Under the red and black streamers that criss-crossed through a narrow alley in north Chennai, a long procession of residents waved cut-outs of two bright green leaves, chanting:

“Podu thambi vote-u, rettai elaiya paathu!”
Look out for two leaves and cast your vote!

“Endha chinnum jaykidhu? Retta elai jaykidhu!”
Which symbol is winning? Two leaves is winning!

On Tuesday afternoon, it was a fight to the finish. Only a few hours were left for election campaigning to come to a close at Dr Radhakrishna Nagar constituency. But the contesting parties showed no signs of winding down. Instead, supporters of various parties assumed renewed vigour, calling for votes at the much-awaited bye-election at RK Nagar set to take place on December 21.

The streets were crowded with party workers in their sparkling white shirts, drinking a cup of tea at one roadside stall or munching on a samosa at the next. Meanwhile, daily wage labourers who resided in the constituency were being packed into the back of minivans and ferried to the main roads of RK Nagar to add numbers to the procession.

“Nobody has gone to work for the past two weeks,” said Ismail Khan, a shopkeeper in RK Nagar. “They just have to go for one round of campaigning to get Rs 300 each.”

The demise of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has left State assembly seat vacant at the constituency. Since her death, there have been tectonic shifts in Tamil Nadu politics over the past year.

The AIADMK party split into two factions, only to merge again in August with the ousting of Sasikala’s nephew TTV Dhinakaran. He now contests as an independent candidate in the election. Meanwhile, AIADMK attempts to retain its support in constituency and consolidate its weakened position after its leader Jayalalithaa’s death.

The stakes are high for the opposition party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam as well. The DMK has pulled together a strong alliance with the Congress, left parties and regional parties such as the Viduthalai Chiruthagal Katchi and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. A victory at this election will establish the DMK’s working president Stalin as the main face of the Opposition, and present a tougher front at the civic polls that will be held soon.

Supporters of AIADMK led by E Palanisamy.

Cash flow

The bye-elections were first scheduled to take place here on April 12 – to vote for a new MLA and councillor – but were cancelled by the Election Commission, after it was alleged that some parties were offering bribes to voters. The Election Commission stepped up surveillance massively, by installing cameras in every street of the constituency and deploying about 2500 police personnel. According to a report by The Times of India, the Election Commission has spent Rs 3 crore for all its arrangements, as against the regular amount of Rs 60 lakh spent on a a bye-election. The constituency is being treated like a mini war zone, with 51 teams of flying squads patrolling the area, along with 21 teams for static surveillance, 20 teams for video surveillance and 36 teams for manning check-posts.

The Election Commission announced on Sunday that it had seized Rs 30.29 lakh from the constituency, in connection with bribery for votes. For violation of election code, the police have filed 95 FIRs and remanded 15 people, reported The Hindu.

But this has done nothing to stop the bribes in the area. “Money is simply flowing into the neighbourhood,” said Khan. One video doing the rounds on WhatsApp alleged that notes were being hidden inside bananas, that were being distributed in the constituency. Another theory was that voters in the region were being paid for petty tasks, like showering flowers or holding flags. Residents said that they were being offered Rs 6000 by the two leaves faction, and were awaiting Rs 10,000 from Dhinakaran’s camp.

“This is a labourers’ area, not a VIP area,” said V Balakrishnan, another shop owner. “If people offer us money, we will take it.”

Balakrishnan and Karapusamy have decided to vote for TTV Dhinakaran.

‘Star’ candidate

On the last day of election campaigning, RK Nagar bore the look of a carnival.

Weaving their way down one street, supporters of the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam led by E Palanisamy chanted catchy slogans in support of the two leaves. This was a much-recognised symbol secured by the party after a long battle with the Election Commission. Despite the death of Jayalalithaa, many voters continue to pledge their loyalty towards the symbol. “I have been voting for the two leaves ever since MG Ramachandran’s time,” said 60-year-old Shekhar, a sweet shop owner. “My vote won’t change, whether I’m offered money or not.”

But for many erstwhile AIADMK supporters, the change in leadership of the party has left them confused about whom to vote for. While they are not ready to make a polar shift to vote for DMK, some consider voting for TTV Dhinakaran a better option. Propping pressure cookers on their heads, supporters marched through RK Nagar’s roads.

“We want a star candidate, not just one among the rest,” said Balakrishnan. “TTV is someone whom everyone in Tamil Nadu knows, not just in RK Nagar. So he may do some good for us.”

M Raje, an electrician, said that his vote too would definitely go for Dhinakaran. “He gave us Rs 8000 in April,” he said. “Maybe it was black money, I don’t know. But it was with that money that I was able to pay my son’s school fees this year.”

End to confusion

Despite the inflow of cash that was helping them with household expenses and debts, several RK Nagar residents were waiting to get over with the election. “It is too chaotic,” said Karapusamy, a vegetable vendor. “If we run out of any item during the day, we cannot even get out of our street to buy our goods.”

Amid the zooming minivans, blaring loudspeakers and white-shirted party workers who populated the streets of RK Nagar, a lone man pushed a cycle with a small speaker propped on it. This was K Jayaraman, an independent candidate, who wore a bright green t-shirt sporting the symbol of a mixer. Smiling widely at passersby as he sang to them on his microphone, Jayakumar cut an odd figure among the milling crowds of campaigners. Every now and then, he stopped by the roadside to explain to curious onlookers his aim to uplift the condition of poverty-stricken farmers and work towards environmental protection.

“People ask me what I’m going to give them, since all the other parties are offering money,” he said. “I can give them only what I have, which is honest governance.”

Independent candidate K Jayaraman leading a solo campaign.