The author is a senior journalist based in Bangalore and has worked with two major English dailies, the Indian Express and Deccan Herald. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and colleges and writes for a many publications, including NYT
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances…
Says Shakespeare in his ‘As You Like It’. And, one politician who has taken it very seriously is the Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Dr M Thambidurai. As an MP, for twenty years, his only worthwhile contribution seems to be the construction of drama stages across his constituency in all the panchayats. There are more than 100 such stages, proudly proclaiming that they were constructed by the Member of Parliament from his MPLAD funds.
Thambidurai is in a great dilemma now. In the past, irrespective of what he has done or not done, his passage to Lok Sabha was easy. Jayalalithaa’s charisma and the liberal use of money power saw him through.
But, with the passing away of his leader and the desertion of one of his key aides, V Senthil Balaji, a former minister in the Jaya cabinet, local MLA and a staunch loyalist, it’s almost curtains for this four-time MP.
Post Jaya, Balaji joined hands with Dinakaran in the confused TN political scenario. But now he has gone to DMK and has vowed to defeat Thambidurai at any cost.
Durai was also initially strongly in support of Sasikala for chief ministership. Hardly a month after Jayalalithaa died and O Panneerselvam had become Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Thambidurai kicked up a major political storm. “Jayalalithaa’s political heir is Sasikala. She should take control of the party as well as the government,” he wrote, curiously, on his official letterhead, as Deputy Speaker, Lok Sabha.
There was large scale criticism of this and he was charged with converting his constitutional post into a political one to curry favour with the then Mannargudi clan.
After O Panneerselvam took over as CM and met Prime Minister Modi, he did not take Thambidurai along. Angered at being ignored, he started campaigning for Sasikala as CM.
He had served as the Cabinet Minister of Law, Justice and Company Affairs and as the Minister of State of Surface Transport from March 1998 to April 1999. He had also served as the Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha from 1985 to 1989 and was a familiar face in Delhi. Jayalalithaa gave him a lot of importance and all the MPs were told to take orders from him.
It is said whenever Madam visited Delhi, all the MPs had to line up outside the airport with bouquets in hand, and Thambidurai would decide who should stand where in the queue.
He was such a strong loyalist of Jayalalithaa that circumstances even forced him to skip his own daughter’s wedding, as Jaya was against her marrying the son of former Congress MLA, C Gnanasekharan. The wedding created ripples in the state when reports trickled in that Jayalalithaa did not relish it. Post Jaya, the political scenario was changing rapidly and with Sasikala going to jail, Thambidurai sided with the chief minister Edappadi Palanisamy and distanced himself from Dinakaran.
Senthil Balaji was the transport minister in the Jaya cabinet but Edappadi sidelined him and he threw in his lot with TTV Dinakaran. Balaji is a powerful man in Karur district and can mobilise any amount of money in a short time.
Now, with him not by his side, Thambidurai is forced to plough a lonely furrow. With the Lok Sabha polls round the corner, he is not sure of a victory again from this constituency.
In the last six months, he has been desperately going around the constituency with a team of officials and cops. There are hardly any partymen accompanying him.
And, wherever he goes he faces angry voters. “You only come when the elections are near. Where were you all these four years?” they confront him. There are six assembly segments in his Karur Lok Sabha constituency (Karur, Aravakurichi, Krishnarayapuram, Vedasanthur, Viralimalai, Manapparai) and all of them are represented by the ruling AIADMK. Even the MLAs who accompany him are not allowed to step out of their cars and are chased away by the voters. Thambidurai belongs to the Kongu Vellalar community which is a majority in the western districts of Tamil Nadu, also known as Kongu Nadu which comprises the districts of Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Erode, Karur, Namakkal, Salem, and northern parts of Dindigul district such as Palani, Oddanchatram and Vedasandur.
As an MP what has he done for the constituency which elected him four times in the past? Karur Lok Sabha constituency spreads across four districts in Tamil Nadu — Karur, Pudukkottai, Dindigul and Tiruchirappalli. This constituency comprises more than 100 villages and though the people are rich, the literacy level is quite low.
An educated man with a Doctorate in Economics, Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha, who can meet Prime Minister and other ministers easily and get things done, a close confidant of the former chief minister J Jayalalithaa — Thambidurai’s plus points are these and much more. Even his political opponents acknowledge that he has a clean record and there is no scam or serious corruption charges against him – something rare in today’s politics. The only charge is that he has been totally ineffective as a people’s representative.
There is all-round disappointment and anger among the people that he hardly meets them, leave alone doing anything worthwhile for them. “He has constructed drama stages in all panchayat and bus stop shelters in some places. That’s all. He hardly spends time here, makes a flying visit only Sundays and leaves like lightening,” say most of his voters.
“Karur is known for its flourishing textile and bus body building industries. Due to demonetisation and GST, almost all the small scale industries have been badly hit. Bus body building industry has been severely hit by the central government’s rules that all components have to be taken to Pune for authentication. This has led to increased costs. Almost all the small scale industries in this sector have closed down. The high profile MP has not done anything to save them”, says Nanniyur Rajendran, a senior politician and Karur district secretary of DMK for more than 10 years now. Rajendran’s father Gandhi was a close associate of DMK leader M Karunanidhi.
