The Tipu divide in Karnataka


By T S Sudhir

 
Since Siddaramaiah as chief minister in 2015 started celebrating the birth anniversay of Tipu Sultan as Tipu Jayanti in November every year, it has been an occasion for the Congress and the BJP to spar and cross swords over whether the king known as the `Tiger of Mysore’ was a patriot or a bigot and a murderer. Under Siddaramaiah’s stewardship, Tipu Jayanti was an integral part of the government calendar of events and with a Congress-JD(S) regime in Karnataka, it was expected that the tradition will be continued.
 
On 10 November it was, but with noticeable absenteeism on display. Chief minister HD Kumaraswamy reported sick and a statement from his office said : “On the advice of doctors, the chief minister will take three days rest till November 11. He will spend time with family on these days and there will be no official engagements on these days.” Lest it be construed that he was deliberately skipping the Tipu event, the CM sent across a message lauding the controversial ruler. It said : “Tipu Sultan’s progressive measures in administration and his quest for innovation are commendable.”

 

Deputy CM from the Congress flock, G Parameswara was abroad on Saturday. The government presence at official celebration was led by ministers DK Shivakumar and Zameer Ahmed Khan.

 
Not surprising then that Siddaramaiah in a cryptic tweet on Sunday morning seemed to express his displeasure. The translation of his Kannada tweet read thus : “Compromises are necessary sometimes for the public good and I may have done them too. But I can never compromise with fundamental principle of secularism. Power comes and goes. I don’t care.”
 
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Keen observers of Karnataka politics see this as an expression of Siddaramaiah’s peeve and a dig at Kumaraswamy. After all, the CM’s decision to skip Saturday’s event is bound to be interpreted as a snub to his predecessor. In fact, during the 2017 Tipu Jayanti, Siddaramaiah had promised to make the event more grand from the following year. 
 
While the BJP reaction to Tipu Jayanti was on expected lines, with several MLAs asking the government not to extend them invitations to attend Tipu Jayanti programmes in their constituencies, the fissures within the alliance will worry. More so since Siddaramaiah has gone public with his displeasure. Already his close aide and former Education minister Tanveer Sait, who is also MLA from Mysuru has described the absence of the top two of the Karnataka government as an “insult to the Muslim community”. 
 
Observers also believe the former CM is not too pleased over Shivakumar basking in the limelight of the event. Shivakumar’s tweet immediately after the byelection results on 6 November which the Congress-JD(S) alliance won by 4 seats to one, credited Rahul Gandhi and HD Deve Gowda but ignored Siddaramaiah who had in fact, led the campaign in Ballari. This despite the Congress victory in the backyard of the Reddy brothers being the biggest triumph in the victory march. 
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The BJP did not lose an opportunity to take a dig at Kumaraswamy abandoning a programme organised by his government in a bid to highlight the faultlines. Its Karnataka unit tweeted on Saturday : “CM @hd_kumaraswamy Missing ! While Cong-JDS govt is celebrating a tyrant Tipu, the CM himself goes into hiding, what is the point of celebrating a fanatic when CM himself abandons a govt function. Glorifying a mass murderer just for vote bank clearly shows mindset of this govt.”
 
The BJP also taunted Kumaraswamy for skipping the event due to superstition that association with Tipu brings bad luck. It pointed out that Siddaramaiah had lost the assembly elections in Chamundeswari in Mysuru district for the same reason.
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Has `Sarkar’ made the Tamil Nadu sarkar the new censor board?


By T S Sudhir

 
Vijay announces himself as a “corporate criminal” in `Sarkar’. However, the real sarkar (government) in Tamil Nadu saw him as a political aspirant, calling his latest release an act of “sedition”.
 
It was a day of high drama on Thursday. Two senior ministers threatened the actor with legal action and on cue, the AIADMK cadre went on the offensive in different towns of Tamil Nadu, forcing theatres to cancel shows. A team of Chennai police landed up at the residence of director AR Murugadoss late at night and Sun TV (whose group company Sun Pictures is the producer of `Sarkar’) put out a tweet saying `Police reach AR Murugadoss residence to arrest him’. The Chennai police was to later clarify that they had gone to Murugadoss’ residence to provide security. The underlying message of intimidation was not lost on anyone.
 
The makers of `Sarkar’ have reportedly agreed to two changes in the movie. First, mute the name `Komalavalli’ of the female antagonist since it is the original name of J Jayalalithaa. Two, delete the scene where freebies like mixie are shown being flung into the fire by the public. The freebies were introduced by Jayalalithaa in 2011 and the portrayal was seen as insulting her memory. Law minister CV Shanmugam went a step further and said the scene would incite people to indulge in violence. It is a different matter that four days since the release of `Sarkar’, no one has thrown his/her mixie and wet grinder into the fire.
 
