been re-nominated, she sidestepped the question, saying: “It was a party decision.”

Williams tried to explain the logic behind the selection of candidates. “There are several developmental issues, but ultimately it will all come down to religion,” he says.

Spread across six Assembly seats, the Nadar community makes up the largest chunk of voters in the Kanyakumari parliamentary constituency. The community is unique in that there are both Hindus and convert Hindus in the same family. Overall, Christians are in the majority and the party that gets their vote stands to gain. That’s exactly where the catch lies this time, too.

The Congress, BJP and the AAP have fielded Hindu Nadars while the AIADMK, DMK and the CPM are trying their luck with Christian Nadars.

A possible scenario is a division of Hindu votes between the Congress and the BJP while whoever succeeds in consolidating the Christian votes would stand to gain. Which is why the Narendra Modi factor and some recent actions of the Church have spread panic in the Congress camp.

Unlike as in previous years, Christian groups have not openly given a call to vote for any specific party this time. The Roman Catholic Church has asked believers to vote for Christian candidates while the Church of South India has exhorted a secular vote.

“The communal scene is peaceful here and we do not want to vitiate it by calling for a vote for this party or that party,” says a CSI priest.

The Modi factor, too, seems to have influenced sections of the Church. “Many members of the CSI church are in Gujarat and they say they enjoy all religious freedoms there. We don’t think Modi is a fascist and only hope his party doesn’t make him one,” says the cleric.

The presence of S.P. Udayakumar on an AAP ticket is another factor frustrating a joint Christian vote. A Hindu Nadar, Udayakumar also enjoys support among the mostly Christian coastal community for his campaign against the nuclear power plant in Koodankulam.

“Radhakrishnan too enjoys support from sections in the coastal community,” points out writer Aravindan Neelakandan. “In his first avatar as MP in1999, Radhakrishnan consciously made inroads into the coastal communities, providing roads and other infrastructure in tsunami-hit areas. Modi’s development pitch in his Kanyakumari speech where he stressed the need to improve facilities in the town frequented by thousands of tourists every day seems to have caught the imagination of many.”

Congress workers said they were doing their best. “But sorry to say, many of our senior state leaders who were ministers at the Centre did nothing for the party’s growth. They only wanted to secure their seats,” rued a party activist.

Even as commentators draw and redraw graphs, they admit there is one more hidden factor that could upset every calculation — money power. Bribing voters a day or two ahead of the polls is not uncommon in Tamil Nadu and could make the scene unpredictable if it happens this time too.

Kanyakumari votes on April 24