Karti Chidambaram would like this election to be about Modi, the future of the nation, the alliance, and his promises to Sivaganga voters. But his critics would like to talk about development, or the lack of it in Sivaganga.
Karaikudi is the prosperous, commercial hub of the constituency. Its well laid streets and detached houses talk of a comfortable middle class existence, if not wealth. Karaikudi boasts of a large diamond retail centre operated by Gujaratis. Outside Karaikudi, however, the constituency which covers a wide geographic swathe is largely drought-prone and poorly developed.
Karaikudi is also the home of the wealthy Tamil merchant community – the chettiars. Chettiars are old money and the Chidambarams come from it.
On the national stage, P Chidambaram is a public finance expert, top lawyer, economic visionary who gave dream budgets, and a key member of the advance guard of liberalization. At Sivaganga, he was the scion of a wealthy, well connected family. And, as the Congress candidate, he had another Congress family of the kallar community – a numerous, dominant OBC – delivering bulk votes and ensuring his victory.
P Chidambaram always saw himself as a lawmaker who had a national role. But critics here say that despite the seven terms of a national level leader, the constituency reels from a lack of basic amenities. Water remains a persistent problem although that goes back many hundreds of years.
Karti, who lost the 2014 elections, is dismissive of this discourse. “See, the MP is not the king of a constituency. In any case, this election is not a referendum on P Chidambaram. This is about Modi and whether he should continue in office,” he counters.
On the campaign trail on April 11, Karti visits a large garment unit set up recently near Sivaganga where more than a thousand women work. He points to a former MLA from Chennai who is from Sivaganga as the owner of the unit. While driving out of the industry campus, the former MLA points to a daycare centre where the working women leave their children. “Do you think this would have come without my father’s intervention?” asks Karti.
He points to the Indo Tibetan Border Police recruit training centre that has come up in Sivaganga district. “Would this too have come up without my father?” Karti asks. “See I can give a point-by-point rebuttal of this charge about the performance of P Chidambaram but this election is not about that,” he says.
Karti says as MP he would ensure all central schemes are implemented properly in Sivaganga and the constituency gets its due. He says heritage and temple tourism can be promoted in the area and the Chettinad food can be branded. Heritage tourism will have a spillover effect and raise the economic profile, he adds.
On the cases against him, he has said in the past they were bogus and foisted upon him to target his family, pointing out that no chargesheet has been filed in eight cases.
Karti makes twelve stops at villages around Sivaganga town before he returns. Speaking to village folk, he talks about the Nyay dole, increasing the MGNREGA working days, and ensuring that unless the educated get their jobs their education loan repayment will not kick in. “You remember how we waived farm loans in 2009?” he asks. “Looks like you forgot. This time also we will waive all farm loans,” he tells the crowd.
The BJP has campaigned that Karti is aloof, arrogant and inaccessible — not very different from his father. In Sivaganga town, Karti takes pains to emphasize that he will be accessible and will be there to solve the voters’ problems. He points out that a medical college has come up in Sivaganga and more will happen. Sivaganga will become as prosperous as Karaikudi, he says.
Karti’s gait is like his father, he ambles along like him, and peers through his glasses just like his father does. He tells this writer expectations will be high from him, too. “I am my father’s son but I have my own personality. I speak informally at meetings, talk about people’s struggles, and discuss even the higher cable TV fees they are paying,” he adds.
The bottomline, as far as Karti is concerned, is the DMK-Congress alliance that includes several other parties. The alliance is so strong that he will win, he adds.
Karti’s campaign has at least one point person at each stop. These are the ground-level cadres who arrange the arena for the stump speeches and get people to come there. At Meenakshipuram, voters unanimously ask for ration shops. “We will do it. We will bring a ration shop here,” Karti says.
Karti talks about these point persons. “Without this network, how will we do a campaign and get elected? These actors [a reference to Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan] think they can just come around and get votes. Not possible,” he says.