Of course, as pointed in my blog yesterday, the AIADMK smelt a political conspiracy since Kalanidhi Maran, the grand nephew of the late DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi is bankrolling `Sarkar’. Two, P Karuppaiah, a former MLA of the AIADMK from Harbour constituency in Chennai, plays the role of the chief minister in the movie. Karuppaiah was expelled from the party by Jayalalithaa in January 2016 for indulging in anti-party activities. Karuppaiah subsequently accused the AIADMK of indulging in corruption. 
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Now that the filmmakers have agreed to voluntary cuts, should we treat `Sarkar’ as a closed chapter or was there always more than what meets the eye? I feel this was a charade that was played out, intended to benefit certain individuals. The AIADMK used it as an opportunity to send a stern message across and those involved with `Sarkar’ would gain from being in the news.
 
Three questions for director Murugadoss. Did he and the production team not know that the AIADMK will see red when he named his antagonist as Komalavalli? Did they think the ruling party will keep quiet when their principal electoral card was  critiqued? Did they believe the AIADMK will then not connect the content to Maran and Karuppiah? 
 
Vijay’s movies have a history of creating a controversy. Whether it was Thalaivaa, Mersal or Kaththi, real-life controversies have provided it with the oxygen generating more box office interest. A movie like Mersal that otherwise may have been an also-ran, was targeted by the BJP for a dialogue criticising GST. The producers raked in the moolah. 
 
Incidentally, earlier this year two films `TamizhPadam2′ and `NOTA’ were released and both were far more scathing indictments of the ruling party’s politics of Tamil Nadu. The government did not think of slapping charges of sedition on them or brand them as terrorists. 
 
Why? Is it because both did not star a big draw like Vijay who has political ambitions and could emerge as a threat to the AIADMK in the future. In fact, CS Amudhan, the director of `TamizhPadam2′ nailed it in his tweet when he said tongue-in-cheek : “I strongly object to the fact that we were not given similar publicity, we also tried our best. This is totally partisan behaviour.” 
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It is also deeply ironic that a party that rode on cinema as a medium to spread its message is now frowning upon the use of 70mm to make a point. Perhaps the present deglamourised leadership of the AIADMK knows the power of cine glamour better than anyone else and would like to ensure against any more Kollywood imports making it big in politics. 
 
But was the AIADMK all wrong in objecting to the depiction of the AIADMK in the name of freedom of expression? To be fair, the Film certification board looks closely at how women, children, disabled, animals etc have been portrayed in a film. The rules do not look at whether any scenes could offend a political outfit. The manner in which the AIADMK objected, using raw power to browbeat was not correct but the flip side is whether a legal remedy with its inordinate delays would have helped its cause. 
 

So `Sarkar’ has resulted in a more intolerant Sarkar. On Friday, Revenue minister RB Udhayakumar emerged as the super censor in Tamil Nadu, laying out ground rules for Tamil films. He said controversial scenes with political motives should be avoided. “No one has the right to criticise Amma government’s welfare schemes,” he declared.

 
The worry is the rather casual manner in which the sedition law is sought to be used. Under Jayalalithaa, sedition charges were slapped against folk singer Kovan for criticising the liquor policy of the AIADMK regime. The Edappadi Palaniswami government perhaps wants to show it is truly Amma’s government when it comes to being authoritarian. 

Why the AIADMK sarkar is angry with `Sarkar’


By T S Sudhir

 
For Tamil actor Vijay, it would be a sense of deja vu. Last year’s Deepavali release `Mersal’ ran into a spot of bother with the BJP objecting to a dialogue in the film that was critical of Goods and Services Tax (GST) and a reference to the Gorakhpur hospital tragedy in which several infants died. The state unit of the BJP ran a campaign against Vijay, asking for the dialogue’s removal from the film. It ended up having the unintended effect of converting the movie into a superhit, with the curiosity factor driving the audience into the theatres. 
 
The controversy did not help the BJP’s image in Tamil Nadu with Vijay’s vast support base trending #MersalvsModi, dragging in the Prime minister into an issue he had nothing to do with.
 
A year later, Vijay’s `Sarkar’ has offended the Sarkar in Tamil Nadu. The AIADMK government is miffed at a song (Oruviral Puratchi) in the movie where people are shown throwing freebie items like mixies and grinders into the fire. `The Indian Express’ reports that film director AR Murugadoss himself makes a cameo appearance in the song. The welfare agenda and giving things for free to enlist their vote is part of the electoral culture in Tamil Nadu and the AIADMK sees Vijay as mocking both the party and the people. 
 
