Palaniappan Chidambaram is running the length and breadth of his constituency - Sivaganga - as polling draws near.
On Friday, the home minister toured 30 villages, delivering five-minute-long speeches under a makeshift pandal with thatched roof at each venue. The backdrop is typically a faded banner with smiling faces of Congress President Sonia
Gandhi, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi and the candidate himself. His close aides confess that the AIADMK candidate in Sivaganga, Raja Kannapan, is a "tough candidate" to fight. "He has a lot of money.
Earlier, the AIADMK candidates were weak fellows; but we can't be complacent now," says a Congress worker at Chidambaram's camp in Devekottai, around 95 km from Madurai.
In the last elections, Chidambaram swept the polls with 60 per cent of the total votes polled in his seat, while his rival got just 35 per cent votes. But now he is pitted against a former state minister who handledthe PWD, power and highways ministries from 1991 to 1996.
Chidambaram is banking on his achievements as the finance minister in the UPA government to sail through once again in Sivaganga. At Piadaranaintal village, he starts his speech with the number of bank branches that had opened in his constituency.
"Forty-three branches of banks have opened in Sivaganga. Earlier, you used to get credit from private moneylenders at 60
per cent interest rate. Now, these banks are giving you credit at 12 per cent. But my Opposition candidate is shouting that I have been making you borrow money. Actually, he wants you to borrow money from private moneylenders because it is his business."
A bowl of toffees is placed before him at Selagai village. But he overlooks the temptation and talks about how he has waived agricultural loan and provided educational loan to the people of his constituency. As the crowd nod their heads in approval, he moves over to what sops "Kalaignar" (Karunanidhi's popular name) has provided during his tenure rice at Re 1 per kilo and free colour TV, among others. But he doesn't even utter a word on the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils at the
two roadside meetings where Business Standard was present.
At Managiri, Sebastian and Francis have high praise for his development work but feel Chidambaram has "betrayed" the people on the Sri Lankan Tamils issue.
"He could have done more to stop the genocide. Why couldn't he and his party stop the killing of our innocent brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka?" says Sebastian. However, Chidambaram's aide David is confident: "This will not be an issue in the Sivaganga election. Earlier, there were some emotion, but after Karunanidhi's fast and the Sri Lankan government deciding to de-escalate the offensive, the mood has turned in our favour."
While Chidambaram's colleague, Union Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, might hold him responsible for initially showing reluctance to implement "pro-poor rural schemes", Paul Rayan in Ramnagar praises him for jobs given to women under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in this constituency.'
"Now the ladies of the house work for just three hours daily and get Rs 80. It's good." Chidambaram too, talks in every rally about how he has tried to give money in the hands of women to run the family.
At a local village market, 46-year-old Padmini, however, waits to meet the former finance minister to tell him how " food prices have gone through the roof and its getting difficult to run the household".
Not many fancy posters or vinyl boards of the minister are available in the constituency. Mostly, it is Sonia Gandhi and Karunanidhi. One of his campaign vehicles, however, has stickers of his son Karti's smiling face.
As Eruthayan says: "Both DMDK and AIADMK are contesting. But if they win from here, they can't do anything. If Chidambaram wins, this will remain a VIP constituency."