The writer speaks to the aam aadmi in southern Tamil Nadu to find out what they think of the forthcoming elections.
“Ah… Agarwal… yes…,” Karupaya (61) shook with laughter. My hesitant correction of “Kejiriwal” was brushed off. “Yes, yes… I know Agarwal, the Delhi CM for 90 days.” I heaved a sigh of relief. Deftly weaving strands of jasmine under a thatched roof on the roadside, this man who had studied only upto Std. VIII, wondered who would vote for a man who couldn’t remain in his chair to fight and who even staged a road roko as a chief minister. The sun was beginning to climb up as Bala fussed with his camera to get a shot of Karupaya whose last word was that the AAP had nothing to offer as they had failed to deliver in the capital.
The bus stand in Sivaganga was just waking up. At intermittent intervals the Congress-I flags swayed in the cool breeze. The Finance Minister was in town. Across the main road, we saw Subramanian (54) standing in his meat shop unfazed by the rising din, reading the newspaper. Mention the Aam Aadmi, and this shopkeeper, who had completed his schooling, had much to stay. His face lit up as he talked of the right to recall and none of the above option but grimaced while talking of a corruption-free administration. It sounds good to hear but it is not practically possible, he said refusing to pose for a photo.
As we walked back to the car, I turned to Bala, “People here know about the mango man.” But Bala was not convinced. So, we drove to Natarasankottai, about 16 km from the town. Three women walked past us. “Amma… it’s election time… have you heard about this new party?” The women, who were till then walking slowly, suddenly remembered that they had to be elsewhere. But the toothless grandma took pity on me and shuffled back to say, “My grandson tells me which symbol to vote for and I do that.”
As they disappear down the winding lane, I check out a little store being managed by Soundaravalli (63), a differently-abled woman. “Yes, I do see TV but only serials,” she says as she poses for Bala’s camera. “Any party that will help people like me, I would welcome. But now, as I stay with my brother, I vote as he says.”
Next I meet Chandragiri (67), a part-time actor. She tells me about the movies she has acted in but ask her about the elections and she says that women here listen to what their men say. “It’s a very traditional place you see.”
This is not democracy, I tell myself. Shivaraman (63), a mill worker who was waiting at a bus stop, throws more light on this phenomenon that still grips these rural tracts. “People may talk of national politics but it makes no impact here. Believe me, if Kejriwal chooses a candidate who belongs to the majority caste here, people will vote even without knowing what the broom stands for. It’s the gothram that brings vote.”
As we return to Sivaganga, the Congress is wooing Dalit voters by telling them that even in the U.S. there are reservations for coloured people adding that it’s not called reservations but… “So long as they do nothing. Only then they can always rake up this issue,” says our taciturn driver Kalidas. At the venue, I meet Durairaj (61) and Ammavasai (65). “Though a north Indian party, they can identify the problems we face. If they are ready to give us lot of reservations, we are ready to try them out,” they declared merrily, though they were wearing veshtis that proclaimed their affiliation to the Congress party.
Our next stop was Rameshwaram where PMANE leader Udayakumar had declared his intention to join the ‘Mango’ party. “There is not much unity in the fishermen community. AAP is interested in Idinthikarai because Udayakumar is now a national figure but here there is no one to take up the fishermen issue,” rues Arulandhar. Sceptical of all parties, he says that their issue does not figure in the national agenda and directs us to the house of Raveena Rani (37). Her husband Sebastian was killed by the Sri Lankan navy 20 years ago. Widowed within a year of marriage, Raveena lives in a thatched house. As we stoop to enter it, the only colour in the stark room comes from a torn blue net that she uses as a curtain. Her face lined with grief, this petite woman reveals her disgust when talking of politics. “AAP, I have not heard of, but Udayakumar yes… let’s see what he achieves by joining this party,” she says. Her eyes light up as her two-year-old adopted child walks in. “If AAP can bring about a change that will make my child’s life better, then why not? I will vote for it.”
Cladwin (38), who has followed us in, tells us of his brothers who are languishing in a Sri Lankan prison. “The Sri Lankan issue is seen as a local issue. A party that has national aspirations will not take it up. But, for us, this is the only issue as our life depends on fishing,” he says. Merita (40) agrees. She says that the women are enamoured by the promise of a corruption-free government. But they will wait and see what happens in Idinthikarai. If their counterparts succeed then there is hope.
But Valan (27), an engineering dropout who is now in the fishing business, is cynical. Terming the elections a huge drama, he asks us to visit their hamlet after three weeks. “You will see politicians arriving in cars, visiting houses that have suffered a loss, holding hands, shedding tears, thrusting currency notes at people and promising them that the issue will be solved. Then after five years the same drama will unfold. The only change will be the number of houses they have to visit; that would have increased,” he says looking into the distance.
We drove back to Madurai in silence. The sun has set. Here and there, tall palm trees stand silently as lights dim in distant villages and the aam aadmi lays down his weary head so that he can wake up to battle a new day.