The road to Erode (East)

The byelection, scheduled for February 27, is anything but dull. The period following the announcement of the byelection has seen significant developments. Senior leaders and AIADMK functionaries are feeling elated over the party getting the two leaves symbol. The byelection is the first test for the DMK after it entered office in May 2021. Issues such as the increase in electricity charges and the poor condition of roads bother the electors

Updated - February 12, 2023 07:03 pm IST

Published - February 12, 2023 01:04 am IST

Central Industrial Security Force personnel arriving in Erode on February 11, 2023 for election duty.

Central Industrial Security Force personnel arriving in Erode on February 11, 2023 for election duty. | Photo Credit: M. GOVARTHAN

Byelections in Tamil Nadu do not throw up surprises, going by the record in the last 65-odd years. Virtually, in three out of four byelections, the party in power or its ally won. Hence, a by-election is hardly a reason for excitement. However, the February 27 byelection to Erode (East) is anything but dull.

In fact, even the Election Commission’s announcement of the byelection in the middle of January caught many parties off guard — the seat fell vacant only in the first week of the month after the sudden death of the Congress MLA and former State Congress president E.V.K.S. Elangovan’s son, E. Thirumahan Everaa.

The party sprang a surprise by putting up Mr. Elangovan despite his stated disinclination to enter the fray and appeal to the leadership to nominate his other son E. Sanjay Sampath. There was at least one more strong aspirant in Makkal G. Rajan, the Erode district president of the party.

The byelection is the first test for the DMK after it entered office in May 2021. Almost all the Ministers and senior functionaries have been drafted for election work. Workers doing the election work are largely from the DMK, while the Congress and a few other alliance partners support them in their own way.

While Mr. Sampath accompanies the Ministers during their door-to-door campaign, Mr. Elangovan, a septuagenarian, covers the constituency in the evenings. Housing and Urban Development Minister S. Muthusamy, who represents Erode (West), is shepherding his party colleagues and others in the DMK-led front.

Banks on goodwill

Banking on the goodwill earned by Thirumahan Everaa, the Congress leader emphasises that people’s confidence in Chief Minister M.K. Stalin is another factor that counts in his favour. Lauding the DMK Ministers and functionaries for the way in which they are working for him, Mr. Elangovan points out that it is as if the candidate belonged to their party. “I am confident of registering a historic win...,” he adds.

It is not going to be a smooth sailing for him: issues such as the increase in electricity charges and the poor condition of roads bother the electors. Mr. Rajan, the key local Congress functionary, acknowledges the dissatisfaction of people. However, “they are convinced when we tell them the facts and assure them that the roads will be re-laid after the byelection.”

He points out that there is no difference of opinion between the DMK and the Congress. What should add to the comfort of Mr. Elangovan is the support from the Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM), led by actor Kamal Haasan, as the party polled 10,005 votes in 2021, about 6.6% of the vote share.

The story in the Opposition front, led by the AIADMK, has been no less exciting. Immediately after the byelection was announced, the principal Opposition party lost no time in convincing one of its allies, Tamil Maanila Congress (Moopanar), to concede the seat to it, as the AIADMK, led by interim general secretary Edappadi K. Palaniswami, sees an opportunity in the byelection to boost its image.

M. Yuvaraja of the TMC (M) was fielded on the AIADMK’s symbol in the 2021 Assembly election). There has been a popular perception that the BJP, under the leadership of K. Annamalai, is growing at the cost of the AIADMK, a point that the party’s senior functionary and former Finance Minister, C. Ponnaiyan, echoed at a workshop in May last year.

Much drama ensued with the AIADMK’s deposed coordinator, O. Panneerselvam, simultaneously deciding to put up a candidate from his group, even as he offered to pull out in the event of the BJP’s entry. He announced the candidature of B. Senthil Murugan, a newcomer, whereas the Palaniswami camp put up the two-time MLA, K.S. Thennarasu. In the meantime, Mr. Palaniswami approached the Supreme Court for a direction to the Election Commission of India (ECI) to recognise his present position.

February 3 was an eventful day, both in Chennai and New Delhi. BJP national general secretary and in-charge for Tamil Nadu C.T. Ravi, accompanied by Mr. Annamalai, met Mr. Palaniswami and Mr. Panneerselvam separately in Chennai to impress upon them the need to work together as “united AIADMK”.

The Supreme Court gave an uncommon solution to resolve the issue raised by Mr. Palaniswami — it ordered that the party’s general council be convened to choose the candidate; and a resolution be adopted by circulation. Mr. Panneerselvam and his supporters should be given an opportunity to cast their votes, it said. The court made it clear that this arrangement was only for the Erode (East) byelection.

