The battle may be tougher for Anbumani Ramadoss this year but the ruling party faces a ‘do or die’ situation
On a moonlit, refreshingly cool evening, a group of men sit around and discuss politics under the shed of a Vinayagar temple at Muthanoor village, about 30 kilometres from Dharmapuri town.
Children idle alongside, school done with, attempting to understand the conversation initially, then wandering away bored.
“I am a ‘mambazham’ (mango) man,” announces 31 year old M Sakthivel, who says he is in the marketing business but is loath to reveal his firm’s name. “I work actively for the PMK.” Mango is the election symbol of the Pattali Makkal Katchi or PMK.
The PMK founded by Dr S Ramadoss, a medical doctor by profession, referred to as ‘Marutthuvar Ayya’ (Doctor Sir), is hoping to keep the Dharmapuri Lok Sabha seat this year too. In 2014, Ramadoss’ son Anbumani Ramadoss, became a Member of Parliament from Dharmapuri with a rich margin of over 77,000 votes.
Sakthivel sighs and settles down to tell a story. “See this man?” he says, gesticulating at an older man wearing the veshti (dhoti) with the ruling party’s AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) colours. “We call him ‘Advocate’ because he is always arguing. Now Advocate and I – we have a history,” he says.
The history is quite recent – September and October 2018 to be precise. During this period, the AIADMK’s key leader in Dharmapuri, KP Anbazhagan, the minister for higher education, took on the member of Parliament Anbumani Ramadoss in a slanging match.
On 23 September 2018, KP Anbazhagan, speaking to the media, criticised Anbumani Ramadoss’ signature campaign initiative against the ruling party. The signature campaign was to demand an industrial hub or SIPCOT in the district, which, according to junior Ramadoss was a promise reneged upon by the AIADMK.
“The MP of this district is well aware that this government will complete whatever scheme and announcement it has made,” said KP Anbazhagan at a press meet. “By starting a signature campaign against us, he is fooling the people. Now that the elections are nearing, he is once again getting signatures from people regarding the scheme to fool the people.”
Three days later, the MP lashed back.
“A representative of the people who has been MLA four times, who belongs to this district, who has been minister twice, in fact he is a minister even now – if he really is a man, he should have brought SIPCOT here,” said Anbumani Ramadoss in a rebuttal to the press. “We do not consider him a minister because he does not have even a small qualification for that. He has lived as a slave throughout his life. He has got a ministerial berth as a reward for his slavish mentality.”
About a week later, the minister responded to this.
“In the village where he (Anbumani) was born and bred, not even one person has been a ward member in the village panchayat there,” said Anbazhagan on 01 October 2018. “These people have come to Dharmapuri and are trying to win over the people here. They have come here to waste time. If these people are able to bark so loudly, how much will people like us – who were born, brought up and live here, be able to do? Let them not threaten us. We are ‘panankaattu nari’ (fox in the palm forest). We are here due to the way shown by our Puratchi Thalaivi Amma (Revolutionary Leader Jayalalithaa). We are not going to become afraid of the circus being run here by Ramadoss.”
This bitter exchange went viral on social media. Having played the videos for context, Sakthivel continued. “When this happened, Advocate and I came to blows. We beat each other up, saying how can your leader abuse mine. We left each other with bruises and bleeding wounds,” he chuckled.
“But after Februrary 19 this year, Advocate called me and said – Come thambi (younger brother), now we are friends. We have to work together. No choice now,” recollected Sakthivel. “He put his arm around my shoulder and both of us had nothing to say. What do we do now? We fought once over our party leanings and now we are forced to work together because our leaders have tied up an alliance. Who do we vote for?” he asked.
The PMK was at loggerheads with the ruling AIADMK since 2011, calling them corrupt, anti-people and many other unsavoury jibes. They had submitted a list of alleged corrupt deals by the state government to the Governor last year and PMK leader Ramadoss also released a book on corruption by the ruling party. Come February and the abrupt u-turn taken by the party leadership has left the grassroots worker stumped.
The 60 year old ‘Advocate’, whose real name is A Govindasamy, is a landless agricultural labourer, with 41 goats to call his own. Of these, the state government provided four goats as part of the scheme introduced by late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in 2011.
“I am an AIADMK man, no doubt,” said Govindasamy. “But look at the state of affairs here in Muthanoor. There is no water. Last year there has been no farming because the rains failed. We are forced to go for construction work in Bengaluru, Salem, Chennai and other areas because we have no other income. About half the families in our village own around half to one acre of land. Now everyone has become construction workers because there is nothing here to cultivate,” he said.
Dharmapuri has always been parched, scorched earth, ‘vaanam paartha bhoomi’ (ground that looks to the sky) where little grows, except in good monsoon years. Across the district, struggling farmers have barely cultivated in the past season – the rains have deserted them. Men and women alike queue up to catch buses to take them to Bengaluru, Salem, Chennai and Vellore, to work as construction labourers, carrying bricks and toiling in the heat and dust of big cities.
