KN Nehru is restless. He has already made three phone calls, in a span of half an hour, to his guest who was supposed to meet him for lunch in his office in Thillai Nagar, Trichy, at 1 pm. As the guest arrives at 1.10 pm, Nehru quickly switches from restlessness to becoming the consummate host. Over a rich vegetarian spread, packed from his home, Nehru explains to his guest that while his family was strictly vegetarian, he used to eat meat often. “Since thambi (younger brother) died, I have taken vratham (fast),” he tells his guest. “I haven’t touched meat for the past four years.”

Nehru, the strongman of Trichy for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and eldest of seven siblings, still mourns the death of his brother KN Ramajeyam, who was murdered in 2012 by unidentified assailants while on his morning walk in Thillai Nagar. The case has not been cracked yet, which is a source of immense grief to Nehru personally. For close to a year after Ramajeyam’s murder, Nehru was inconsolable and withdrawn. Now he is back on his feet, with his trademark clipped trot, while acolytes run to keep up with him.

“Amaichar (Minister) is extremely punctual,” said C Kannan, the DMK’s Zonal Secretary for Thillai Nagar, a close aide of Nehru. “If he has to be at a function by 9am, he will reach by 8.55am. He expects that punctuality from others too. All of us get ticked off by him when we are late.”

A rich farmer’s precocious son

Nehru was the firstborn of a wealthy Telugu-speaking farmer Narayanasamy Reddiar and his second wife Dhanalakshmiamma, who lived in Kanakiliyanur village near Lalgudi town, a little less than 40 kilometres from the bustling city of Trichy in central Tamil Nadu.

Narayanasamy was a big zamindar, owner of hundreds of acres of paddy, plantain and coconut in and around Lalgudi. He was also a proud Congressman until the late 1960s – naming his eldest son Nehru and a daughter Gandhi. A nephew was intriguingly named Jananayagam (democracy) by him.

Relatives of Nehru in Kanakiliyanur village remember him being a spunky young man, always ready to help others. “He used to ride a Bullet bike in those days,” reminisced V Tamilchelvan, a nephew of Nehru’s. “There used to be only mud roads here. He would offer everyone a lift on the way. Once I even saw him taking 5 people on that bike.” Nehru still rides that bike across his fields regularly.

By the late 1960s, Nehru’s father Narayanasamy Reddiar had shifted allegiance to the DMK from the Congress. It was a time when the DMK was gaining in popularity and strength in the state. The Congress soon found a number of its local leaders switching sides to the home-grown DMK.

In the 1970s, Nehru began to play an active role in politics. “When Rajiv Gandhi came to Lalgudi for a padayatra (walking tour), he was accosted by a young energetic man who demanded that Rajiv inaugurate a new water tank which he had built,” said Tamilchelvan. “That was Nehru. The other Congress workers were afraid to ask Rajiv. Nehru simply went up to him and made his request. Rajiv immediately agreed.” That was when the DMK began to notice Nehru.

By 1989, Nehru had been given a ticket for the Lalgudi MLA seat. He won, becoming a minister in the DMK government in his very first election. His big break came in 1992 when Vaiko, then a prominent DMK leader, decided to quit the party, protesting against the elevation and growing influence of DMK chief M Karunanidhi’s son MK Stalin. Vaiko took with him the then district secretary of the DMK, leaving the field open for a new face. Nehru was picked by the DMK leadership to become the district in-charge of Trichy, where he had shifted base to by then. Nehru, say his partymen, travelled from village to village in the district, consolidating and strengthening the party.

Today, Nehru is powerful in the party – he is the only leader to hold charge over three districts for the DMK – Trichy, Ariyalur and Perambalur.

Farmer and feudal lord

Trichy town itself is a modern area with lots of small industries and a vibrant education sector. But Trichy’s surrounds are the rice bowl of the country – the fertile Cauvery delta area where farming is the main occupation.

Nehru’s first love is agriculture. He wakes early every day to pay a visit to his plantain, paddy and coconut fields in Lalgudi whenever he is in Trichy. His fields employ 250 families in the area. Closer to his native village of Kanakiliyanur, acres upon acres of guava, chickoo (sapota or sapodilla fruit), ulundhu (urad dhal in Hindi), vegetables and chillies are tended to by relatives and loyalists.

He also owns a rice mill situated between Lalgudi and Kanakiliyanur and has named it SNR Industries – Sri Narayana Rice Industries. This modern automated mill has an output of 40 tonnes of rice a day and has a storage capacity of 2,500 tonnes of paddy. Farmers in the area say that the rice mill has made lives better for them since 2008 when it was first opened. The rice mill pays promptly and well and takes all their crops off their hands quickly, they say.