After obtaining responses from most of the general council members (2,501 out of 2,665 members, according to former Law Minister C.Ve. Shanmugam), the party’s presidium chairman, A. Tamilmagan Hussain, submitted the relevant documents to the ECI officials in New Delhi on February 6.

The same day in Chennai, Mr. Panneerselvam announced the withdrawal of his candidate. The next day, the BJP State president called upon his party leaders and cadre to work “without sleep” for Mr. Thennarasu’s victory. A few days later, the poll authorities officially identified Mr. Thennarasu as the AIADMK’s candidate, allotting him the party’s ‘two leaves’ symbol.

No BJP flag

On February 9, when Mr. Thennarasu was formally introduced at a meeting addressed by Mr. Palaniswami and attended by leaders of the AIADMK allies, the picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was displayed prominently on the stage. However the campaign of the Opposition front itself was shorn of pictures of BJP leaders, or even the party’s flag, while the flags of the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) and other allies were noticeable. However, Mr. Palaniswami’s assertion in Tirunelveli on Friday, February 10, 2023 that the AIADMK’s alliance with the BJP would continue for the 2024 Lok Sabha election should make the Opposition front more cohesive than it has been in the past.

The AIADMK candidate, who talks of how the ruling party has “let down” people by not delivering on various promises, including getting the State exempted from the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET), is wooing the voters by highlighting that he “remains and will always remain accessible,” unlike his primary opponent.

Even as senior leaders and AIADMK functionaries have been feeling elated over the party getting the ‘two leaves’ symbol, there is discomfort among sections of the cadre who are of the view that the power tussle and legal battle between the camps of Mr. Palaniswami and Mr. Panneerselvam are far from over, given that the Supreme Court has provided only an interim relief.

There is also another view within the party that retaining the symbol has given fresh energy to the workers. Moreover, the organisation is relying on the experience and networking skills of veteran leader and former School Education Minister K.A. Sengottaiyan, who is the team leader, for causing an upset in the byelection.

What is obvious to everyone in the party is that under the given circumstances, the position of Mr. Palaniswami has become stronger. The significance of the principal Opposition party securing the ‘two leaves’ symbol has not gone unnoticed among the DMK-led front. “We need to work harder in the coming days for a massive victory,” quips Mr. Rajan.

Apart from the two principal contenders, S. Anand of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) and Menaka of the Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) are among the 77 candidates in the fray. Mr. Anand refers to the “anti-incumbency” factor that is working against the ruling DMK as, he contends, it has failed to fulfil many of its promises. Further, no development work has been carried out in the constituency in the last 20 months. Referring to a number of protests organised by his party, Mr. Anand is confident of “overcoming all the challenges” from the DMK-led front and the AIADMK.

Ms. Menaka drives home the point that her party is a “credible alternative” to the principal players. Her campaign pitch is that while the ruling party’s performance in the implementation of its electoral promises is much to be desired, the AIADMK is a “party in decline”. Referring to her party having netted 11,629 votes in 2021 with a 7.65% vote share, she says, “We are sure of increasing our base.”

The presence of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), led by former R.K. Nagar MLA and former MP T.T.V. Dhinakaran, in the contest could have contributed further to the sense of excitement. But Mr. Dhinakaran decided to pull out his candidate, A.M. Siva Phrashanth, on the ground that the ECI had refused to allot the ‘pressure cooker’ symbol to his party.

Going beyond a host of issues, the residents of the Erode (East) constituency, which was created after the 2008 delimitation, complain that they are suffering from the ill-effects of pollution — discharge of untreated effluents by textile processing units into the Cauvery and the Kalingarayan Canal.

With an electorate of 2,26,876, the constituency, in terms of social mix, has two communities more or less in equal strength — Senguntha Mudaliars and Kongu Vellala Goundars — with about 30% each. There are others such as Arunthathiyars, Naickers, Muslims and Christians.

Interestingly, migrants from north India are estimated to account for about 3% of the electors. The constituency is said to have around 15,000 State government employees, and a large number of commercial establishments, turmeric and textile processing units. Caste is not expected to play a significant role in this election.

As byelections have become synonymous with money power, election officials are taking steps to ensure free and fair polling. As on February 10, ₹24.70 lakh in unaccounted-for cash, liquor bottles worth ₹57,490 and tobacco and ganja worth ₹18,653 were seized for want of supporting documents. Only on March 2, the day of counting of votes, what has decided the outcome — political or non-political issues — will become apparent.

(With inputs from S.P. Saravanan in Erode)

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