Less said the better about the once flourishing textile industry. Known for its world-famous bedsheets, lungis and mosquito nets, this industry is now in the doldrums. Jayalalithaa had set up a textile park with about 54 units in 2010. Now, the park is nowhere and only about half a dozen units are still surviving. “Thambidurai used to make many promises before polls, like setting up cold storage warehouses for vegetables and fruits. But, once the elections are over he would conveniently put all those promises in the cold storage,” says Senthil, a political activist.
“Some of these promises include setting up a new bus stand in Karur, Dyeing Park at a cost of Rs 200 crore, Coimbatore-Karur Ring Road, day train from Chennai to Karur, a check dam across Cauvery, and so on. He could have easily achieved them through his contacts as Deputy Speaker. But his promises remain only on paper,” adds Rajendran and says his party’s former MP KC Palanisamy was responsible for various projects like getting the Lalapet railway overbridge, drainage scheme for Karur town and many other road bridges – some of which were constructed at his own expense.
Now since KCP, as he is affectionately known, has left electoral politics, the opposition is yet to identify a powerful candidate, and Thambidurai is confident that he can easily get all the votes of the Kongu Vellalar community to which he belongs. Interestingly, he is not a native of this district but his wife hails from Karur. Some of the other unfulfilled promises include a cold storage warehouse for banana and other vegetables, perfume factories for Manapparai, etc.
Padmanathan, panchayat union president of Kodayur, says that apart from Jayalalithaa’s campaign, and distribution of money (Rs 2,000 per vote) Thambidurai’s men distributed free dhotis and sarees for every household and that fetched him many votes last time. “But now these tricks won’t work and his partymen themselves are fed up. So, he has been taking them in batches for sightseeing to Delhi and picnic spots like Courtalam, misusing his official position,” he says.
At a nearby village Vellalapatti, a small hamlet with about 3,000 people, there is a water tank in a precarious condition. Sukumar, a retired employee, says people are living in fear that this tank might collapse any moment. “Our MP came here last month and instructed the officials who accompanied him to immediately pull it down and construct a new tank. But he did not offer to do it from his MPLAD funds as we expected. That was the last we heard about it. No one has come so far and even if we try to reach him, it is not possible as in his office in Karur there is no one to listen to us”, he bitterly complains.
Karur’s lifeline has been its dyeing units. Hundreds of them existed once. The white thread that comes from the powerlooms are given different colours in these units and sent to various knitting and weaving factories in Karur, Erode and Tiruppur and also exported to many foreign countries.
According to farm workers in and around Karur, because of these dyeing units, the Amaravati River which runs alongside the town has been contaminated. Thambidurai assured them that he would raise the issue in Parliament and find a solution. But he has done nothing till now.
Two medical colleges were sanctioned — one for the nearby Pudukkottai and another at Karur. While the one in Pudukkottai has already started functioning, the Karur medical college is stuck in political one-upmanship.
Says Sadiq, Thambidurai’s political secretary, “Our MP had spoken to Madam Jayalalithaa and got it approved. But getting land in Karur was difficult. No one was willing to give so much land. Senthil Balaji, meanwhile, wanted to set it up in Aravakurichi where he was the MLA, just to help his cronies who owned large tracts of land there. If the college comes up there, the land prices would go up. That was his plan. But now our MP has successfully thwarted this plan and, through Chief Minister Palanisamy, got the land and construction is in full swing. The college will be functional from next academic year,” he says.
Another promise made by Durai was to get a government engineering college for Karur. Incidentally, he runs a successful Adhiyamaan College of Engineering near Hosur, in close proximity to Bengaluru. But he never tried to set up any college or school in his constituency.
Karur is also an important junction on the railway route, connecting Chennai with southern districts. But most of the express trains pass through this town between 12 midnight and 4 am. There is a long pending demand to get a day time express train on this route. People are sore that he has not pressurised the railway minister and got this sanctioned. As Deputy Speaker, he could have just sent a letter to the minister. But even this he has not done. “He had promised to get the four-lane Karur-Coimbatore highway during the last elections. Now it is being executed as a six-lane highway. It is because of his efforts only,” says Sadiq.
Under Prime Minister’s pet theme of each MP adopting one village, Thambidurai had selected Balaviduthi in Kadavur panchayat. Here there are 18 small villages where there is acute shortage of drinking water. “I will have toilets constructed in all the houses,” Durai had promised. But, except for a preliminary survey, nothing much has been done.
“Not even water and drainage connection have been given. There has been some scam,” says one of the village elders who does not want to be named. “There are no proper roads either. Instead of making proper roads for the people, he has only obliged one of his henchmen to whose farmhouse there are two pucca tar roads,” he fumes.
Thambidurai says since there is no separate fund allocated for this scheme, it could not be successful. He has a point there as the villages are closely knit, and if an MP spends more on one village with his MPLAD funds, the other villagers are likely to revolt and may vote against him in the elections. Hence, the MP village adoption scheme has not found many takers, not only here but across south India. Of course, Thambidurai says he has fully utilised the MPLAD funds. But how? By constructing drama stages and bus stops, he says!
One expected a well-staffed office for this high profile MP in his constituency. But not many people know where it is. With great difficulty when I reached his office, which is in an apartment, there is hardly any staff. A couple of youngsters there said only Sadiq knows everything. When called, he said he was in Chennai attending to the MP who was hospitalised. But for a photograph of Jayalalithaa, the office did not have any paraphernalia befitting an MP. But will the large portrait of Jayalalithaa be enough for the MP to retain his seat? That is the Million Dollar Question!