Former Telecom Minister A. Raja’s candidacy in focus

The Nilgiris (literally the ‘Blue Mountain’) Parliamentary constituency has, for long, been considered a prestigious one, on account of being an internationally-renowned vacation destination. What adds a curious angle to the contest this time is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) again fielding the sitting MP and former Union Telecom Minister, A. Raja, who is facing charges in the 2G spectrum allocation scam.

When he was handpicked by DMK president M. Karunanidhi in 2009, following the constituency being converted from the general category to one reserved for Scheduled Caste (SC) candidate, Mr. Raja wooed voters declaring, “I believe in performance and not promises”. This time, he is going around asking “what wrong have I done”. He appeals to voters to judge him by his performance and personal attributes like easy accessibility and eagerness to share the joy or sorrow of the people.

Mr. Raja reminds the voters of the role he played in mitigating the sufferings of the people during the severe flood of November 2009 in this hill district of Tamil Nadu in which many lives were lost and property worth crores damaged.

Even if the ‘rank outsider’ factor against the 50-year-old Mr. A. Raja, as he hails from Perambalur, is discounted by the voters “as he rose to the occasion during the floods”, the former Telecom Minister might still have to face the odd ball if the Aam Aadmi Party and the others decided to take him on here on the probity plank.

The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has fielded 52-year-old C. Gopalakrishnan, Chairman of the Coonoor Municipality. The party last represented the constituency in Parliament in 1977-80. Apart from appealing to the electorate to facilitate a bigger role for its leader Jayalalithaa at the national level, the party is telling the people that an attempt is on to use their votes to elect Mr. Raja, who is accused of involvement in the spectrum scam. However, what has turned it a fascinating multi-cornered contest this time is the fact that the Baratiya Janata Party (BJP) has re-nominated the 33-year-old Coonoor-based businessman, S. Gurumurthy, who had unsuccessfully contested the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, while the other national party, Congress, has put up 53-year-old P. Gandhi, hailing from an agriculturist family in Rasipuram area in the plains and involved with the party’s SC/ST cell for long.

The Nilgiris Parliamentary constituency sprawls over four districts — the Nilgiris, Coimbatore, Tirupur and Erode.

It has three Assembly segments on the hills and three in the plains. Udhagamandalam, Gudalur (SC) and Coonoor are on the hills. Mettupalayam in Coimbatore district, Avinashi (SC) in Tirupur district and Bhavanisagar (SC) in Erode district are in the plains. The voters in the plains outnumber those in the hills.

At present, there are no burning issues in the Nilgiris which could have a drastic influence on the voters. But issues that are bound to figure is the long-standing demand of the ‘Badagas’, the single largest indigenous group in Nilgiris, for inclusion in the list of Scheduled Tribes (ST), a demand that the AIADMK leader and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has “endorsed and supported” in recent years.

The other concerns engaging the people include the plea for a floor price for the green tea leaf of the small growers, industrial backwardness with particular reference to the ailing Hindustan Photo Films, inadequate infrastructure, water scarcity, shortcomings on the tourism front and lack of basic amenities like roads and streetlights in many parts of Gudalur and its surroundings, owing to forest rules.

On account of the peculiar composition of this constituency, the voting pattern in the hills is expected to be distinctly different from the plains.

The Badagas account for about 20 per cent of the total 12,41,437 electorate. There are also a good number of SCs and Sri Lankan Tamils. The majority of the latter are plantation labourers and traditionally known to favour the DMK.

Apart from about 30,000 people of tribal communities, there are thousands of those who have naturalised themselves, like the people who have emigrated from Kerala, Karnataka and other parts of Tamil Nadu. The ‘Arundathiyars’ (a Dalit sub-sect) and the ‘Vellalar Gounders’, a dominant Backward Class (BC) community in western parts of Tamil Nadu, form a good part of the voters in the three Assembly segments in the plains.

Thus, the complex interplay of these factors makes the outcome of a multi-cornered contest this time in Nilgiris virtually unpredictable.

As a ‘VIP constituency’, Nilgiris has always drawn the nation’s interest. This time, it is even more so with Mr. Raja again in the race.