Dr Radhakrishnan Nagar or RK Nagar, the North Chennai Assembly constituency represented by the late Jayalalithaa, is buzzing with activity in the run-up to the much-anticipated by-election on April 12. The seat that propelled the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief to power in last year’s state election is now hotly contested by the two factions the party split into after her death and other political players.

TTV Dinakaran, the nephew of Jayalalithaa’s aide VK Sasikala, is the candidate for the AIADMK (Amma) while E Madhusudhanan represents the AIADMK (Puratchi Thalaivi Amma) led by former chief minister O Panneerselvam. Also in the fray is Jayalalithaa’s niece Deepa Jayakumar, who has floated the MGR Amma Deepa Peravai but is contesting as an independent candidate. Meanwhile, Maruthu Ganesh of the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is being touted as a front-runner in the event of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam vote splitting three ways.

All these parties have been campaigning actively in the constituency, promising freebies and subsidies. The Election Commission’s office has been besieged by reporters and cameramen waiting to catch an interview with the candidates.

The main factor in this election is the legacy of Jayalalithaa, which both factions as well as the MGR Amma Deepa Peravai have staked claim to, each professing to be her true follower. Therefore, this election would be crucial in determining the outcome of the split after Jayalalithaa’s death, and which of the factions finds favour with the party’s supporters. It would also test the strength of a post-Jayalalithaa All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

Jayalalithaa’s death in December left the party divided between Panneerselvam and Sasikala and their supporters. Panneerselvam, who took over as chief minister soon after, stepped down to make way for Sasikala to take charge of the party, only to rebel against her a few days later.

The tussle has continued, with the latest contest being over the party’s “two leaves” election symbol. On Wednesday, the Election Commission froze the symbol, forbidding its use in the by-election, forcing the factions to choose their own symbols on Thursday. Dinakaran’s side picked the hat while Panneerselvam now has a lamp post.

The business of symbols

SG Mohan, a roadside vendor and supporter of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, feels the lamp post symbol with its strong resemblance to the twin leaves will prove a winning choice. “People will now identify the two leaves symbol in the two lamps,” he said.

He said the real battle in this election is between Madhusudhanan and the Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Mohan is backing Madhusudhanan, who he says has been with the party for decades. “Madhusudhanan is well-known in this area since he has lived in this constituency for many years,” he added.

R Dhanasekar, a carpenter, recalled that Madhusudhanan had been involved in a case of land grab in the locality a few years ago. But he brushed it off saying it did not matter, since all politicians indulged in some corrupt activity or the other. “Madhusudhanan is an old candidate from this area, so he stands a good chance,” he said. “But AIADMK votes have been split three ways. So DMK might get the majority votes from this constituency.”

R Dhanasekar (right) predicts a close contest between the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Pannerselvam's party.

But the choice is not as clear for other All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam supporters. At her fruit shop in RK Nagar, P Usha peered at the two new symbols, the hat and the lamp post, which she was seeing for the first time. She was shocked to learn that no party would be contesting on the two leaves symbol. For years now, her family has always voted for the two leaves, with most of them being unlettered and recognising the party only by its symbol.

“Now I have no idea whom to vote for,” she said. “We knew only the two leaves and the sun.” The sun is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s party symbol. “But nobody cares anymore about whom to vote for anymore, now that Amma is no more,” she added.

And where does Deepa Jayakumar stand? “Deepa has lost a lot of support because she is not consistent in her statements,” said Mohan. “She keeps changing her stance, once she says she will join OPS, next she says she’s on her own. People don’t trust her yet.”

M Sumathy, a domestic worker and long-time AIADMK worker, is supporting the Panneerselvam faction. Agreeing with Mohan’s prediction, she said, “The two leaves are now the two lamps.” But Sumathy admitted that although she did not support the Sasikala-backed faction since she believed Sasikala was behind Jayalalithaa’s death, she might vote for any party that offered her enough money.

Bigger problems

Money will be a key determinant of votes, more so because the constituency has been in disarray over the past four months, said many residents. They claimed that in many pockets of RK Nagar, ration shops have not been selling foodgrains for this period. “Some started selling grains just last week, maybe because the elections are around the corner,” said Dhanasekar.

Others complained of inefficiency in the delivery of basic services. “After Amma’s death, nothing has been functioning properly,” said S Revati, a homemaker. She has been visiting the taluk office every few weeks with an elderly relative, R Ramachandran, to secure his monthly amount under the state’s old-age pension scheme.

A taluk official said this was because the scheme was undergoing logistic changes after the push for cashless transactions. After the Centre’s demonetisation announcement on November 8, several government offices were directed to create new bank accounts for senior citizens, widows and other beneficiaries by collecting their identity proof, photographs and fingerprints. “But in many cases, the fingerprints did not get registered for the elderly, so they were asked to come again the next week,” said the official. “Many are still trying to create bank accounts. Some have created them, but they are locked.”

Like Ramachandran, several other elderly residents were at the taluk office to check if their money had arrived. “So many of these old people buy medicines with the amount they receive,” said Revati. “When RK Nagar is burning, how can we decide whom to vote for?”