MR Gandhi (75), the BJP’s candidate in Nagercoil assembly constituency starts his day at 5 am receiving party cadre and visitors at Rukmani Bhavanam, the BJP’s rented office, which also serves as Gandhi’s residence. By 6.30 am, the barefoot Gandhi hits the streets to meet people.
Attired in white shirt and dhoti, Gandhi travels to Variyoor, a housing apartment in the Kanyakumari constituency in his SUV. There he meets 500 odd families who were recently relocated from various places in Nagercoil, after their homes were demolished for a railway line extension project.
“Nobody including the Kanyakumari MLA has enquired about our well-being, after we were shunted out here. But it is only Gandhi who has visited us. We would have voted for Gandhi if we were still in Nagercoil,” said Ramya, a resident, whose life has been disrupted in this move. She hoped that Gandhi would create an alternative housing for them within the Nagercoil constituency.
Mavilai Ramasamy Nadar Gandhi is a BJP veteran. Born in an agricultural family, he never attended school due to abject poverty. He is one of the people responsible for laying the foundation for the emergence of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in Kanyakumari in the late 60s.
In 1967, he was Jana Sangh’s district president, and in 1975, he became the party’s state secretary. During that time, he was jailed for a year for opposing the Emergency. Between 2016 and 2020, he served as state BJP’s vice-president, and in 2020, he was elected as a national general council member.
Inspired by Jana Sangh leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Nanaji Deshmukh, Sundar Singh Bhandari, Gandhi too became a full-time party worker. It is because of his commitment to his party, he didn’t think about having a family. He is a natural follower of Gandhian principles, earning the moniker ‘Kutty Kamaraj’.
Gandhi has been fielded as an electoral candidate by his party multiple times.
He contested from Nagercoil – a constituency, which has an extensive Hindu population but he has not been able to win even once all these years. From Colachel, he contested in 1984 and 2006. In 1984, he lost the elections by 589 votes and in 2006, he was the only BJP candidate in Tamil Nadu who polled the highest number of votes. In 2011, he contested from Kanyakumari, and in 1989, he was also fielded as a MP candidate from the then Nagercoil Lok Sabha constituency.
‘People have started to accept us’
Locals in the constituency consider Gandhi as an affable and good person. “Being a good individual however does not mean that he will be an able politician or legislator,” said Salim, a resident of the constituency.
Though people are responding well to Gandhi during door-to-door canvassing along with his party functionaries, people seem to hesitate to receive him wholeheartedly.
“It’s true people consider BJP as a communal force. There is a fear among the minorities. We try to allay their doubts and fears through conversations with them,” Gandhi told Federal.
But will the minorities vote for him? According to Gandhi, religion plays a crucial role in the constituency. “I managed to land up in the second place last time with votes from all sections of society. This time it is possible I can emerge victorious. The minorities have started to accept us. I am a living witness to that,” he said, adding that when he was attacked by some Muslims in 2013, people from all the religions stood by him and condemned the attack.
“After Narendra Modi’s elevation as a Prime Minister, that acceptance has got more stronger,” said Gandhi. In 2016, he had campaigned alone. But today, he has 15 to 20 people participating in the campaigning along with him. “Lots of young people show great interest in the party. The women eagerly take selfies with me,” Gandhi laughs.
There may be some truth to Gandhi’s claim. If one looks at the election history of Nagercoil, from 1971 to 2011, both the Dravidian parties and Congress have given seats to Nadar Christians. The candidate’s victory was decided by the Christian votes. But there was a major shift in 2011, when the AIADMK pulled Christian votes to their side despite fielding a Nadar Hindu.
This trend continued in 2016 too. According to the 2011 Census, majority of people here are Hindus with 61.06% and 29.94 % are Christians. This sudden shift in the voting behaviour however needs to be studied more deeply. But, the fortunes of this BJP candidate seem to be inextricably tied to the changing mood of the voters here.