Alamy Photo
Alamy Photo

Chennai vs Centre: Water first, nation next

  • Modi and nationalism may work in rest of India, but in Chennai, water and basic infrastructure matter the most
  • Whether the candidate is a newbie or a veteran, the voter blue or white collar, across Chennai, it is local issues that dominate campaigns and conversations

CHENNAI : On a recent Sunday afternoon, about 150 residents of Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) in Chennai’s southern edge settled into plastic chairs in the basement of a building in Sholinganallur—waiting for the candidates contesting from the Chennai South constituency to show up, take questions, and give their respective stump speeches.

One group was discussing tax-saving investments, another was busy listing out new real estate projects to invest in, and a third was joking about whether the candidates will try to slip them any money, since Tamil Nadu politicians are after all masters of cash-for-vote schemes. “I heard Semmancheri (a low-income neighbourhood down the road) got 500 a house and they’re angry because the going rate this year is 2,000," said a man as the others in the group chuckled.

On Tuesday night, in the frenetic final hours of campaigning, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) family’s prominent New Delhi face, Kanimozhi, was caught up in the middle of an income tax raid. Nothing of substance was found and the southern state went to bed after adding a few more conspiracy theories to the long list that has been circulating in Tamil Nadu ever since the DMK’s M. Karunanidhi and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (AIADMK’s) J. Jayalalithaa exited the political landscape.

In the Sunday afternoon circle, though, which was filled mostly with members belonging to the Federation of OMR Residents’ Associations (FOMRRA), cash distribution was hardly the key electoral issue. The federation is a citizens’ group which claims to represent close to 300,000 households in gated communities and apartment complexes that dot a posh 15-kilometre (km) stretch by the sea. They invited all the Chennai South Lok Sabha candidates, who would otherwise not be allowed into gated communities, to campaign, and most accepted. Among this group of city residents, cash-for-votes and nationalism don’t sell. What matters is more mundane and every day—water and sewage lines.

If pushed to talk about larger policy issues concerning national politics, Chennai voters pick the imposition of the NEET, and GST, and centre-state relations.
If pushed to talk about larger policy issues concerning national politics, Chennai voters pick the imposition of the NEET, and GST, and centre-state relations. (Reuters)


OMR or the IT corridor, officially called Rajiv Gandhi Salai, is one of the newer parts of the city—built hurriedly in the wake of an influx of information technology (IT) firms in the early 2000s. But even the relatively rich cannot escape the egalitarian failures of haphazard urban planning. In large sections of the IT corridor, water and sewage lines have not yet been laid, and the gated communities depend on a fleet of water tankers, and have their own sewage treatment plants.

When the candidates arrived, all the questions they fielded related to piped water connections, underground sewage lines, stormwater drains, traffic congestion, and solid waste management. There was very little that related to a member of Parliament’s (MP’s) larger sphere of influence. The sitting MP and the son of a former AIADMK state minister, Jayavardhan Jayakumar who is contesting again, talked about the desalination plants that he had sanctioned and waste treatment plants that have been planned.

Water trumps nation

Whether the candidate is a newbie or a veteran, the voter blue or white collar, across Chennai, it is local issues and basic infrastructure that dominate campaigns and conversations. Peak summer or ‘kathiri veyil’ is yet to set in but water scarcity is the first, and often the only, topic people talk about. Debates about national security, jobs, the need for a “strong leader" and fundamental rights that take centre stage in other parts of the country are largely missing.

Pushed to talk about larger policy issues that an MP could exercise influence over in the Lok Sabha, voters pick the imposition of the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), and goods and services tax (GST), and centre-state relations. The sheer geographical distance from Delhi gives Tamil Nadu a slightly different perspective on electoral issues. “It’s been eight to 10 years since OMR became functional, but we still don’t have water or sewage lines or street lights. The roads are terrible and that’s because we don’t vote," said Harsha Koda, one of the conveners of the four-year-old FOMRRA. “We want to show the politicians that the middle class in OMR can be a vote bank too. If we all turn out, our two lakh-plus votes could be the deciding factor."

About 25km away, in the heart of Chennai Central constituency, there is not much difference in terms of expectations. “There’s no water in the common taps at which we fill our pots," said Venilla, who works as a maid and lives in one of the bylanes off Greames Road on the banks of Chennai’s perennially sluggish and sewage-filled Cooum river. “The candidates have been coming, and we ask them: What have you done to clean our streets?" A few streets away, Kaladevi S., also complained about the shortage of water.

Mackey’s Garden, where the two women live, and the larger neighbourhood of Thousand Lights and Nungambakkam in which it is situated, is a DMK stronghold. Former Union minister Dayanidhi Maran is looking to win the Chennai Central seat after he was dislodged by the AIADMK in the 2014 polls, when the Jayalalithaa-led party swept 37 of 39 Lok Sabha seats. Maran, who was a minister in the former United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, has represented the seat twice, and his father and former Union minister Murasoli Maran since 1996. This time, he is facing a political greenhorn—entrepreneur, lawyer and Page 3 regular, Sam Paul—who as a Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) member represents the AIADMK-BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) alliance in Tamil Nadu.

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP


“I started my campaign talking about accountability and bringing investment to the state, but when I met people, I realized their most basic needs have not been addressed," said Paul, who has built a chain of restaurants and beauty salons. “We have to address water, sanitation, education, and health before we go to larger issues," he said. Paul talks of pushing through drinking water and river linking projects if he is elected. “So, you see, these basic issues are also national issues," he reasoned.

