A close battle for Vellore 'fort'

VELLORE, APRIL 29. An interesting combination of factors have thrown up the possibility of a neck-and-neck race between the DMK candidate, Mr. A.M. Ramalingam, and the sitting TMC MLA, Mr. C. Gnanasekharan, in the Vellore Assembly constituency where a total of 2,10,245 voters would be choosing from out of eight candidates.

It is also a prestigious fight between Mr. Gnanasekharan, who virtually fought for the allotment of the seat to the TMC in the AIADMK-led alliance and for his own candidature in the constituency, and Mr. Ramalingam who is seeking to avenge the defeat he suffered at the very hands of Mr. Gnanasekharan in the 1991 Assembly elections. Then Mr. Gnanasekharan secured 60,698 votes against 37,632 by Mr. Ramalingam. In the 1996 elections, Mr. Gnanasekharan, in alliance with the DMK, secured 82,339 votes against 21,451 by Mr. S.B. Baskaran (Indian National Congress). Also Mr. Ramalingam lost to Mr. A.C. Shanmugam (AIADMK) in the 1984 Lok Sabha poll.

While the DMK is banking on its ``achievements'' during its five- year rule, Mr. Gnanasekharan is banking on the goodwill he has earned in his constituency in the last 10 years and on his image as a responsive MLA.

Mr. Ramalingam claims that Vellore has always been a DMK fort (late V.M. Devaraj of the DMK had been a three-time MLA in 1980, 1984 and 1989) and that Mr. Gnanasekharan was able to win in 1991 only because of the sympathy wave generated following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and in 1996 because of the DMK's support. But Mr. Gnanasekharan dismisses the claim of Vellore being a DMK fort. ``Vellore is no longer the DMK fort. It is now my fort,'' he says.

A cross-section of voters in the constituency say the DMK cannot count on their support because of the ``atrocities'' suffered by traders at the hands of Mrs. Vasanthi, former DMK municipal chairperson and the charges of ``corruption'' against her. But Mr. Ramalingam says the issue would not affect his chances since Councillors belonging to all parties including the TMC and the AIADMK also involved. Nevertheless, many development works were undertaken by the Council, he claims.

While many hail Mr. Gnanasekharan as one who rushes to the rescue of those in distress and responds readily to their representations, cutting across party affiliations, a few describe his acts of squatting on the road by way of agitation or sitting on the garbage to focus the attention of the government and municipality as mere stunts. Mr. Gnanasekharan cites his role in the rescue of the seven hijack victims from the Kandahar airport (six hailing from Vellore and one from Ranipet) by camping in Delhi for nearly 10 days, though two of the victims belonged to the DMK.

The PMK's presence in the alliance would help the TMC in the Vanniyar-dominated pockets such as Karugambathur. The presence of the Mudaliar-dominated New Justice Party in the DMK front would favour the DMK candidate to some extent owing to the considerable Mudaliar population in Vellore. But most of the Dalits, especially the younger brand were likely to favour the DMK not because they love the DMK or Mr. Karunanidhi but because they want to promote Mr. R. Thirumavalavan, founder of the Dalit Panthers of India, who they say has emerged a credible Dalit leader who could be depended upon to fight for their cause and to guard them from the ``atrocities'' of the PMK.

On the other hand, a sizable section of the neutral Muslim voters are not inclined to support the DMK as long as the latter allies with the BJP which still has an ``anti-minority'' stigma to it. The MDMK's presence may split the pro-DMK votes in TMC's favour.

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