Will bellwether Uthiramerur hold key to Tamil Nadu polls?

Will bellwether Uthiramerur hold key to Tamil Nadu polls?

Uthiramerur, Kanchipuram: There is more riding on it than a mere electoral win. Uthiramerur is that one swing constituency that has, with a sole exception, gone on to predict the winner of the state assembly of Tamil Nadu.

Starting with the first assembly election in 1952, the party garnering maximum votes here has worn the crown in Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s capital. The only exception was in 1957, when an independent won here and the Indian National Congress won the state election and reinstalled K. Kamaraj as chief minister. That was a long time ago. Now, the Congress is a pale shadow of itself and a junior partner in an alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), whose principal rival is the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

“This constituency almost seems like an indicator of the state’s election results and if there’s no clear signal on which party is going to win, it affirms the likelihood of this year’s Tamil Nadu assembly elections being a close battle," says Barun Mitra, director of the Liberty Institute, an independent Delhi-based think tank that runs a website to educate voters about candidates.

Given what is at stake, candidates of the two principal rivals, Ponn Kumar of the DMK and P. Ganesan of the AIADMK, are not taking any chances. Both have promised new bridges, educational institutions and the restoration of ancient temples—anything that can sway the voter. The DMK is hoping this will suffice to fend off anti-incumbency; the AIADMK candidate is praying the electorate wants change.

“Every constituency is important and we are not taking the myth associated with Uthiramerur seriously," says a close associate of AIADMK candidate Ganesan, who didn’t want his name mentioned. Ganesan could not be reached.

“I do know that historically a win in the Uthiramerur constituency has lead to the party forming the state government, so there is a kind of responsibility, but there’s no tension and pressure," says Kumar, the DMK candidate. “Since 2006, the DMK has taken care of not just welfare, but also economic growth, and even if prices have gone up, buying power of people has gone up, and all that is in our favour."

“We’ve gone on to predict the state’s future for several decades," says M. Balaraman Mudailayar in Tamil. The 72-year-old resident fixes agricultural equipment such as tractors and pumps. “And our ancient edicts have ideas to revamp the current electoral system."

Located around 60km from the state capital on national highway 45, running south-west of Chennai, a tough-to-take right turn stretches into a straight road that leads to Uthiramerur. The 25km road to the village is riddled with unpainted speed breakers that surprise visitors. This town remains rooted in contemporary and ancient election history that offers lessons to the state’s feuding political parties engaged in a bitter election battle ahead of polls next week.

Nearly 1,100 years ago, kings of the Chola dynasty coined an electoral system with clear nomination rules inscribed on temple walls—edicts that would disqualify most of today’s candidates. The 10th century Vaikunta Perumal Temple bears some of these inscriptions.

Any of the nominees from the 30 families in the Uthiramerur village could be disqualified on grounds of financial indiscretion, the consumption of alcohol or theft. Moreover, no candidate could continue as a village representative for more than a year or stand for re-election.

Nearly all residents Mint spoke to concurred that the present polity was vastly different from what was ordained by their ancestors. Also, opinion is divided on whom to support, suggesting a close battle.

“I wouldn’t take Uthiramerur as an indicator, but I can certainly see that it may hold some sentiments for the political parties and there may be anxiety to know which party has won in this constituency," says Cho Ramaswamy, editor of Tamil magazine Tughlak and a political commentator.

Agriculturalist M. Devdas, 58, who grows sugar cane and rice, was happy with the DMK’s freebies. “They gave us rice at 1 and also forgave some of our loans," he says. 

But R. Pushpa, a 44-year-old widow who lives in a thatched hut without electricity, right next to Uthiramerur’s landmark two-storied Sri Sundaravaradaraja Perumal (Vishnu) temple, believes it is time for change.

“Prices need to come down," she says, automatically knotting jasmine flowers outside her small stall selling coconuts, bananas, betel leaves and camphor for worshippers to offer to the deity. “The 1 rice isn’t always of good quality. I opted to buy the 30 per kg non-ration rice this month. Lentils are also expensive. A change is needed in the government, but we’ll have to wait and see if they actually make a difference or fill their own coffers."

Despite its proximity to Tamil Nadu’s capital and its special place in the electoral history of the state, the temple town remains largely decrepit and dependent on sugar cane and rice farming, with just a smattering of industries producing steel, cement and sugar. As of now, it seems to draw attention for its unique electoral legacy, which will be put to the test on 13 May, when votes are counted.

“People are reading too much into Uthiramerur’s importance and are blowing out of proportion what are mere coincidences," said T.K. Rangarajan, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) central committee member, who is campaigning against the DMK as an alliance partner of the AIADMK.