‘Vaakkala perunkudi makkaley ungaludaya ponnana vaakkukalai…’ Such typical words of forced endearment, voiced by a strained and exhausted soul blaring out from a loudspeaker atop a slowly moving black-yellow, unwashed Ambassador taxi raising dust would usually herald the arrival of elections in our Kanyakumari villages.
Children of all age groups, unmindful of the thick smoke and sound from the generator, would run alongside the vehicle; thrust their hands into the vehicle and plead, “Annay rendu notice kudu (brother, give us a few election notices)”. The man holding a microphone covered with his soiled handkerchief would throw away a few pamphlets, forcing the children to turn away from the car, stop and pick them up scattered all over the streets.
Entire villages divided on political lines, schoolchildren included, remained loyal to the parties of their choice. Every one will assemble at a small thatched shed— kaariyalayam —temporarily erected on either side of the streets and decorated with party flags and wall posters of leaders and party candidates.
Normally in the evenings, local leaders in charge of election would arrive to distribute money—a maximum of Rs. 50 per booth—for election expenditure. The parties’ respective local unit secretary would take party cadre and children to a hotel for a few dosas, generously soaked in coconut chutney and a rasa vada to be washed down with a hot cup of tea. It was a moment of great joy as the hotel owner would not allow in children under normal circumstances as “eating out is the first evil a man would acquire”.
Sometimes, food would be prepared in the booth itself: a well-boiled tapioca root, peppered with chilli and coriander powder ground into a paste by adding coconut oil and sukku kaapi (ginger coffee). The menu would be different in rival camps— wheat uppuma and sukku kaapi or paruppu (dal) vada and tea. The appetising aroma of a masaal vad' was enough to even tempt party-hopping, but such defections rarely happened.
Normally, periodic radio broadcasts heard out from battery-powered transistors kept party men abreast of daily news and developments. This Correspondent vividly remembers how in those days the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) men listened with rapt attention to the slightly-hoarse voice of DMK leader M. Karunanidhi talking about his mentor, C. N. Annadurai, and describing him as, “Singa Tamil nadaiyum singara thendral nadayium thannakathey konda pooman (our tender leader whose Tamil speech was as majestic as a lion and as gracious as gentle breeze)”.
On the other hand, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) cadre assumed as if they were in a public meeting and clapped rapturously when they heard over the radio M.G. Ramachandran uttering his trademark words, “Yen raththathin raththamaana udan pirappukalay (you are my dear blood-relatives)”.
Congressmen, with an air of haughtiness, listened to Indira Gandhi’s speech in a language beyond their comprehension. They would know the content of her speech only after reading the next day’s local newspaper.
Independents, like well-known Gandhian Poomedai Ramaiya, would go from village to village on bicycle armed with a small table, chair and a petromax light and pontificate through a megaphone.
Songs specially composed for the occasion often filled the air during poll campaigns. The AIADMK camp called upon women to decorate their house—“Vaasal engum erattai ialai kolam idungal”—with the symbol of ‘two leaves’. It was Nagoor Hanifa who campaigned for the DMK with his song, “Odi varugiran udaya suriyan”. But Congressmen always played patriotic songs from the veteran thespian Sivaji Ganesan’s films.
A day before the election, booth slips would be distributed and party men standing as a group would request voters. “Yekka retta ilayai maranthurathey,(Sister, don’t forget the ‘two symbols’)” was a typical last-minute appeal in Tamil by party workers to voters.
The transistor radio was then the only source for information on the trends from manual counting, which went on for days together. The cries of winning party candidates, “Jai Jai!” churned the stomach of rivals. All these scenes are from the early 1980s, when neither television’s reach had spread nor even the STD booth — leave alone computer and internet — was known in the villages.