“It is not good for an upcoming actor like Vijay,” Information minister K Raju held out a veiled threat to Vijay. Law minister CV Shanmugam while speaking in favour of healthy criticism, said the film incited violence which was a “grave offence”. He even used the term `terrorists’ for those associated with the movie, warning of legal action against them.
 
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There is good reason for the AIADMK to feel upset over `Sarkar’. It is an intensely political film and that Vijay has political ambitions, is the worst kept secret in Chennai. There is no reason why the AIADMK will allow Vijay to build his political capital by using the ruling party for target practise. The AIADMK is convinced that Vijay’s insinuations are deliberate. The antagonist played by Varalakshmi is called Komalavalli, which was J Jayalalithaa’s original name (JJ’s grandmother was called Komalavalli).
There is another reason why the AIADMK believes the insult is a political conspiracy. The movie is produced by Sun Pictures, whose promoter Kalanidhi Maran is the grand nephew of the late DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi.
On paper, `Sarkar’ has been cleared by the certification board and therefore the AIADMK government does not have a leg to stand on, when it comes to opposing the movie. Moreover, there is no point in having a CBFC if the government is going to act as the Big Brother, having the final say on what offends it and what does not. You cannot have a democracy where the party in power clamps down on criticism of any sort.
But then that is not exactly the way things work in India. And many in the Tamil film industry know it only too well. Ask Kamal Haasan who has for long held the view that opposition to his `Vishwaroopam’ in 2013 by Muslim groups was an orchestrated effort.
Vijay himself has faced the brunt in the past. His 2013 release `Thalaivaa’ had the tag line of `Time to Lead’ and according to news reports of that time, it did not go down well with the powers that be in Tamil Nadu. The film was released after a delay of two weeks only after the tag was removed from all promotional material.
Since Sun Pictures has bankrolled the film, expect the standoff to adopt political overtones. The producers may not mind the controversy either since `Sarkar’ may end up going the `Mersal’ way. 
 
Did the AIADMK do the wrong thing by acting as a super censor? The argument is that if they turned a blind eye to the freebie culture encouraged by their late leader, Kollywood productions may become a fertile area for filmmakers to mock and criticise the party. Moreover, Vijay has a huge appeal among the youth and the family audience and such messaging could adversely affect the AIADMK. With Lok Sabha elections and bypolls to 20 assembly constituencies due in six months, that is hardly something the AIADMK can afford. 

Ten takeaways of the 4-1 verdict in Karnataka


So now we know how the people of Karnataka in five constituencies – three Lok Sabha and two Vidhan Sabha – have spoken. The five seats were from the Old Mysuru region (Ramanagara assembly and Mandya LS), central Karnataka (Shivamogga), Mumbai-Karnataka (Jamkhandi) and Hyderabad-Karnataka (Ballari LS). (Note : Some analysts would put Ballari in central Karnataka as well).
So they give a fair sense of the mood of the state six months after it threw up a fractured verdict to the Vidhana Soudha, resulting in the Congress and the JD(S) coming together to keep the BJP out of power. 
 
These are my ten takeaways from the verdict of the Karnataka byelections that went 4-1 in the favour of the alliance.
 
1. Math works. Repeat that. Math works. It worked to bring down BS Yeddyurappa’s son BY Raghavendra winning margin significant in Shivamogga. BSY in 2014 had won this Lok Sabha seat by 3.6 lakh votes. When you look at that kind of margin, you can only say Raghavendra was lucky to scrape through by 50000 votes. The optics of Deve Gowda and Siddaramaiah together on the campaign stage created the right impact on the voter’s mind.
 
2. Do not poach. Or at least poach intelligently. Ramanagara was a unnecessary fiasco. No one quite expected the BJP to score an upset win in the constituency that chief minister HD Kumaraswamy had vacated so the party could have used the opportunity to give one of its deserving karyakartas to test the waters. By importing a Congress leader who went back to his parent party on the last day of campaigning, embarrassed the BJP. It showed lack of ground level intel.
 
3. Ballari is bad news for Sriramulu and his backers, the Reddy brothers. The public of the `Republic of Ballari’ decided to show Sriramulu the door by rejecting his sister J Shanta (former MP In 2009) by a margin of around 2 lakh votes. It is the margin that made it humiliating because this ended the 14-year long hegemony of the Reddy brothers and Co. over Ballari. It is also a rebuff to Gali Janardhana Reddy who has been trying to influence the politics of Ballari by staying on the periphery of the district since he is not allowed to step inside as per court orders.
 
