City-centred AAP's best shot in South India actually comes from rural Kanyakumari

Anti-nuclear activist SP Udayakumar proves why grassroots credibility is more important than boardroom experience to win an election.
Since its inception, the Aam Aadmi Party has had its greatest appeal in India’s cities. After its rise to power in Delhi, it has found an enthusiastic support base in places like Bangalore and Chennai. But while the party is tipped to win a considerable vote share in South Indian cities, it isn’t expected to win any seats. Ironically, its best shot of winning a seat in the south isn’t in an urban centre: it’s in rural Kanyakumari.

AAP’s hopes here are riding on the shoulders of its very popular candidate, the anti-nuclear campaigner Dr SP Udayakumar.

In 2012 and ’13, Udayakumar led a powerful movement against the Rs 17,000-crore Kudankulam Nuclear Power plant, 24 km from India’s southern tip. The activist managed to mobilise thousands of fisherpeople to throw themselves into an agitation that lasted for nearly two years. They claimed that the plant would damage the environment and ruin their livelihoods. Though the plant was finally commissioned in October after the movement was put down by force and several cases were filed against Udayakumar, the activist remains a hero for the area's fishermen.

Udayakumar is a reminder to the AAP leadership that high-profile corporate executives who join the party in cities may end up making news but grassroots activists who have worked and earned the trust of people is far more important in an election. His AAP colleague, activist Medha Patkar, who is contesting from Mumbai, would agree.

“It is important for candidates to work with the people and win their trust before contesting an election,” Udayakumar said. “Just jumping into an election does not serve any purpose.”

When he joined the AAP in February, he did so at the Idinthakarai village, which was ground zero for the anti-nuclear protests. Many people who fought the battle against the nuclear plant alongside him are fiercely campaigning for him. “This is not for AAP but to show the government how people remain seriously committed to the anti-nuclear activist and the movement he started,” Peter Milton, a resident of Idinthakarai, over the phone to Scroll.in.

In fact, AAP supporters in Kanyakumari haven’t been carrying the party’s broom symbol or party leader Arvind Kejriwal’s photos as they go out campaigning. Instead, they have been wearing t-shirts with Udayakumar’s photos and Udayakumar face masks.

“I am a clean and committed candidate with local appeal, in a clean and committed party with a national appeal,” Udayakumar told Scroll.in. “The union of the two is what voters respond to.”

AAP has also fielded another anti-nuclear activists in southern Tamil Nadu. M Pushparayan, who worked  with Udayakumar in the agitation, is running in the Tuticorin constituency, which adjoins Kanyakumari. However, the party's star campaigner is Udayakumar. “He may or may not win in the end, but he is certain to give a tough fight and poll much more than any other AAP candidate in the state,” said Meenakshi Mahadevan, a journalist who has been following Udayakumar closely from the time anti-nuclear protests began.

Interestingly, the BJP, which has a negligible presence in most parts of Tamil Nadu, is at its strongest in Kanyakumari. Party state president Pon Radhakrishnan is its candidate there. He polled close to 33% of the vote in 2009 and took second place. J Helen Davidson of the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam was the winner.

This time, the BJP has formed an alliance with smaller parties in the state, but the fishing community remains key to victory. If Udayakumar makes a considerable dent into that community, the other candidates could be in trouble.

 
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