Elections 2019: In Madurai, a rockstar writer revives the Communists
Venkatesan still manages to pose for selfie-seekers and pumps several fists like a consummate politician, even as he is led away to his waiting car
As CPI (Marxist) candidate and Sahitya Akademi Award winner Su Venkatesan wraps up his speech on the last day of canvassing in Madurai's Jaihindpuram and gets off his campaign van, he is instantly mobbed.
Strapping young men of the Students Federation of India and the Democratic Youth Federation of India, clad in a cool shade of maroon, quickly muscle in and throw a protective cordon against their precious asset. Venkatesan still manages to pose for selfie-seekers and pumps several fists like a consummate politician, even as he is led away to his waiting car.
A stranger may mistake Venkatesan for a movie star or a charismatic Dravidian politician. He is neither. He is a writer. He has just two works of fiction in his name. But boy what books they are! The first, Kaval Kottam, is a 600-year epic set in Madurai that unfolds over 1,000 captivating pages. A literary classic, it won Venkatesan the 2011 Sahitya Akademy Award. More recently, his second work, Vel Pari, a fictionalised history of the Sangam-era tribal chieftain, was serialised over 100 weeks in the leading Tamil magazine Vikatan. Vel Pari took Venkatesan into lakhs of homes and made him an instant hit.
Listening to him speak about the ancient excavation sites of Keezhadi to issues of social justice to the need for a Metro system in Madurai is like being transported through different worlds. People throng his campaign rallies as much to get their copies of his books signed as to listen to his political ideas. As he finishes his speeches, hands go up in the crowd, holding copies of either Kaval Kottam or Vel Pari. The books then get passed towards Venkatesan's van. He obliges all of them.
Though his writing honours are significant, Venkatesan is no political mug. He is a longtime CPI-M member and cut his teeth under two-time Marxist MP, P Mohan. Madurai predominantly voted Congress since independence, till the late Mohan came riding along in his moped and turned the city into a Communist bastion with his twin Parliamentary wins in 1999 and 2004. Ten years after the money and muscle of DMK strongman M K Alagiri overpowered an ailing Mohan, Venkatesan has picked up the baton.
"Mohan is still very popular with the people here," Venkatesan said at the CPI-M office. "They see me through the same prism. They understand his contribution to the city and tell me they want me to carry on in the same vein. It's a huge advantage."
Despite Mohan's best efforts, Madurai has languished in the last 10 years. Drinking water scarcity is the foremost problem. "I am really worried how the city will manage next month, in peak summer. The situation is distressing," said Venkatesan.
The state government last year promised a Periyar-Vaigai river-linking project, but hasn't allotted any budget for it. Venkatesan says he will push for it if elected. The city has also not seen much industrial growth. Urban transport and infrastructure is a mess in what can only be described as an urban village. Joblessness is as much a worry as in the rest of the country. "There are around 120 small rubber units in and around Madurai. I want to make them the foundation for a rubber industrial park and a rubber R&D centre. These will create more jobs. Developing and enabling small industries is a key to solve unemployment. There are only two big IT companies in Madurai. Even if only two more set up shop here, employment in the sector will go up from 5,000 to 10,000." His chief opponent is Raj Sathyan, 36, the son of former Mayor Rajan Chellappa. The ADMK is rumoured to be distributing `300 per vote in households. But Venkatesan feels anti-incumbency would take its toll. "People are unhappy with the ADMK. And his father did zilch for the city when he was mayor," said Venkatesan. What also could work in Venkatesan's favour is that he has the traditional might of the DMK and the support of its grassroots workers. "It is good to have the backing of a big state party," he said.
The excavation of Keezhadi is the issue that is closest to Venkatesan's heart. In 2016, an Archaeological Survey of India excavation discovered an ancient settlement in a village near Madurai. The settlement dates back to the second century. A section of Tamil academics allege the Union NDA government stopped progress in the excavation. "Keezhadi is very important because it provides archaeological supporting evidence to things that are found in Sangam literature," said Venkatesan. "Here, we have for the first time an entire Sangam era city. Only one per cent of the two 100-acre mounds have been excavated. Even in that, we have so much evidence of ancient Tamil civilisation, which is at loggerheads with the BJP's idea of Vedic civilisation. I will definitely restart the excavation efforts if elected."
But how is all this different from BJP's spiel about 'vedic sciences' and its obsession with the past? "There is a clear distinction between 'past' and 'tradition'," said Venkatesan. "Past rots. Tradition lives on and guides ongoing generations. 15,000 artefacts were found in Keezhadi. There isn't one single symbol of god in that.
It shows that this civilisation was present before the time Big Religion came. It rattles them. It is completely different from BJP's line that everything we see today was present in the past."
Hope for a Left revival
All said, a Venkatesan win would offer hope for the Left in India, albeit in a small way. "The Communists, somewhere along the way, lost touch with Indian society," he said. "I think we have addressed that disconnect and are merging Communist thoughts to fit Indian society. Social justice and women's rights were always strong in Tamil Nadu. We just have to take it forward." With the wheels coming off for the Left in Bengal and Kerala in a political landscape that has drifted so far right, would not unification help gain prominence, even though previous such efforts were still-born?
"Of course!" said Venkatesan. "But it is not in our hands. Only time will tell. All I can say is that if it happens it is the best solution." A Venkatesan win will also show that there is a place in Indian polity for the intellectual or the progressive writer or the social justice warrior. Above all, it will serve as a reminder, in its limited way, that India is not all about cow and caste.
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