The Dr Radhakrishnan Nagar assembly constituency, aka R.K. Nagar, is in north Chennai, just a few kilometres away from the Tamil Nadu secretariat. On the afternoon of April 25, the small, crooked alleyways in the area were buzzing with activity. This is Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa's seat. And, she is coming to submit her nomination papers at the Tondiarpet zonal office.
The main road to the office is the scene of action. The AIADMK's twin leaf symbol adorns flags and posters on both sides of the road. Pavements have been cordoned off for two kilometres, to let the chief minister's convoy pass unhindered.
A silver metallic Toyota Prado flying the red and black pennant of the AIADMK dashes up the road to thunderous applause. Slogans praising the puratchi thalaivi (revolutionary leader) fill the air as the smiling 68-year-old steps out. Dressed in a dark green sari, she turns to the crowd, flashes the victory sign and heads into the office. Twenty minutes past noon, she comes out and leaves.
Three kilometres away, a short, stout, young woman is canvassing for votes at the 'tsunami quarters' in Kasimedu. Accompanied by a group of men and a band of drummers, lawyer Simla Muthuchozhan leaves no by-lane unvisited. With folded hands, she enters every home and says, “Udhaya Sooriyannukku vote podunga [Vote for the Rising Sun, the DMK's symbol]. I am one among you. If you vote for me, I can visit you every other day. But, Jayalalithaa, given her health, will not visit you.” A political novice, Simla is the daughter-in-law of former DMK minister Sarguna Pandian and a mother of two.
Taking on the two heavyweights of the Dravidian parties is 77-year-old V. Vasanthi Devi of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam-People's Welfare Alliance front. The PWA unites the CPI, CPI(M), Vaiko's Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Thol. Thirumavalavan's Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi. A two-time vice-chancellor and activist, Devi's is a new name for the lower middle-class fishing community in R.K. Nagar. “Usually, the elite are wary of electoral politics. But, this is key,” says the staunch comrade.
Apparently, Thirumavalavan persuaded her to choose ideology over her friendship with the chief minister. Jayalalithaa had nominated her to head Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, as a member of the State Planning Commission and as chairperson of the state women’s commission. “My fight is against the corrupt system,” says Devi.
The Anbumani Ramadoss-led Pattali Makkal Katchi has fielded P. Agnes, 50. The activist is seeking votes for the 'mango' by highlighting what Jayalalithaa failed to deliver. “Water, infrastructure and basic amenities are the issues here. Jayalalithaa promised to solve all this when she was elected from here last year,” says Agnes. Apparently, she demanded the ticket against Jayalalithaa. “Infrastructure development is my only aim for this constituency,” Agnes says.
The other prominent face in the fray is a transwoman—Naam Tamilar’s S. Devi. The only male contesting the seat from a prominent party is the BJP's M.N. Raja, son-in-law of former AIADMK leader C. Aranganayakam.
In the 2015 byelections, Jayalalithaa got 88.43 per cent of the votes. The first runner-up was the CPI's C. Mahendran. He got 9,710 votes to her 1,60,432. But, things might not be as easy this time.
Packed between the suburbs of Royapuram, Perambur and Tiruvottiyur, this densely populated constituency has nothing much to show for supporting the AIADMK since 2001. Bad roads, lanes packed with hutments, chaotic traffic and lack of piped water plague R.K. Nagar. Jayalalithaa, of course, has only represented the seat for 10 months now. So, will the voters give her the benefit of the doubt?
“My family has always voted for AIADMK. But, there was no support when we lost everything in the floods last year,” says Jothi Jeyapaul, 42, a grocer from Tondiarpet. Even the promised relief of Rs 5,000 per family has not reached her yet. “Can we rebuild our houses with Rs 5,000?” she asks. But, Jothi is still undecided about whom to vote for this time.
Criss-crossing water tankers and women running after them with colourful pots is a daily sight here. Every day, at least 280 water tankers visit R.K. Nagar to top up the 530-odd water tanks. “We pay one rupee for one pot of water. I cannot get more than 10 pots a day, even if I pay,” says Jothi. To compound the water crisis, the ancient oil pipelines connecting the constituency with HPCL and BPCL terminals are leaking and contaminating the ground water.
Jayalalithaa supporters point out changes that have happened since electing her. A footbridge connects backward areas like MGR Nagar and Nehru Nagar on the Buckingham canal. There is the new flyover at Kathivakkam High Road. Amma brand products are readily available; foundation stones have been laid for an Amma pharmacy and an Amma marriage hall. As promised, Jayalalithaa has laid the foundation stone for an arts and science college, and an industrial training institute on the busy Kamaraj Salai, near the port.
Jayalalithaa is grateful, supporters say. After all, R.K. Nagar gave her the thumping victory after the Karnataka High Court exonerated her in the disproportionate assets case. During her victory speech, she said: “I will never forget R.K. Nagar. You have elected me to the assembly as chief minister. You have a special place in my heart.”
But, the other women candidates say the sentimental appeal is hogwash. Simla, who hails from R.K. Nagar, says Jayalalithaa is inaccessible: “She came in a van during the floods and addressed the residents as ‘My dear voters’.” In fact, Simla was seen on the ground helping people during the flood. Her pamphlet highlights her connect with R.K. Nagar: “Having done her schooling in Church Park convent and graduated as a lawyer, Simla always goes around the constituency in a Scooty.”
Ground reports suggest that Jayalalithaa will win the seat comfortably this time, too. But, it is the size of the margin that will be worrying the AIADMK cadre and the chief minister herself.