Ask anyone in Dharmapuri what their issue is and they will say water. Despite the Hogenakkal Integrated Drinking Water Scheme, most villages do not get supply from the Cauvery. If they do, it is twice a week and limited. Water apart, local issues too abound.
“For the past 15 years, we have been protesting, demanding space for a burial ground,” continued Govindasamy. “Neither DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), nor AIADMK has fulfilled our request. Our lives have only worsened. Now what is the use of voting or of batting for a particular party?” he asked.
Sakthivel points to a school close to the main road. “My son and all other children from the village study there. We built this school ourselves, by pooling in money,” he said. When the tar road arrived some years ago to Muthanoor, the school was bifurcated into two – one half of the school went to one side of the road and the other half was across the new tar road. Residents petitioned the district administration to build a new school compound but to no avail. Finally villagers themselves pooled in the money and built the school, a victory they cherish.
“But now with the proposed 8-lane expressway, this school will be demolished. My leader Anbumani came and stood with us to protest against the expressway project. But now he has gone and joined hands with the party which proposed the project. Tell me, what should I do? Who should I support?” asked the PMK man.
The Leaders Speak
While the ground reality may be one of reluctance to work with one another, the AIADMK realises that it is a do or die situation for them.
Especially in Dharmapuri where not just a Parliamentary seat but also two Assembly bypolls are scheduled for 18 April. Tamil Nadu’s 39 MP seats and 18 MLA seats go to polls and the AIADMK needs to win at least 7 out of the 18 MLA seats in order to save its government.
[Read our story on the bypoll math and why AIADMK needs seven seats to stay afloat here: https://thelede.co.in/all-eyes-18-assembly-bypolls-byelections-tamil-nadu-aiadmk-dmk-dmdk/]
Which is perhaps why minister KP Anbazhagan is eager to please the foe turned friend. In an effort to ensure that the PMK stays on the AIADMK’s side, Anbazhagan, according to his aides, is toiling day and night, skipping meals to ensure a win in both Assembly seats as well as to make the incumbent Anbumani Ramadoss, the MP again.
“Arasiyal-la idhellam sagajam-nga,” he smiled, when questioned about his bitter exchange with Anbumani Ramadoss in September-October 2018. All this is par for the course in politics. “They raise questions and we respond, that is all there is to it.”
Anbazhagan said that he had gone to great pains to ensure that the Chief Minister’s campaign for Anbumani had nine ‘points’ – something which no other Chief Minister had done for an alliance candidate. By ‘points’, Anbazhagan is referring to places during the campaign where the CM spoke in support of junior Ramadoss.
“In 1998, 2001 and 2009, the AIADMK and PMK have been in alliance. We in Dharmapuri are not a treacherous people and we do not indulge in treacherous politics. We are working very hard to ensure that the PMK candidate wins the MP seat here.”
The minister also denies that the ruling party is more focussed on the bypolls to Harur and Pappireddipatti constituencies which fall within Dharmapuri district. “We have one eye on bypolls and one eye on the Lok Sabha elections,” he said.
Anbumani Ramadoss’ campaign manager Dr R Senthil, a urologist and Dharmapuri MP in 2009-2014 for the PMK, says that the alliance will only strengthen the PMK.
“During the 2016 Assembly election we lost only by small margins,” said Senthil. “With the AIADMK now in the alliance, we hope to make up those margins,” he said.
Anbumani Ramadoss had also contested the Pennagaram Assembly seat located in Dharmapuri district in 2016 and lost by a margin of close to 19,000 votes to the DMK candidate.
“You see the AIADMK also has a compulsion to win the bypolls here. So they will do it. It is not going to be problem,” he added.
As for the dent caused by the double standards displayed by the PMK in allying with the AIADMK after a barrage of criticism, especially on corruption, Dr Senthil feels that it will not impact the party’s chances negatively.
“See each party has its own agenda. The Left was initially against the Congress, now what has happened – they are in an alliance. We criticise governments but we go back and stay with the people. That is why we are a party with a difference,” he said.
And what of the DMK in Dharmapuri? A freshly minted politician as a candidate, although he is a local businessman and a very successful one at that, ‘DNV’ Senthil Kumar is attempting to peg himself as a “local” candidate versus the “outsider” Anbumani Ramadoss.
But factional rifts within the DMK – with Tiruvannamalai strongman EV Velu controlling the party cadre in Dharmapuri, while Senthil Kumar refuses to be under Velu’s shadow – might hamper the chances of the party.
As the local Muthanoor worker of the DMK sums it up – “I cannot in good faith say that the DMK will win. DMK has only around 10% support in this area. Our candidate is okay but people will prefer Anbumani more,” said K Kumar, 46.
G Chinnakannu, 60, who listened quietly to the entire conversation, had only one thing to add. “The AIADMK is putting in a lot of hard work. They have already visited us twice and have given us Rs 200 per head. More money will come. People here are poor, they only want money. And we will vote for those who give us money,” he said.