Chennai/Bengaluru: It’s not often that a junior student challenges a senior, especially when the latter has a reputation for winning. Witness it at Chennai’s R.K. Nagar.

It is here that Shimla Muthuchozhan, a political novice from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) will take on J. Jayalalithaa, chief minister of Tamil Nadu and head of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Whoever loses, Church Park’s Sacred Heart Matriculation Higher Secondary School wins. Both are alumni—separated by a few decades—of this school, one the oldest for girls in the city.

Their similarities end there.

“I am a driver turned politician," quips Muthuchozhan, 34, who comes from a family of ardent DMK supporters. “I love cars and would drive my mother-in-law (former DMK minister Sarguna Pandian) to party meetings and public gatherings. That was where I first developed an interest in politics," she says.

Pandian, who was social welfare minister in the 1996-2001 DMK government, is the deputy secretary general of the party and was elected to the state legislative assembly in 1989 and 1996 from R.K. Nagar.

“My mother-in-law has helped me in understanding politics and been a guiding force right through," she says, adding that she also draws inspiration from DMK chief M. Karunanidhi, party treasurer M.K. Stalin and Kanimozhi, member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha.

“This is a lifetime opportunity that the DMK leadership has given me. Kalaignar (Karunanidhi) and Thalapathy (Stalin) have trusted me, and I’m sure we will taste victory. I will win and will work for the people under DMK’s government. I’m very sure," says the law graduate, a surprise choice to take on the 68-year old chief minister in the 16 May election.

Muthuchozhan, who was born in Nagercoil and brought up in Chennai, believes her long-term association with R.K. Nagar constituency (she has lived here for more than a decade) gives her an advantage that the chief minister does not have.

“I know the people of R.K.Nagar and I’m one among them. Though it is the chief minister’s constituency, what has she done?" Muthochozan asks, pointing to the lack of basic infrastructure and drinking water issues in the area.

“The constituency has been lagging for the past 15 years. Since AIADMK took over, there has been no improvement and I want to change that," she says, adding that even during a crisis situation like the recent floods, the AIADMK was highly ineffective. Though Jayalalithaa did make a cursory appearance, she faced criticism for addressing the people from her air-conditioned vehicle.

“While no one from the AIADMK bothered about the people here, with the help of our party cadres, we were attending to people’s needs round the clock during the floods," Muthuchozan claims.

Her party workers agree.

“She set up medical camps and worked around the clock distributing food packets and was there when needed, even before being nominated," says one of them, who did not want to be named.

But she has a tough job ahead: Jayalalithaa has lost only once since her first election victory in 1989. That was when “Amma" lost to E.G. Sugavanam of the DMK in the 1996 assembly election from Bargur constituency.

But Muthochozhan appeared unfazed.

“As I have always been around, I know the people of this area and their problems," Shimla said. “It’s my accessibility that will help me in winning."

Why is R.K. Nagar special?

The AIADMK supremo was elected from Srirangam in 2011. She lost that seat and the chief minister’s post after a trial court in Bengaluru convicted her in a disproportionate assets case in September 2014 and sentenced her to four years’ imprisonment. However, the Supreme Court suspended the four-year sentence and granted her bail the very next month.

The Karnataka high court then upheld her appeal and acquitted her of all charges and Jayalalithaa was again sworn in as chief minister in May last year. But she had to get elected to the assembly within six months. So, to facilitate Jayalalithaa’s re-election, AIADMK’s P. Vetrivel resigned from the legislative assembly and offered his R.K. Nagar seat to her. Jayalalithaa defeated CPI candidate C. Mahendran by a margin of 150,000 votes to clinch the seat.

P.K. Sekar Babu, currently a DMK member, was elected to the legislative assembly from R.K.Nagar constituency as an AIADMK candidate in 2001 and 2006 elections. But as a DMK candidate, he was defeated in 2011.

Muthochozhan acknowledges what seems like her only connection with Jayalalithaa, but seemed to have her eyes only on the prize. “Now, we will both fight it out from R.K. Nagar," she says with a laugh.

“There is no one efficient in the DMK to compete Amma. They could have fielded some seniors from the party, if they had the confidence of winning. But they went for a fresh face, which shows their fear," says Avadi Kumar, spokesperson of the AIADMK. “Being a resident will not matter for the DMK candidate. Not just the people of R.K.Nagar, all the 234 constituencies in Tamil Nadu are fond of Amma. Having said that, there is no way that somebody could give a competition to Amma."

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