Impact of reforms shaping voter attitude

CHENNAI, APRIL 29. The impact of economic reforms on Tamil Nadu's polity looks a curious paradox of growth at the macro-level, with ``islands of negative trends'' at the micro-level.

It is this apparent imbalance, visible during a recent election tour of several districts, that is quietly shaping political attitudes at various levels, in the run-up to the May 10 Assembly elections.

Though this changing scenario requires a ``more detailed disaggregate documentation in itself'' as Dr. M. Anandakrishnan, noted educationist and the Information Technology Adviser to the Chief Minister, put it some time back, the poll context has thrown up astonishing ``class versus caste issues.''

This is reflected in the voter attitude towards established political parties on the one hand - already taking the flak of the reforms - and the relatively `more deprived lot' in the rural segments who now feel `caste consolidation' and `MBC status' is the way to upward mobility.

Knowingly or unknowingly, the `Harshad Mehta-induced stock market boom' meant more money-flow while the non-banking finance companies, many of which offered astronomical interest rates with post-dated cheques and eventually went bust, seemingly fattened the consumer's purse.

For the simple townsman and the peripheral villager, the last five years of the DMK Government, despite the reasonable `good administration' it gave, allegedly `choked' this money- movement. Pana Puzhakkam Illenge (no money circulation), is the common refrain at many places.

While the somewhat educated people see that the State Governments have no role to play in either the Reserve Bank's tight/easy money (credit) policies or the SEBI's stock market regulations, few in the villages know that the erstwhile United Front Government's VDIS scheme had mopped up quite a bit of black money.

``To say there is a money crunch only reflects a mind crunch in some people,'' says the Thondar Congress leader, Mr. Kumari Ananthan, quoting the Chief Minister and DMK president, Mr. M. Karunanidhi. Fighting the polls under the NDA umbrella, Mr. Ananthan says it is a misconception as ``the money has substantially gone into assets creation and infrastructure under the DMK regime.''

The CPI State secretary, Mr. R. Nallakannu, still disagrees. ``TIDEL park creation by the DMK Government is fine, but are all the new jobs going to be only in computers?''

The farmers at many places complained of decline in paddy prices this year and wanted the Government to fix a standard procurement price. The offer of Rs. 1000 per tonne, as the State-advised price for sugarcane linked to a 10 per cent recovery, was ``utopian,'' as only few sugar mills in Tamil Nadu were capable of that recovery rate, some ryots said.

Amazingly, in a few rural pockets of Villupuram district, people are aware that Chinese locks and toys are being `dumped' in the Indian market. But their attitude to a possible surge in cheap imports is typically negative. ``Why have products which are locally available,'' they ask.

But, the townsman does not see all evil in imported products. ``My income from running an STD booth has nosedived to Rs.1000 a month from Rs.7000 a few years back. I supplement it selling `Amway' - the multi-marketing network - consumer products,'' says an ex-serviceman at Virudachalam. ``Bank loans for new enterprises are so hard to come by due to the new prudential norms.''

Apart from the joblessness of workers of closed industrial units without any retraining or reabsorption facility - the tannery industry in composite North Arcot district is a typical example - the gainers from the long years of reservation and the reform process now sport a `neo-class' look.

For instance, the well-off sections among the Mudaliars or other BCs, particularly the professionals, do not see the need for any caste-based consolidation to express their voting intent.

While the new class status has given them an ``identity to be proud of,'' the losers from the reservation/reform process, like the weavers among the Mudaliars, want to fight their `low-income status' with caste identity assertion. Thus, it seems, both party and caste identities will play an equal role in shaping the outcome of the 2001 election.

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