Criticise but do not make the campaign ugly and personal. Janardhana Reddy referred to death of Siddaramaiah’s son Rakesh due to multiple organ failure in 2016 as “a punishment from God”. Though the BJP distanced itself from Reddy’s uncivilised remark, asking him to apologise to Siddaramaiah, the damage was done. Many in Ballari were horrified at the level of political discourse sinking to this terrible low. After the results came, Siddaramaiah was to hit back by saying “Ballari people have cursed Janardhana Reddy for his inhuman behaviour”.
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4. Ever since the coalition government was formed, Kumaraswamy has spent much time firefighting. The feel good factor after these victories may give him a breather at least for some time. But that may last only for a while as the much-expected cabinet expansion is overdue. With the bypolls out of the way, expect the Congress leaders to start putting pressure to get inducted into the ministry. 
 
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5. The knives will be out for Yeddyurappa. The Shivamogga margin is hardly likely to please him and the 4-1 drubbing even more. A win in Ballari and an upset win against the sympathy wave in Jamkhandi for Anand Nyamagouda would have made it party time for the BJP. The party will look at it as an opportunity lost. Add to that the Ramanagara fiasco and Yeddyurappa will have to answer many tough questions from New Delhi. 
 
6. With Yeddyurappa crossing 75, the BJP will have to look at leaders beyond the former chief minister even though he still is the tallest pan-Karnataka leader it has. With Ananth Kumar also unwell, the BJP has a problem on its hands. Karnataka with its 28 seats is too important a catchment area for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP will go with Modi as its mascot but it needs strong ground-level mobilisation to beat the opposition arithmetic.
 

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7. Siddaramaiah has taken revenge against Sriramulu for Badami. When the former CM decided to contest from Badami in addition to Chamundeswari in May 2018 elections, the BJP fielded Sriramulu to make matters difficult for him. Sriramulu succeeded in doing so and Siddaramaiah just about managed to win by 1700 votes. To defeat Sriramulu in his Ballari den would have given Siddaramaiah some satisfaction.
 
8. But there is reason to cheer in the numbers for the BJP as well. Despite the desertion by Chandrasekhar in Ramanagara, the BJP tally went up by 4800 in May to 15000 now. In Mandya, its candidate had secured close to 87000 votes in 2014, that number shot up to 2.44 lakh this time. This means good news for the BJP that in the tie-up between the JD(S) and Congress, both of who are strong in Old Mysuru region, it is able to get the main opposition space from where it can gradually grow.
9. Is there reason for Narendra Modi to worry? Yes and No. He should of course worry about the arithmetic but byelections are a different kettle of fish from the real elections. Modi and Amit Shah would do well to look at the April 2017 byelections to Nanjungud and Gundlupet, both of them won by the ruling Congress, one year before the assembly elections. But come May 2018, the BJP won both seats. Moreover, these results aren’t really a commentary on Modi, it was like round two of the assembly elections playing out, this time with Congress and JD(S) pooling resources. The state leaders of all three parties were the ones who led the campaign.
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10. The Karnataka experiment is the Congress opportunity to show that it can work with smaller alliance partners, even give them a significant share of the power pie. To that extent, the results will make it a happy Deepavali gift from Karnataka. But it would do well not to think that arithmetic will work the magic everytime in every constituency in 2019 too. The general elections with the Modi card, will be a different ballgame altogether. 

