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Page last updated at 17:34 GMT, Monday, 11 May 2009 18:34 UK

'Sri Lanka factor' in Tamil Nadu poll

By Sunil Raman
BBC News, Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu state Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi lies on a bed as he fasts to demand a ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels, in Chennai, India, Monday, April 27, 2009.
Tamil Nadu's chief minister used a one day fast to protest about Sri Lanka

Few elections in India have been fought over a pan-national issue. Fewer still on international ones. But in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka has become a big electoral theme.

The two main regional parties that have dominated state politics for the last four decades - the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) - have made the Sri Lanka factor central to their campaigns.

Both parties are vying with each other to impress the electorate with their commitment to "protect" the interests of Sri Lankan Tamils.

Tamil Nadu is one of India's most economically developed states but also one of its most politically volatile.

In 2004 the DMK coalition swept every seat. But Tamil Nadu is considered a swing state and the DMK are not assured of an outright win this time. Whoever does take control could play a key role when it comes to forming India's new coalition government.

Fasting leaders

Compared with previous elections the colour and drama normally associated with Tamil Nadu is definitely missing this time round.

Mrs Paravathamma
How can India keep quiet when our brethren get killed?
Mrs Parvathamma, 65

Directives from the election commission on poll expenses and a judicial order on not defacing the city has meant a landscape without enormous wooden cut-outs of political leaders, something Tamil Nadu was famous for.

Political parties have to depend on television channels owned by them and newspapers to put across their viewpoint. Competing promises and assurances about Sri Lanka are being bandied about every day.

Opposition AIADMK leader and former chief minister Jayaram Jayalalitha fasted for one day about the Sri Lanka issue. DMK leader and present chief minister, M Karunanidhi, lost no time in following her. He too sat inside a special tent erected close to Marina beach and fasted for a day.

Ms Jayalalitha has now promised to send troops to create a separate homeland for Tamils in Sri Lanka called Eelam. As her party-backed television channel showed a live broadcast of her speech, the 84-year-old DMK leader, now in hospital, lost no time to promise to use "all his strength" for the Tamil cause.

Jayalalitha says the DMK's presence in the federal coalition means it should share the blame for what she calls "inaction by India to ensure an early ceasefire".

"Had the government of India taken an interest they could have ensured an early ceasefire and saved several precious lives," is her main refrain at public meetings.

But for Cho Ramaswamy, editor of Tughlak magazine, political parties lack the courage to admit that the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils was not truly an electoral issue.

He says that if the ruling coalition of the DMK and Congress party lose at the polls then they might be tempted to blame their loss on the Sri Lankan issue, but for most people it is not something that will influence their vote.

Indeed, a top government official, who wishes to remain anonymous, admitted to the BBC that contrary to what was being played out in the media, the present DMK-led government had actually strengthened coastal security further.

Around 100 coastal police stations have been set up to ensure no Tamil refugee tries to enter Tamil Nadu. And they have been successful as very few people have managed to enter India.

Compassion

But Tamil Nadu is the only state where people have ethnic links with Sri Lankan Tamils.

Cho Ramaswamy, editor of Tughlak magazine
Mr Ramaswamy thinks Sri Lanka won't change voting behaviour in Tamil Nadu

Driving through the villages and towns of northern Tamil Nadu it is clear that the issue has struck an emotional chord with people. Unlike the rest of India, the people in Tamil Nadu have closely followed the ups and downs of Sri Lankan politics.

People seem to be quite clued in with what's happening in northern Sri Lanka. The media and politicians have also ensured that the focus stays on human suffering.

It was interesting to see how even people living on less than $1 a day were aware of the Sri Lankan situation.

Mrs Parvathamma, a 65-year-old migrant labourer in Eraiyur village of Vilupuram district, said: "How can India keep quiet when our brethren get killed?"

But asked if this issue would influence how she votes, Mrs Parvathamma lost no time in complaining of high food prices.

"We get rice at 1 rupee ($0.02) per kg as promised by the DMK government but lentils cost 70 rupees ($1.42) per kg, tomatoes 4 rupees ($0.28) per kg and even edible oil is beyond our reach," she said.

Her sentiments were echoed by many others. In Chengalpet, a retired government employee who has voted in every election did not mince his words.

Mr Appaswamy said he sympathised with the Tamil people of Sri Lanka not because of his Tamil identity but "out of humanity". But he pooh-poohed assurances by the DMK and AIADMK on the issue, saying "they are stunts for elections to get votes".

A young professional in Chennai (Madras), Mr Chandrabose, was equally forthright.

"This is all politics," he said, clarifying he was more concerned by issues influencing the quality of his life. With a wife who doesn't work and a small child, he was more concerned about the policies the parties planned to implement.



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