The opposition DMK, which has the edge going by opinion polls, believes that the pointed demand for civic services is a direct consequence of the AIADMK not holding local body elections for three years. “The city and the state have been neglected by the chaotic AIADMK government, so obviously all (the) voters are asking about traffic, sewage, and water. As a candidate, I can’t dismiss these as local issues since an MP must work on a broad canvas," DMK candidate for Chennai South Sumathy ‘Thamizhachi’ Thangapandian, who is fighting her first Lok Sabha election, told voters.

Governance failure

The focus on the hyperlocal is indicative of governance failure, said Swarna Rajagopalan, a political analyst and founder-trustee of Prajnya, an NGO. “An MP should not be concerned about municipal issues, but survival is at stake. Voters are worried about water running out before (the) summer peaks," she said.

The narrow band of demands is the result of a mix of the desire for survival among parties and the state’s politics remaining tied to regional concerns. “Local prejudices still play a role in the state," explained Rajagopalan. “Here, voters are thinking of the Chennai-Salem highway that will cut through fertile farmlands, the imposition of NEET, missing activists, the Tuticorin (Thoothukudi) firing, and the Sterlite plant," she added.

Others say Tamil Nadu just has a different take on what constitutes national issues. “Voters are weighing the ways in which the Modi government imposed on them—NEET, demonetization, and GST," said Poongothai Aladi Aruna, member of legislative assembly of Alangulam constituency and head of the DMK medical wing.

Geography too plays a role. Tamil Nadu is far from the north, where the memories of Partition and subsequent wars are fresh. “People here may not talk about Rafale and Balakot and surgical strikes, but no one wants a warmongering head of state either," she said.

In earlier years, the two main parties would invoke the names of Dravidian leader Annadurai and actor, politician and AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran. The names now chanted are “Amma" or “Kalaignar". Neither was a Lok Sabha MP. Yet, their absence creates a quiver of uncertainty and the constant invoking of their names provides a shot of confidence.

Scriptwriter and Tamil scholar “Kalaignar" Karunanidhi, who died in 2018, was a member of the Tamil Nadu assembly for six decades. But he preferred to send his children and nephews to Parliament, providing crucial support to the UPA for two terms as well as tying it in with massive corruption cases.

Actor Jayalalithaa, on the other hand, was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1983 and gave speeches that caught the attention of Indira Gandhi. Though she played a role in supporting and toppling governments at the centre, she never contested Parliamentary polls.

Symbolic messaging

On the campaign trail in Egmore, Karunanidhi’s grand-nephew Dayanidhi Maran managed to bring both Karunanidhi and DMK founder Annadurai into one appeal: “When my leader Kalaignar died, all he wanted was a strip of sand on the Marina to lie beside his leader Anna but the mean-spirited AIADMK government denied that."

The AIADMK-BJP-PMK combine has to get a little more creative to mesh together symbols and ideologies and explain the alliance. In the lanes of Royapuram in Chennai Central constituency, Sam Paul’s team was holding aloft mangoes, the PMK party symbol, though he held up his hand to form the instantly identifiable two leaves symbol of the AIADMK. The recorded message blaring from loudspeakers reminded people: “Who gave you laptops? Amma. Who gave you cycles? Amma. Who made sure your children went to school? Amma. What was Amma’s favourite fruit? Mambalam (mango). Vote for mango."

Though BJP workers joined the procession, there was no mention of lotus or Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A day later, when BJP minister Smriti Irani visited the largely north Indian neighbourhood of Sowcarpet, the BJP flags and slogans appeared everywhere. “Push the button for mango and a lotus will bloom in Delhi," she told the crowd.

Kannan Rajarathinam, who has authored biographies of both Anna and MGR, described Tamil Nadu as a unique state with leaders with a cult following beginning from Anna. “It is inevitable that these leaders and their contributions are invoked. With time, and with voters becoming more discerning, this is likely to change," he said.

In comparison to the other parties in the fray, Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) candidates don’t seem to lean so heavily on the star power of Kamal Haasan though he does turn out to drum up support for them. “We are a party of educated and honest people," said Chennai South candidate R. Rangarajan, a former banker and IAS officer. “Politics has no dearth of educated people, what’s missing is honest people," he said. “Our party will change that."

It’s a line that has found some traction with younger voters. “I’m tired of the nepotism in the DMK and the corruption of the AIADMK. The AIADMK seems to be the centre’s puppet after Jayalalithaa died," said Srivatsav Balan, 30, who works as a product manager in one of Chennai’s SaaS companies. “Party manifestoes are still talking about the development of Tamil. I don’t need that. I need water, roads, infrastructure, healthcare, cleaner air. I need to know that parties will resist the impositions of the centre on the south like NEET and GST," he added.

Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth, if and when he chooses to contest, may find that star power is no longer enough on the Tamil Nadu electoral scene. “Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan will have to deliver if they want us to keep voting for them. See what happened to Vijayakanth," said a 45-year-old auto driver, Rajan. He was referring to Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, which made its debut in the 2006 assembly polls and captured a 10% vote share. But the party has since petered out, and is now part of the AIADMK-BJP alliance.

Across the city, there is, of course, the oft-repeated refrain of exhaustion with the two main Dravidian parties. “I’m tired of having to choose between the AIADMK and the DMK," said Yesuraj, a cab driver. “I’m glad Kamal Haasan and T.T.V. are options even if they turn out to be no different over time."

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