Siddaramaiah steals the show in Karnataka’s electoral theatre


By T S Sudhir
Score : Siddaramaiah 2.5, Yeddyurappa 0.5
If you wonder what I am talking about, it is real score card after the byelections to three seats in the Karnataka assembly. The results announced today saw the Congress winning two and the BJP one seat. But what was more significant is that not only did the Congress snatch Bellary Rural, one of the BJP citadels but also made BS Yeddyurappa miss a few heartbeats as his son B Y Raghavendra laboured to a 6430 votes facile victory. Hence the Karnataka CM’s score of 2.5.
What does the verdict mean for the BJP? For public consumption, unhappy faces. But given the fact that the BJP in Karnataka is a house divided, much like the Congress, how you read the result depends on which camp you belong to. In fact, there are quite a few happy faces, who see in the Bellary result a ray of hope. Because finally, the seat has been to an extent, been purged of the vice-like grip of the Reddy brothers – the power behind B Sriramulu, who had vacated the seat after he won the Bellary Lok Sabha seat in May 2014. So now the original BJP cadre can hope to make some inroads into Bellary. The fact that Obelesh, a trusted lieutenant of Sriramulu, lost from Bellary – that too by a margin of 33000 votes – showed the fear factor was not at play either.
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Yeddyurappa, the newly crowned national vice-president of the BJP, would have hoped for a better display in his new avatar. His son scraped through but compared to dad’s 24000 votes margin as a KJP candidate in May 2013, this was a poor consolation triumph. In fact, the view in Bangalore is that if the Congress camp had displayed better hunting skills in Shikaripura, it could have reduced Raghavendra to a prey. In the end, despite winning, Raghavendra was found complaining about how the official machinery had been misused by the Congress. And dad Yeddyurappa floated the familiar conspiracy theory of Congress-JD(S) matchfixing.
But it is not to say that BSY is a spent force. As the state’s foremost Lingayat leader, Yeddyurappa is the community and BJP’s tallest leader. He would need to introspect if his pocket borough of Shimoga is being eroded and whether his DNA does not enjoy the same kind of mass support that he does. He realises that many in his own party would be happy over the narrow margin of victory and the shrewd politician that he is, he would need to learn his lessons from the verdict.
The man who would gain in strength is Siddaramaiah, who can now be expected to be more assertive both vis-a-vis leaders within the Karnataka Congress and the High command. His detractors would have to press the mute button for some time at least now. A weak 24, Akbar Road works to the CM’s advantage and he can use it to ward off pressure tactics of a G Parameshwara, the KPCC president, who wants to be deputy CM, home minister and also control Bangalore. But now with a 2-1 verdict under his belt, Siddaramaiah will not allow any such three-in-one desires of Parameshwara to take root at the Vidhana Soudha.
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For long, Siddaramaiah has been pilloried as an outsider to the Congress, seen with suspicion, asked to prove his loyalty all the time. His latest assertion that he will attend a function with PM Modi, as per protocol, is indicative of the fact that he will be his own man. But at the same time, like what is expected of a good Congressman, he gave the credit for today’s victory to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi along with the party workers and the government programmes. He knows you do not need to pay tax for lip service.
More than anything, the Karnataka verdict proved three things. One, that the Lok Sabha victory (17/28 seats) was largely due to Narendra Modi. Which is why a wily Ananth Kumar reduced the Ananth Kumar vs Nandan Nilekani contest in Bangalore (South) to a Nilekani vs Modi battle.
Two, the voter is extremely smart and politically savvy. He seems to be fairly happy with the performance of the state government in its first year and wants good governance for the next four years. Three, the BJP has a lot of work to do in Karnataka if it wants to re-enter its gateway to south India in 2018.

Karti at Sivaganga ATM to encash PC’s deposit


By T S Sudhir in Sivaganga

 

My cameraperson requested Karti Chidambaram to move a bit to his left. He said so in Hindi and Karti snapped immediately, “Hey, do not speak to me in Hindi because I wouldn’t understand a word of it.” I expressed surprise considering he spends quite a bit of time in Delhi.

 

“Why? Is it the national language that it is necessary to know it? How many people in Delhi know to speak Tamil?” he continued. I wanted to tell him how much I admire anyone who can speak several languages but decided against prolonging the conversation.

 

Cut to a nondescript village on the outskirts of Karaikudi in Sivaganga district a couple of hours later. Karti had just arrived in his SUV to campaign. This Karti with the mike was markedly different, indulging in small talk, trying to make the sparse audience of some 40 people comfortable. He was also smiling much more, following his dad Union Finance minister P Chidambaram’s advice.

 

“What exam tomorrow? Prepared for it? My daughter also has an exam, she is studying in 8th class,” he chattered.

 

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Karti Chidambaram who is contesting the Lok Sabha election from Sivaganga after his father decided to abstain from elections this time, faces an uphill task. Given the frosty relationship between his father and Tamilnadu chief minister Jayalalithaa, the latter has already given a call to defeat the 42-year-old comprehensively.

 

“You should ensure Karti Chidambaram loses his deposit. Will you all do it? Will you all do it?” she thundered at a public meeting in Sivaganga on March 21. 

 

Even without Jaya’s call, the writing is pretty much on the wall. One of the stories of this election in Tamilnadu is how the Congress has been reduced to a side character in the state’s political theatre. Unlike earlier elections, neither of the two Dravidian parties showed an interest to ally with the party. And Chidambaram’s refusal to contest was an admission that there was no light at the end of the tunnel for the party. At least not in Tamilnadu even though the leaders choose to ignore the larger malaise that afflicts the Congress and adopt a brave posture vis-a-vis its splendid isolation. TNCC president B S Gnanadesikan says, “It’s not new for Congress to go alone. We have already contested alone in 1998 Parliament elections. It’s a long time since we contested alone. Workers are very happy.”

