Battle between DMK’s A Raja & BJP’s L Murugan heats up Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris

Battle between DMK’s A Raja & BJP’s L Murugan heats up Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris

Nilgiris: The alleged 2G spectrum scam, Sanatana Dharma, the plight of tribal people in Manipur, and ‘outsiders’ — these are some of the issues that have heated up the political climate of the otherwise cool and placid Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, where two heavyweights, both guests in the constituency, are pitted against each other in Friday’s Lok Sabha election. 

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) A. Raja, a five-time MP and former Union minister, will take on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) L. Murugan, a minister of state in the Narendra Modi-led government, in the reserved (SC) constituency whose population is an eclectic mix of Scheduled Castes, tribes, migrants and Sri Lankan repatriates. 

Raja, the incumbent MP, is dismissive of any threat that Murugan, a former state BJP president, might pose. Speaking to ThePrint, he insists that the fight is between the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). 

“People are looking for a change and we are here to bring in the change,” he says while campaigning in the constituency.

In the three-cornered fight, former state minister and assembly Speaker P. Dhanapal’s son D. Lokesh Thamizh Selvan is contesting for the AIADMK. 

Murugan, who can bank on the BJP’s support base in the Nilgiris, is going hammer and tongs against Raja, recalling the alleged 2G spectrum scam, apart from making tall promises to the people.

R. Murugesan, a BJP worker in Coonoor, which is part of the constituency, says, “Raja has not done anything for the people here. We have been addressing the issues of the people even when we were not elected from the constituency. We will defeat Raja and elect the corruption-free candidate.” 

Nilgiris constituency

The Nilgiris Lok Sabha constituency, which was formed ahead of the 1957 elections, has been won by the BJP twice, in 1998 and 1999. The Congress has won it seven times, the DMK thrice and the AIADMK twice.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Raja — who had previously won the seat in 2009 — defeated his nearest rival, M. Thiyagarajan of the AIADMK, by about 2.06 lakh votes.

However, in the state assembly elections two years later, the AIADMK was victorious in four of the six assembly segments that fall under the Nilgiris Lok Sabha constituency, with the DMK and the Congress winning the remaining two.

In the Nilgiris district, according to the 2011 census SCs make up 32 percent of the population, while the Scheduled Tribes (STs) are around 4 percent. 

The census also says that the Toda, Kota, Kurumba, Irula and Badaga communities were the original inhabitants of the Nilgiris district, while large-scale migration occurred from all over India after the plantations and tourism started to grow.

Also read: ‘That’s what Amma would do’: AIADMK gains momentum in Tamil Nadu poll race as EPS trains guns on Modi

Raja calls it a fight to save India

Born to Andimuthu and Chinnapillai Ammal, Raja belongs to a Sri Lankan repatriate family. He was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1996 from Perambalur, then a reserved constituency, where he was born and brought up.

In 2009, after Perambalur was made a general seat, Raja moved to the Nilgiris, newly designated as a reserved constituency.

Asked him why he moved out of his own constituency and chose the Nilgiris, Raja says, “Even my late leader [Karunanidhi] asked me to contest from the same constituency but I wanted to move to the Nilgiris. I wanted to do something for my grandfather’s community, who are living in large numbers in the Nilgiris.”

Apart from the indigenous tribes and migrants from other parts of the country, Nilgiris has a chunk of Sri Lankan repatriates who settled there in the early 1960s. They now work for the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation(TANTEA), created by the then DMK government to rehabilitate the Sri Lankan repatriates in 1968.

While Raja has no promise to make for the people of the region, he says he had never promised anything and had done everything that the people asked him.

Recalling an exhortation by his leader, Raja’s campaign has focused largely on attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government. “Our chief minister gave a clarion call: ‘M.K. Stalin calls you to save democracy, to save India, to save the Constitution.’ Because the Constitution is under threat,” says Raja.

While campaigning, Raja talks about the ethnic strife in Manipur and the plight of tribal people there as he calls on people in his constituency to join together to remove the Modi government from the Centre.

People in the constituency point to how the two prominent candidates are both from outside the region.

