It’s some time since the bugle was blown for the biggest battle of the ballot in the nation. Yet on the streets of Chennai, the writing on the wall is clear: Blank. No election graffiti, no wall posters and no images of party symbols with the accompanying ‘vote for’ or ‘your symbol’ phrases has been sighted. Not only is there no visible fluttering of flags, there is no noise of loudspeakers blaring. Does this point to a dull electioneering, a lifeless hustings? No, not at all, it is just that campaigning has changed with the times.
Making up for the eerie silence on the streets, the digital pathways of social media are abuzz. The simple perception that there might not be that many people in Chennai without the all-purpose handheld device called the smartphone has impelled even campaigners for the various candidates fighting it out from the three proper ‘Chennai’ constituencies – North, South and Central – and the neighbouring ones that are also part of the broader metropolitan region take recourse to social media.
In fact, it is quite some time since that old faceless door-to-door campaigners gave up canvassing for votes for the candidate they worked for. Confining themselves to the task of issuing poll slips, they even ceased to move around in boisterous groups either with a loudspeaker equipped vehicle blaring election-related speeches or music or as an entourage. Such paraphernalia was devoted to the slums and certain congested pockets of the city, mainly from where the election workers hailed. And, of course, the Big Brother Election Commission started tightening the screws.
Voters dwelling in middle-class localities, particularly apartment complexes, were seldom subjected to the humdrum of electioneering due the changes the campaign process have been undergoing for quite some time. Ever since gated communities came up, campaigners could never touch base with the voter at all. Of course, parties, too, learnt to reach out to the voter through other means like the television screens and smartphone. But this time, as initial indications go, electioneering goes beyond all that and there is an attempt to bridge the yawning gap between the campaigner and voter.
Though all major candidates vying for the Chennai and other surrounding constituencies have the backing of their parties that have time-tested campaign machinery to reach out to the voters, now the friends of candidates are forming their own crack teams to influence the voters, hitherto ignored by the dyed-in-the-wool party worker. There is a perceptible change in the mindset of the urban middle-class that now wants to express its political views in ways more than that of casting the vote. They want to campaign for the candidate they consider worthy of the win.
One of the major reasons for it is the profile of the new age candidates themselves: Most of them hip, modern, articulate, educated and urbane. The DMK candidate from Chennai North, Kalanidhi Veerasamy, and AIADMK’s nominee for Chennai South, J Jayavardhan are doctors, besides being sons of senior party leaders. In Chennai Central, even if Dayanidhi Maran has been a regular contender for the seat, he obviously stands out in his own political environment in terms of attire and attitude and presents himself as a city-bred person. So is his opponent, Sam Paul, a successful entrepreneur who is quite popular in the socialite circles. Sam Paul is also an educationist, running a few colleges and schools, who has a Ph.D in engineering and a degree in law.
The DMK candidate in Chennai South is Sumathi alias Thamizhachi Thangapandian, also a Ph.D degree-holder who had been a professor of English, besides being a poet, writer and so on. She is very popular among the literary circles of Chennai that many of her friends, who might not otherwise wet their feet in the murky waters of political campaign, felt that they should do something to ensure her victory. So, they started a WhatsApp group for like-minded people who would like to see an educated and sophisticated woman like Thamizhachi Thangapandian becoming their MP. Then, those people from diverse backgrounds, professionals like doctors, software engineers, journalists, publishers, film personalities, businesspersons and so on met to draw a strategy parallel to the electioneering of the DMK.
Similar meetings are being organised for other candidates, too. Many of Sam Paul’s friends started canvassing for him the moment he was named by his party, the PMK, through social media. Associations of doctors and such professional bodies have been approached by friends of some candidates to hold exclusive meetings for the candidates to address the gatherings. Trade bodies had been game in inviting the candidates and finding out what they could do for them if they were elected. To put it otherwise, electioneering in Chennai now happens also in the cool, air-conditioned environs and not just under the blazing sun.
Besides, the friends of candidates are also breaking into the closed gated communities. For, if one of those well-wishers of the candidate resided in a gated community, they could help the candidate or their representatives enter the premises and even hold meetings there. Thus the parallel universe that the typical political party campaigner neglected so far is now coming under the reckoning of the new age electioneer who has emerged from all kinds of plush offices of the city with the sole aim of seeing their favourite candidate winning.