 

The fairly smooth 66 km long drive on the highway from Madurai to Sivaganga is deceptive. For it does not prepare you for what lies ahead. Sivaganga is listed among India’s 250 most backward districts by the Union Panchayati Raj ministry. Chidambaram has been elected seven times from here by the constituency which has ten lakh voters this election. That included a controversial victory in 2009, when he scraped through by just 3354 votes during a recount, leading to the taunt of “recounting minister” that Narendra Modi  constantly throws at him. Will the Chidambaram surname make it Advantage Karti for the tennis-loving candidate is what everyone is curious about. Karti’s rival, H Raja of the BJP does not think so.

 

“Chidambaram does not want to lose his deposit and political face at the fag end of his political career. In Tamilnadu, no Congress candidate will get back his deposit. All the 39 candidates. Because there is no credibility. Most incompetent and corrupt government was provided by UPA 1 and 2,” says Raja. 

 

Karti Chidambaram is contemptuous of his father’s critics, dismissing them as political nobodies. “People who are commenting about him have not even contested a panchayat election. They are commenting on someone who has contested eight elections on the trot, from the same constituency, which is a record in Tamilnadu. No one has won seven times from the same constituency, not even the formidable Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, who keep changing constituencies,” he says.

 

Call it self-confidence or arrogance, Karti and his father’s personality traits are both a talking point and a factor in this election. “Father always has the sophistication of hiding his arrogance, but his son lacks even that,” says political analyst Gnani Sankaran, who is also contesting from Chennai on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket. 

 

“They are fed up with P Chidambaram. Whenever people go to him with a complaint, he says I am finance minister for entire country. It is not my headache. Such an attitude has created a bad image about Mr Chidambaram and people are not willing to accept him any more,” adds Raja.

 

 

But stand anywhere in Sivaganga and you are unlikely to miss P Chidambaram’s influence over the constituency. His position as Finance minister meant that just about anyone in Sivaganga can laugh his way to the bank. Sivaganga is home to 254 bank branches and of the 20 nationalised banks, 19 have set up shop here. There is a branch in the district for every 5000 people, far ahead of the national average of one branch for 8000 people. Which is why Karti is happy to make it an Amma versus Appa proxy battle, pitting his father’s development work against that of the government run by Jayalalithaa. 

 

“Banks are visible because he is the finance minister. But a lot of other work has also happened other than banks. Banks have a lot of fallout effect. We have opened banks, what has the AIADMK opened other than liquor shops,” argues Karti, who declared assets worth Rs 59 crore in his affidavit.

 

Chidambaram Senior likes to talk about the 900 crore rupees worth education loans that have been given by the banks to 50000 students since 2004. But many doubt if the achievement will act as an ATM from which Karti can withdraw goodwill returns. S.Selvaraju, Secretary General, Southern India Mills Association points out that Sivaganga has not progressed like Salem, Erode or Coimbatore. “Industrialisation has to happen. Banks alone will not help people improve their standard of living,” he says.

 

Sivaganga that is flanked by districts like Madurai, Trichy and Virudhunagar is more like a poor cousin, its track record in development nothing to write home about.  “Virudhunagar district which was also created along with Sivaganga, has become industrially and commercially advanced. What is there to tell about this constituency. There is no industry,” says Raja. 

 

The industry body in the district agrees. Mohammed Ilyas, Vice President, Sivaganga Chamber of Commerce says, “Karti Chidambaram would have blindly won from here if Chidambaram had concentrated more here. Now it is difficult for him.”

 

But PC, as P Chidambaram is often referred to, would hope Sivaganga would reboot in favour of his son. On April 24 will be report card time when the electorate will decide whether the gravy train of goodies brought in by Dad was enough to usher in a son-rise in Sivaganga. 

 

Bangalore Calling


By T S Sudhir and Pratiba Raman

 

It has always been a numbers game for Nandan Nilekani. From propelling Infosys to one of India’s top three IT companies to allotting 60 crore Indians a twelve digit unique identification number to `121789′, the six digit membership registration number that marks his political identity in the Congress party, Nilekani is now engaged in winning the battle of the votes in Bangalore (South) Lok Sabha constituency.

 

If the political turf seems alien, Nilekani has to only saunter across to his neighbourhood in Bangalore (Central) to feel at home. Fighting the election there is another Infosyscian, V Balakrishnan on the Aam Aadmi Party ticket. On New Year’s eve, this 48-year-old from Vellore in Tamilnadu decided he had worn the hat of the Board member of India’s bluechip IT major long enough and discarded it for the Aam aadmi topi. Now as he caps his brilliant career with an electoral debut, Bala as he is called by friends, reckons he has “nothing to lose”.