Behind Nehru’s ancestral but modernised home in Kanakiliyanur are situated two sprawling buildings. One is a hostel for poor Backward Class students in the area. The other is a similar hostel for poor Scheduled Caste students. “He donated 10 acres of his own land to build these hostels,” pointed out Tamilchelvan, Nehru’s nephew. “He is responsible for the development of Lalgudi and this village. He brought roads, schools to this area.”

Back in Nehru’s constituency, in a Dalit slum called Soloma Nagar, in Uraiyur near Trichy, a group of well-built young men line up with arms folded. “This is what Amaichar (Minister) has done for us,” said their leader, S Dhana, a member of the DMK, pointing to a set of bulging biceps. “He spent Rs 7 lakh building a gym in our slum. We are all physically fit here,” he said proudly.

Money power

Trichy district is home to almost 15 lakh people, with 21% of the population comprising of Scheduled Castes. Of the rest, the Backward Class Kallars (a sub-caste under Thevars) are the majority community. Other castes in this rich fertile agricultural belt situated in the Cauvery delta, are Reddiars, Pillais, Naickers, among others. Some sub-castes among Reddiars have been included in the Backward Class list by the state government, while others remain in the Forward Caste category. Nehru is a Forward Caste Reddiar.

In a state where a member of a Forward Caste would struggle greatly to become a politician, Nehru’s zamindar origins and wealth have helped enormously in the meteoric rise to his present position. The feudal roots are evident as Nehru casually hands over Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes to anyone who walks into his office with folded arms and a tragic tale.

Nehru’s nephew Tamilchelvan recalls how Nehru would do charity while running a small moneylending business near Trichy, in the 1980s. “He would sit outside that shop and hand out Rs 5 or Rs 10 to everyone who came – sometimes it was for tea, sometimes it was for the bus fare. Sometimes he would just say ‘selavukku vecchukonga’ (keep it for expenses).”

As per records available with the Election Commission, the total cash seizure in Trichy district ahead of the 2011 polls was over Rs 5.7 crore, the highest in any district in the state. Sources within the DMK claimed that most of this money belonged to Nehru, meant for distribution to voters, although it has never been proven officially. Nehru’s money muscle also resulted in a rash of land grabbing allegations being hurled at him and his men.

The bully

IAS officers who have served in Trichy during Nehru’s tenures as minister accuse him of treating government officials poorly. “He was rude often and was quick to lose his temper and shout,” said a senior serving bureaucrat who did not wish to be named.

Nehru’s close confidantes too agree that he has a short fuse. “His only bad habit is that he is very short-tempered,” said Kannan, Nehru’s aide. “But the temper display does not last for too long. He is apologetic almost instantly after he shouts. He will call the person back and offer him food. He looks like a murattu (grim or grouchy) person but he is actually a very nice man. He does not hold grudges either.”

Tamilchelvan guffawed when asked about Nehru’s notorious temper. “He will spout Sanskrit words,” he quipped, referring to the use of abusive language. “His face will go red and he will sweat heavily when he gets angry. But he calms down quickly. He is respectful to everyone.”

Local people, however, speak with fear about the “rowdyism of amaichar’s (minister’s) gangs”.

The anger and alleged misdemeanours came to haunt Nehru after the DMK lost the 2011 Assembly elections to All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. He was one of the first DMK leaders to be arrested in a land grab case in August 2011, a few months after Jayalalithaa took over as chief minister. In 2015, the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption booked him for a case of corruption during his tenure as state Transport Minister.

All of this led to Nehru losing his Trichy West MLA seat in 2011 to the AIADMK’s Mariam Pitchai. He lost by a margin of 14%.

The future

Nehru is working feverishly now to regroup and recoup his party’s losses in the central districts of the state. Experts have predicted that the DMK has a fighting chance against Jayalalithaa’s powerful position only if they get their alliance formula right.

In 2011, the DMK scored 22.39% vote share, against the AIADMK’s 38.4%. In the recent 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the AIADMK marched ahead to a huge 44.3% vote share, leaving the DMK with not even one Lok Sabha seat, despite a marginally increased 23.6% vote share. For the coming state elections, the DMK has already tied up an alliance with the Congress (9.3% vote share in 2011 and 4.3% in 2014) and is now trying to rope in smaller parties with tiny pockets of influence across the state. The DMK will also bank on minority votes, a traditional vote bank, to keep its head above water in 2016

Nehru is also currently battling for survival within his own party. A staunch Karunanidhi loyalist, his position is tenuous with the rise of Karunanidhi’s son MK Stalin as the next leader of the party. Party insiders say Nehru, a Karunanidhi loyalist, is unable to accept Stalin as the leader and Stalin knows this and is trying to get rid of him. A temporary truce though has been called for, with Nehru getting a ticket for the Trichy North constituency.

Losing Trichy in 2011 was a big loss of face for Nehru. Battling politics from within and without, he may need to fall back on both money and muscle to ensure that he is back in the reckoning again.

This is the second in our series of important politicians in Tamil Nadu. Read the first one here: O Panneerselvan