“Though both Raja and Murugan are outsiders, at least Raja has been in the constituency for a few years. He has recently resolved our wage dispute issue at TANTEA. He has also assured us that the wages of TANTEA workers will be increased to be on par with the other estates, but we will know only after the election whether or not this will materialise,” says A. Rajakani, an estate worker in Coonoor.

Also read: ‘Rs 8 soap now Rs 20, expensive cable TV’: Congress’s Karti Chidambaram breaks down issues for voters

Murugan calls for fight against ‘corruption’

Murugan, on the other hand, is attacking Raja for making allegedly anti-Hindu remarks, characterising it as a fight between dharma and adharma.  

After Udhayanidhi Stalin, a state minister and the son of CM Stalin, triggered a controversy last year by calling for the “eradication” of Sanatana Dharma, Raja had also waded into the row, calling the latter a “disease ridden with social plights like HIV and leprosy”. Legal proceedings ensued against both DMK leaders.

Addressing a group of Badaga people gathered in Udhagamandalam, Murugan says, “He [Raja] has never been for the Hindu. He has always abused us. He has always abused our God. You all should be aware of him and should vote for the one who hears your demand and works for you.”

When asked, Raja refuses to comment on the Sanatana Dharma issue, saying the matter was pending in court. About being termed “Anti-Hindu”, Raja says Dravidianism is fighting for “97 percent of Hindus” against the “3 percent who want to rule the country”.

“As a candidate, he [Murugan] has the right to say whatever he can. But people have to believe it. Let’s wait till 4 June [election results day],” says Raja. 

According to people in Udhagamandalam, it’s not just Murugan but also activists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) who have been working in the hilly region.

“Until a few years ago, we had not seen people supporting the saffron party. We don’t even know the people working in the saffron party. But, in recent years, through our own community (Badaga) people, they started campaigning for L. Murugan,” says Vatchala, a high school teacher from the locality.

There has been a demand among the Badagas — an ethno-linguistic community in the Nilgiris who are classified as part of the Backward Classes (BC) — to be brought under the ST category. While no government has yet taken this into active consideration, Murugan has said that he would give priority to this demand and raise it with the prime minister after the elections.

Vatchala added: “I think our people are behind Murugan because he has given a word on our popular demand. I am without hope. But, if he does that, it would be great.”

2G spectrum case 

In his campaign speeches, Murugan never fails to reference the 2G spectrum case as he calls on voters to reject corrupt leaders. “Vote for the BJP for corruption-free politics,” he tells a crowd in Kotagiri.

As telecom minister during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre, Raja was at the centre of this sensational case, which saw a battery of politicians, officials and business people accused of corruption in the allocation of 2G spectrum. Everyone accused, including Raja, was acquitted by a special court in 2017. The Delhi High Court admitted an appeal by the Central Bureau of Investigation against the acquittals last month. 

During a visit to Mettupalayam — part of the Nilgiris constituency — on 10 April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, took a dig at the 2G case.

“Today, the country is setting a world record in 5G but the DMK brought disrepute with the 2G scam. The Congress and the DMK stand at the forefront to protect the corrupt. While I say, ‘remove corruption’, they say, ‘protect the corrupt’,” Modi said at a public meeting in Mettupalayam.

On the other hand, during a visit to the Nilgiris to campaign for Raja Monday, Udhayanidhi Stalin credited him for standing his ground and disproving the “false” 2G spectrum case foisted on him.

When asked why a DMK minister had to bring up a case he himself had been trying to put on the backburner, Raja says it was the prime minister who made false claims about the case and that he had to counter it.

“When a prime minister with his stature, who knows the whole truth about the case, makes false claims in my own constituency, am I not entitled to say something against him?,” he asks.

When asked who had left him to fend for himself when he was facing the case, Raja says, “Everyone. I was isolated by the Congress, by democratic institutions,  isolated by you (the media). None of the constitutional bodies supported me, only [the late DMK patriarch] Kalaignar Karunanidhi and the DMK. I fought my case and disproved it, and that’s why they say I fought it alone.”

Also read: BJP bid to carve out space in TN hits unlikely roadblock — a DMK-AIADMK ploy to keep ‘outsider’ out


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