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Further north, IIM professor Rajeev Gowda could have been the Congress candidate to challenge the might of BJP’s Sadananda Gowda, former Karnataka chief minister, in Bangalore (North) constituency. But the 50-year-old Prof Gowda lost in the primaries on March 13 to a more old world Congressman, C Narayanaswamy. Nilekani himself is up against AAP’s Nina Nayak, a highly respected child rights activist. In India’s Silicon Valley, this Lok Sabha election is witnessing a paradigm shift in the kind of people bravely stepping into the cesspool of Indian politics. It is as if these new age politicians have decided to change the political discourse, idiom and ecosystem in Bangalore, with a vengeance.  

 

“Real change comes only through the political process,” says Nandan Nilekani, explaining why he took the plunge. “As a technocrat, I had reached the limit of what I could achieve.” After 28 years at Infosys, in 2009, Nilekani took charge of the Unique Identification Authority of India till this month, when he resigned after joining the Congress.

 

“Young professionals coming to political field is what we need. They will be the face. It has been a murky business. Technocrats come with a reputation and they will inspire more of the young to create change,” says Nina Nayak.

 

Bangalore has been a BJP bastion for some years now. All the sitting MPs from the three urban Bangalore constituencies are from the BJP and 58-year-old Nilekani will be trying to upset the applecart of former Union minister Ananth Kumar, who has been a five-time MP from Bangalore South. The BJP however is dismissive of the new entrants, arguing apples cannot be compared with oranges. “Political field is different from IT. They never felt the pulse of the people,” says Sadananda Gowda. Karnataka Chief minister Siddharamaiah doesn’t agree. “Voters of Bangalore South are fed up with Ananth Kumar. His image isn’t good. People want clean image. Nandan Nilekani has that,” he says.

 

On the poll campaign, the personal worth of the likes of Nilekani (Rs 7700 crore) and Balakrishnan (Rs 185 crore) also makes it easy for their rivals to label them elitist. Senior BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu adds, “They belong to the upper strata of society who have no connection with the problems of the urban poor.”

 

Which is why Nilekani is letting his 16.47 lakh voters browse into his history to emphasise his roots. “I was someone who came from a very humble background. My father was a mill manager, he lost his job when I was 12 and I had to go and live with my uncle. When I left IIT, I had just 200 rupees in my pocket. So they see me as someone who was able to achieve a lot starting from a very humble background. They see me as someone who can help meet their aspirations,” says Nilekani. 

 

It is obvious the learning curve is steep and the professionals keep falling back on their experience in more familiar terrain to guide them. “When you work in the corporate world, you know who your shareholders, employees and customers are,” says Balakrishnan. “But in a political world, anyone you meet may be a stakeholder and will have an opinion on what you are doing. So talking to them, convincing them helps you gain a new perspective.”

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Rajeev Gowda points out that professionals like him are taking the effort to go through the rough and tumble of politics in the heat and dust of 2014, instead of taking the easy Rajya Sabha route. “We are interested in action. If you look at my team, they want civic action, political action, urban action. Lots of people have ideas but only when you engage with the system, you realise the complexities and effort you need to put to bring about change,” says Gowda.

 

In his book, `Imagining India’ published in 2008, Nilekani had described entrepreneurs like him “virtually unelectable” in India. That is a term Nilekani wouldn’t want to be reminded of now. Interestingly, both he and Ananth Kumar are rooting for change – Nilekani in his constituency and his BJP rival, in the country. For the Bangalore South voter, the dilemma is whether to seek a different MP or a different PM.

 

“There is a silent wave in Nilekani’s favour,” says M S Murthy, who runs Kanthi Dry Cleaners in Basavangudi locality of Bangalore. The educated middle class agrees Nilekani and Balakrishnan’s presence gives them a good reason not to reach out for the NOTA button on the EVM. 

 

“Balakrishnan, being a finance man, will make sure the funds are not frittered away and money reaches the designated user,” says Raghunath, a voter. 30-year-old Urmila Sharma discloses that she connects to Nilekani in the online space. “He replies to question on Facebook. But I feel he is the right person in the wrong party,” says Urmila.

Nilekani’s former colleague at Infosys, Mohandas Pai articulates the flip side of electing the Congress candidate. “Nandan Nilekani has got a vision. He is a self-made billionaire with integrity. He is going to speak for his constituency. But then as a rich middle class citizen, he may not feel the pain of inflation, of rise in prices of potatoes and petrol. You must experience the pain,” reasons Pai.

 

But while many in Bangalore exult over the presence of a credible alternative, it didn’t happen overnight. The incubator to create the right atmosphere was created in 2010 by the anti-corruption movement, called `Saaku’ (`Enough’ in Kannada). Around the same time, Justice Santosh Hegde as the Karnataka Lokayukta pushed the envelope by going after the big political fish involved in illegal mining and shady land deals. By the time Anna Hazare took Delhi by storm in 2011, Bangalore was in the frontline, its lungpower lending the maximum decibel support.

