Mother of all contests in Theni

E V K S Elangovan and O P Raveendranath

Two “sons of the soil” – one handpicked by late J Jayalalithaa to nurture the assembly seat represented by her and AIADMK founder M G Ramachandran and other, the son of once powerful O Panneerselvam who stood for the late leader as Chief Minister when she stepped down twice due to court cases – and an “outsider”.

The April 18 electoral contest for this picturesque Lok Sabha seat that borders Kerala promises to be nothing short of a political blockbuster. Thanga Tamilselvan, the first to target O Panneerselvam’s Chief Minister seat in 2016 asking him to pave the way for now-jailed leader V K Sasikala, is taking on AIADMK’s O P Raveendranath and firebrand Congress leader E V K S Elangovan, grandnephew of Dravidian legend E V R Periyar.

Tamilselvan got into Jayalalithaa’s good books when he vacated Andipatti in 2001 after she desired to get elected to the Assembly from the seat held by her mentor MGR from 1984 to 1987. He later represented Andipatti, which is part of Theni Lok Sabha seat, from 2011 to 2017 until he was disqualified for siding with rebel leader T T V Dhinakaran.

Though there are about a dozen pressing issues that ideally should have been the focus of this election – fate of neutrino project that saw villagers taking up the cudgels, long-pending gauge conversion of the railway line from Madurai to Bodinayakanur section and water scarcity for both drinking and irrigation needs – the traditional rivalry between Tamilselvan and OPS has pushed everything to the backseat.

Though in the same party and among very few to have enjoyed Jayalalithaa’s continued patronage, Tamilselvan and OPS never saw eye-to-eye and both are baying for each other’s blood this election. While the rivals who hail from the dominant Mukulathor community though they belong to different sub-castes fight it out, the Congress nominee, who hails from far-away Erode, seems to strike a chord with the locals. Mukulathors, to which both OPS and Tamilselvan belong to, have been traditional AIADMK supporters and a split in their votes might end up helping the Congress nominee.

There is palpable anger against Panneerselvam at least in Andipatti, parts of Theni and Periyakulam where people openly talk about his “ditching” of AIADMK’s founding principles and his outing with the BJP.

“The AIADMK that exists today is not the one founded by late MGR and nurtured by Amma. We are very much upset with the way it is being run,” Rajangam, who has voted only for AIADMK since 1977, told DH in Theni. However, OPS is hoping that the “development works” of the government, the traditional votes in this AIADMK stronghold and the “Two Leaves” that still holds sway among rural voters as they connect the symbol with the legendary MGR would pull his son through the contest.

Besides the caste arithmetic, Tamilselvan is banking on his image, Dhinakaran’s popularity and the “anti-Modi” sentiments in the state. The TTV camp also hopes to eat into the Muslim votes and its alliance with SDPI might help win over at least a section of the community which has a sizeable presence here.

The Congress nominee is banking on the strength of the alliance and the votes of minorities and other communities -- he keeps his hopes alive since Theni has a track record of electing ‘outsiders’ –Dhinakaran, who hails from the Cauvery delta region, in 1999 and J M Haroon in 2004 and 2009.

Since Tamilselvan had served as MLA and as Rajya Sabha MP for one term, people remember his work and his “helping nature.” Also, Dhinakaran seems to have earned “good name” among people here during his tenure as MP from 1999 to 2004 – which could work in favour of Tamilselvan.

In Periyakulam, at a juice shop that’s not very far from the location of the tea stall that OPS owned before taking a plunge in politics, the discussion is centred around the “mother of all battles.”

“The Congress nominee cannot be written off since the DMK and Congress alliance had succeeded twice in the same seat. If the two split their community votes vertically, luck might smile on Elangovan, but it is too early to conclude,” the owner said, adding he would not reveal his name because he “knowns OPS family very well.”

People do recall OPS’ good work in the constituency but claim the once powerful man in AIADMK – his clout has seen a decline within the party after Edappadi K Palaniswami took over as Chief Minister – ignored the district after Jayalalithaa’s death in 2016.

Raveendranath is seeking votes in the name of Jayalalithaa as he feels it would establish the AIADMK as the original inheritor of the late leader’s legacy.

But his “community-oriented” speech may have ruffled a few feathers with those belonging to other castes openly voicing their displeasure. “He is at the very early stage of his political career, but he is whipping up caste passions. This isn’t right and might not go well in the coming days,” an auto-rickshaw driver in Andipatti said.

And like in every other constituency, money seems to be flowing like water here as well. “All three candidates seem to be on an equal footing as of now. It all depends on Vitamin M – how much money is being spent in the last few days. People have no qualms in receiving money for votes. But whom they vote for is a million-dollar question,” Mookaiah, a fruit seller in Andipatti, said.

 

THENI LOK SABHA CONSTITUENCY

STATE: TAMIL NADU

 

2014 WINNER

 

R Parthiban (AIADMK)

 

RUNNER-UP

 

PON MUTHURAMALINGAM (DMK)

 

MARGIN: 3,14,532 VOTES

 

2019 candidates

 

O P Raveendranath (AIADMK)

 

E V K S Elangovan (Congress)

 

Thanga Tamilselvan (AMMK)

 

Electorate (2019) 15,54,051 votes

 

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Mother of all contests in Theni

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