This is Thuthukudi or Tuticorin, also known as the Pearl city, even though no pearls are harvested here.
Though 17 candidates are vying to be elected an MP, the real contest is between Cynthia Pandian of J Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham, S R Jayadurai of the DMK and S Saravanan of the All India Samuthuva Katchi. Six assembly constituencies — Kovilpatti, Ottapidaram, Srivaikuntam, Thuthukudi, Tirunchendur and Vilathikulam — make up the parliamentary constituency.
Tuticorin is an important industrial town. It has the second largest salt pans in the country after Gujarat. It has a fertiliser unit, which is said to be the second largest in Asia, and currently in dire need of revival.
Sterlite, India’s biggest copper smelter, has a factory here, as does the caustic soda manufacturer, DCW. Kovilpatti is where most of the country’s match sticks are manufactured.
No leader of any consequence held public meetings here. The sole political campaigner of note being actor Sharath Kumar, founder president of the All India Samuthuva Katchi.
Samuthuva means inclusive of all in Tamil, but most political observers call the AISK the Nadar party.
The Nadars are the dominant community in Tuticorin. They own all the salt pans, all the match sticks units in Kovilpatti and most of the agricultural land. The Chennai retail giant, Saravana stores, the restaurant chain Saravana Bhavan, Ratna stores, Jayachandran textiles, V V Minerals, the largest beach minerals exporter in the world, press baron Sivanthi Aditan and HCL Chairman Shiv Nadar all belong to this district.
The successful and controversial Tamil Nadu Mercantile Bank is also anchored here as are many ships at the fastest growing harbour in the country.
So why does this constituency look so dead? You can’t blame the heat as that is a common factor throughout the country. “It’s the candidates,” says local resident Nazareth Selvin, “The AIADMK candidate is more arrogant than Jayalalithaa, the DMK candidate is nothing to write home about, the Sharath Kumar candidate is a karate expert; are we contesting for the Olympics?”
The AIADMK candidate is the former vice-chancellor of the Manomanaim Sundarnar University, Tirunelveli. She is the wife of AIADMK stalwart Paul Hector Pandian, a controversial former speaker of the Tamil Nadu assembly. Her son Manoj Pandian is an MLA from Cheranmadevi.
The DMK candidate is known as the doctor who wasn’t. He runs a hospital which ran into trouble with the Indian Medical Association last year. Since there was a controversy about whether he is a doctor or not, he clarified that he was an ayurvedic doctor. Last year, local newspapers reported that none of his certificates are recognised here. Dr Vetrivel of the IMA, Tuticorin, confirms this.
In his election affidavit, he does not mention ‘doctor,’ preferring to declare himself a graduate.
The posters for S Saravanan, Sharath Kumar’s candidate, call him ‘Karate Saravanan’ in the Hindu areas of the constituency. In the Christian areas like Nazareth town and the coast, the posters read ‘Karate Solomon.’
The AISK has an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party and has the lotus symbol. Now to explain the candidate’s dual identity: Saravanan is Lord Shiva’s second son while Solomon is the wise king mentioned in the Old Testament. Some probing reveals that his name is Karate Saravanan alias Solomon. Quite a powerful punch of a name!
The AIADMK candidate is a Christian Nadar who hopes to get both the Nadar and Christian votes. The DMK candidate is also a Nadar.
Some voters allege that DMK cadres have distributed cash before the election. Villagers in Purayur claim Rs 200 was being distributed, but when the Kurumbur police sub inspector turned up, the distributors vanished.
Some Muslims in Purayur are annoyed. “Why couldn’t the SI come after they finished our street too?” they ask.
Elsewhere in the district, in Pattandi villai village in Srivaikuntam taluka near Sawyerpuram, Janakiammal is furious. Her daughter and son-in-law are also angry because the local DMK activists claim the family had been given Rs 600 for their three votes.
“NO!” screams the daughter in the middle of the street as the mother hurls abuses at the DMK activists who argue that they had sent the money and maybe the courier has not given it to the family.
The commotion leads to the appearance of policemen from the Sawyerpuram police station, provoking the DMK cadres to vamoose. Janakiammal, being over 70 and prudent, does not tell the policemen why her family is screaming on the street.
Sathankulam is the furthest point in Tuticorin district where a tea shop owner is watching a street rally organised by the DMK and Congress alliance on Monday. “They have promised me 500 rupees. It is enough for a half and two briyanis,” he grinned. Half meaning half a bottle of liquor. “After that I can sleep happily.”
“The money is for voting, not sleeping,” volunteers one of his customers. “I will vote if I get up before 5 pm on voting day.”
Jayalalithaa is set to sweep the Lok Sabha election in Tamil Nadu, but they say the exception proves the rule.
In Kachnavillai AIADMK workers reportedly tell their candidate Cynthia Pandian that this village is upset with the party and she should pacify them.
“I have come here to canvass, not to beg,” is her reported response. “I don’t care if I lose, but I will not beg.”
Pollsters say Jayalalithaa will sweep Tamil Nadu, but in Tuticorin her party may bite the dust.