 

It was only natural then that Bangalore’s vibrant civil society took it upon itself to demand better candidates to choose from in the Karnataka assembly elections last May. Mohandas Pai and Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar Shaw formed the BPAC – the Bangalore Political Action Committee – to support clean and deserving candidates and exhort people to vote. The effect though was limited as polling percentage went up only marginally – from 47 per cent in 2008 to 52.8 per cent in 2013 in urban Bangalore.

 

Captain Gopinath, who pioneered the low cost airline in India with Air Deccan in 2003, says there is nothing worse than indifference. Gopinath who has now joined the AAP says, “The worst politician is still better than an indifferent citizen. In Bangalore, only around 50 per cent voters have always voted. Those who do not vote are the young and educated middle class.”

 

In the 2013 assembly polls, Loksatta party that preaches and practises clean politics, fielded 15 candidates. Not one of them won, among them gynaecologist Dr Meenakshi Bharath. “Bangalore was still not ready to make the change in May last year. Voters were perhaps sceptical, not sure if we could deliver,” says Dr Meenakshi Bharath. But the silver lining was that the few thousand votes that each candidate garnered was an admission that Bangalore was on the cusp of change.

 

“Mainstream parties were forced to alter their conventional discourse to make sure they don’t cede space to them,” says Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Rajya Sabha MP from Karnataka, who was among the first corporates to make the switch into politics in 2006. The former poster boy of Indian telecom believes that despite losing the electoral battle, the Loksatta candidates helped create the space for the non-conventional politician. AAP’s success story in Delhi in December 2013 proved to be the gamechanger, the effect of which is being felt in Bangalore.

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But it is not as if everyone is buying into these probationers in Indian politics acting as catalysts of change in Bangalore. The apprehension is that Nilekani’s presence for instance, is mere window dressing by the Congress to distract from the debate on the quality of governance in the last decade. Voters are also suspicious if a defeat will send them scurrying back to their corporate boardrooms. And while there is admiration, the connect isn’t in good measure, thanks to English and not Kannada being used as medium of communication.

 

“Language is an important thing. Because for the message that you carry, all the clean record that you have, to communicate that to the people in a legitimate political way, to tell them that I am the real alternative, you need to speak in their language, not in English. I do not see it happening in Bangalore today,” says Subramaniam Vincent, Editor of `Citizen Matters’, a popular city portal in Bangalore.

 

The approach of seeking ideas to improve Bangalore’s lot, to many seems naive. Nilekani’s social media campaign `Ideas for Bengaluru’ invites suggestions from citizens and paints a rosy vision of the city. “We want a person to roll up his sleeves and clean the muck of corruption that is pretty much the cause of all problems in Bangalore,” says Chandrasekhar. “With no offence to Nandan, this is typical strategy of trying to spin a vision when people want specifics.”

 

The other huge challenge will be to ensure that the party apparatus that looks at the likes of Nilekani as outsiders who managed a lateral entry, helps their cause. “For thousands of Congress workers, it has been a disappointment because they have toiled all these years hoping to get a ticket one day and now they find someone alien to the system snatching their chance,” says Hemantha Kumar, political analyst. These professionals-turned-politicians are trying to bridge the gap by relying on their group of young volunteers but the difference in outlook and mutual disdain threatens to make it a case where the twain shall not meet.

Then there is the worry over what message will go across if these `clean’ candidates are taken to the cleaners by their more seasoned rivals. Already Bangalore’s political air is abuzz with behind-the-scenes deals being struck for transfer of votes from other smaller parties. The election will also test if experience in corporate boardroom intrigue will help Nilekani and Balakrishnan anticipate political manoeuvres.

 

In a very American way of fighting elections, microtargeting the voter is the name of the game. On the campaign trail, `Together with Nandan’, a volunteer force consisting of hundreds of IT professionals helps out after working hours and over the weekend, wooing the voters. This even as Nilekani gives the Aam Bangalorean touch by rubbing shoulders with fellow citizens over an idli at Darshini – a popular city eatery, a walk in Cubbon Park or a visit to a temple. 

 

Balakrishnan’s biggest challenge was to convince his family, especially his mother who did not want him to follow in his father’s footsteps (he was a DMK politician in the 60s). He believes he is part of AAP – that he calls the most successful start-up by an IITian so far – for keeps. Nilekani too isn’t talking of a Plan B yet, should he get Bangalor-ed by his voters. The only `B’ that figures in their plans is `Bangalore’.

(First published in India Today magazine)