Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally in Ramanathapuram — known for the limestone shoals off its coast, venerated as Lord Ram’s bridge to Lanka — on Saturday, government officials convinced fisherfolk not to show black flags to him. Currently 39 Indian fishermen are in jails in Sri Lanka for trawling in that country’s waters. The family of two such boys had threatened to go on hunger strike, and other fisherfolk threatened to disturb Modi’s rally to protest against the Centre’s failure to bring the boys home so far.
In his speech, however, Modi focused on Ramanathapuram’s best-known son, former President APJ Abdul Kalam, who hailed from Rameswaram island from where the Adam’s Bridge joins Sri Lanka’s Mannar Island.
“Dr Kalam would have been so happy with the recent A-SAT (anti-satellite) missile tests…. In Delhi, prime real estate is used for memorial for the members of one family as if no other family has contributed to the nation.”
Trinkets outside Kalam’s mausoleum and museum. Picture by Pheroze L. Vincent
Highlighting Kalam’s memorial in Rameswaram that he inaugurated in 2017, Modi asked: “Did Congress make a memorial at this scale for any previous President of India? So many Presidents were from the Congress. They did not make a memorial for K.R. Narayanan, R. Venkatraman or Dr S. Radhakrishnan."
The BJP has fielded former AIADMK minister Nainar Nagendran from Ramanathapuram Lok Sabha constituency, where both Modi and party president Amit Shah have addressed political meetings. Nagendran, one of the BJP’s five candidates in Tamil Nadu, is considered a hopeful winner as he faces political novice and philanthropist K. Nawaz Ghani of the Indian Union Muslim League.
However, almost half the crowd brought by the BJP and its seven allies including the AIADMK began to leave the venue even before Modi’s speech ended at 2pm. “The people are hungry,” said R. Raja, an AIADMK cadre. “The BJP may not have cadres here but Nainar is respected. The question we are asking voters is that do you want the Muslim League to take this seat? ”
Nagendran’s community, Thevars, make up almost a quarter of the electorate, followed closely by the Dalits, who have been in constant conflict with the former since the 1950s. Muslims are less than a fifth of the electorate. AIADMK-breakaway AMMK has fielded Thevar entrepreneur VTN Anand, who leads the most visible campaign here and has upset the BJP’s calculations. The League, however, is largely fending for itself with the local DMK reportedly unhappy with the seat being given to Ghani whose party has neither won here nor holds any of the Assembly segments.
Caps given in the rally, which few could read or understand because they were in Hindi. Picture by Pheroze L. Vincent
Supporters of all the BJP allies this paper spoke to declared Modi as “a strong leader”. However, even BJP supporters were candid about what was lacking. “I want Modi again as PM but he must reduce GST rates,” said trader Manikandan. College student Chandru said: “Everyone else, including the AIADMK, has failed. There is no law college or medical college here. Nawaz Ghani is a good man but only Nainar can get work done.”
One of those who didn’t leave for lunch during the speech was Puthiya Tamizhagam leader S. Rahmathunnissa. “I also want Modi as PM. After he wins, he must promote unity among all religions like we have here.”
In 2014, the AIADMK’s A. Anwhar Raajhaa won from Ramanathapuram, defeating his DMK rival by 1,19,324 votes. However, besides the anti-incumbency against the AIADMK government, the BJP’s centralism may prove an obstacle for its growth in the state. Caps distributed at Modi’s rally had “Main bhi hoon chowkidar” written on them in Hindi, a language most of the party’s supporters here can’t read. “If we knew Hindi, we would be better off,” said Arumugam, a phuchka seller, who knows Hindi after a stint as a worker in Dubai. “I was attracted to the BJP after Modi became PM. Leaders like Nainar will strengthen the party here. If it was up to Nainar, the caps would have been printed in Tamil.”
Outside Kalam’s memorial in the Yadava dominated village of Pei Karumbu, hawkers praise Modi for the monument that brings up to 10,000 tourists a day, and an income of at least Rs 200 per day for each hawker. However, they’re angry with civic authorities for repeated eviction drives against them. “The first streetlights came here only after the memorial. No party has even come asked us about our problems. Most of our children have to migrate for work as labourers. Yet the government refuses to give us street vendor permits,” said Tilaibhagya, who sells juice.
Outside Kalam’s family home, his name is a brand for shops selling everything from shells to saris. “We are happy that the PM spoke about fulfilling his (Kalam’s) Vision 2020,” said Kalam’ grand nephew APJMJ Sheik Saleem. “We cannot say that Congress did not do anything but, yes, the BJP gave more respect to him than the Congress.”
Ramanathapuram votes on April 18
The battlefield: Ramanathapuram, 543km from Chennai
- Nainar Nagendar (BJP),
- K. Nawaz Ghani (IUML),
- VTN Anand (AMMK)
- Popular BJP candidate poses challenge to IUML rookie.
- AMMK and BJP vie for votes of dominant Thevars.
1. Severe water crisis
2. Few fishermen willing to exchange trawlers, banned by Sri Lanka, for subsidised deep-sea fishing vessels