It’s the peak of summer, “katthiri veyyil” as they call it here in Tamil Nadu. In the Athoor constituency in Dindigul district, two men are sweating it out in election campaigns and hurling dastardly abuses at one another. “The person who is contesting for the AIADMK [All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] is an outsider,” said one of them, the candidate for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. “'Veli ooru maadu' [outsider cows] have no sale value here.”

In another village, his rival delivers a riposte. “At least I am a cow, it is okay. But the rival DMK candidate is a buffalo. ‘Eruma maadu’ [buffaloes], even if they are local, have no sale value here.”

The campaign turns even more crass as polling date nears. The stakes are high. I Periyasamy of the DMK and Natham R Viswanathan of the AIADMK are political heavyweights in their own right. This war in Athoor is one of prestige.

IP's domain

I Periyasamy, or IP, as he is better known, is the sitting MLA in this constituency. His clout is evident as one travels along the highways and roads of Dindigul district. Every alternate house has the AIADMK’s “two leaves” symbol with the words “MGR-in chinnam” (Tamil for symbol of MG Ramachandran, former chief minister and founder of the party).

All the other houses have the “rising sun” symbol of the DMK with the words “IP-in chinnam” – IP’s symbol. Clearly, IP is the vote gatherer in these parts and not any other DMK leader, alive or otherwise.

IP, who has been with the DMK since his teens, first caught the attention of party chief M Karunanidhi in 1986. “I will not let MGR into the city,” he thundered at the time, a little after the popular cine star split from the DMK to launch his own party, the AIADMK.

The DMK leadership sat up and took notice of this farmer from the backward Thevar community. DMK chief Karunanidhi often publicly refers to IP as his “younger brother”. IP has played it safe within the party – making it a point to be in the good books of Karunanidhi’s warring sons Alagiri and MK Stalin. Having first contested this seat in 1989, IP has won four times and lost twice since. Now, he is hoping to win for a fifth time.

Work to be done

Locals say that IP is likely to win this election by at least 50,000 votes. “IP will mingle with people as if they are his own relatives,” said Chinnappan, a resident of Chinthiankottai village. “Whether his party is in power or not, he will always be in his constituency. He knows everyone here and he calls them by name.”

“When IP is travelling by road, even if a 10-year-old puts out a hand, his vehicle will stop,” said Mookkaiyan, an old man in the village. “He helps people without discriminating on the basis of caste or party affiliations.”

IP became a hero of sorts in the area when he got 10 wells dug early on in his political career. Despite the Kamarajar Dam being situated in Athoor, the area is parched. The area is what Tamils call “vaanam paartha bhoomi” – meaning the land that looks toward the sky.

Only one crop can be cultivated here since farmers depend on the rains for irrigation. The land remains useless until the next rains come.

The 100 days of work guaranteed by the Union government’s rural employment scheme is the only saving grace during the rest of the year. However, removing bushes on the roadside and clearing obstructions to drainage systems are the only work provided. “I Periyasamy may have dug wells here but he has not done anything else for the area despite being MLA four times,” said Sundaram, a high school teacher.

No canals have been cut for supplying water to fields and no tanks have been dug to store rainwater during the monsoon, he claims. “People are putting their faith in IP this time also, but he should not be just a person who comes to our houses for wedding and deaths. He should take this constituency on a growth path,” said the teacher.

Jaya’s challenge

Taking on the might of the formidable IP is another strongman from the rival AIADMK. Natham R Viswanathan, a native of Dindigul district, is a minister holding the twin portfolios of electricity and prohibition & excise. Viswanathan is banking on the strength of his followers in the district to wrest control from IP.

Viswanathan was one of the “Ivar Ani” (Group of Five) ministers who enjoyed their leader Jayalalithaa’s confidence in the first four years of her government. Over the past few months, however, Viswanathan has suddenly found himself out in the cold. His supporters were kicked out of their postings and stripped of party membership. His constituency of Natham, which he won in 2011, was changed and he was given a ticket instead in Athoor. Taking on IP on his home turf was ostensibly punishment meted out by Jayalalithaa.

Viswanathan’s supporters are livid. “Instead of giving him the Athoor constituency, he need not have been given any ticket at all. There could be no other way to punish him so severely,” said an AIADMK leader from Dindigul district, requesting anonymity. “It is like telling him - if possible, win against IP and come. This is akin to tying a stone to a person and throwing him in water.”

Viswanathan, though, is outwardly confident. “Just as I converted the Natham constituency, which was the bastion of the Congress, into an AIADMK stronghold, now my mandate is to convert this Athoor constituency into an AIADMK bastion,” Viswanathan said while campaigning in Chokkalingapuram. “It is the command of Amma. Amma has decided that I am the right person to beat the sitting MLA, I Periyasamy, and has sent me here to contest,” he said.

Odds against him

History, however, is not in Viswanathan’s favour.

An oft-repeated anecdote in this area is about former AIADMK leader Nedunchezhiyan, who won the seat and became Deputy Chief Minister in 1984 when MGR came to power. There was a drought in Athoor. When people implored their MLA Nedunchezhiyan for help, the leader is said to have suggested that the locals rear pigs instead as an alternative profession in the arid lands. But pig rearing was practised by the lower castes in the area at the time. Voters were angry and unforgiving at Nedunchezhiyan’s remark and shifted their allegiance from the AIADMK to the DMK.

Viswanathan has been accused of corruption and of amassing huge wealth during his tenure as minister, charges which he vehemently denies. “Since the DMK and other opposition parties could find no fault with the ruling government they are spreading such canards,” he said. “Some sections of the media too are helping them.”

But IP will not let the allegations die down in his campaign against Viswanathan. “They will give you money. Take it. It is your money. But when you vote, think whether you will vote for cash or for affection and decide,” IP has said in his campaign speeches.

Local snub?

There is a sense in some quarters that because Athoor voted for the DMK candidate in 2011, the rival AIADMK which came to power in the state has deliberately ignored their plight.

During Viswanathan’s campaign in a village, an old lady kept interrupting him. She was picked up by his men and carried away. When Scroll sought her out to find out what the issue was, the elderly lady said that she had stopped receiving her pension promised by the state government ever since 2011. “I am 73 years old, ‘thambi’ [younger brother],” she trembled. “I have no one to care for me. I used to get old age pension of Rs 500 from the government. For the last five years, that has stopped. I asked him to get me back that pension and they brought me here and dumped me.”

Other residents of the village too had the same complaint. Over half the senior citizens in the village had stopped receiving pension since 2011, they claimed.

Athoor will vote for one of the two self-proclaimed bovines soon. The “buffalo” and the “outsider cow” have locked horns in the interim.