- Coimbatore is Tamil Nadu's richest and second-largest city
- Notes ban, GST reforms have affected business houses in Coimbatore
- The AIADMK has allied with the BJP for Tamil Nadu's 39 parliamentary seat
At his first rally in Tamil Nadu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the people gathered in Coimbatore that as a "chowkidar" (watchman), he is obliged to safeguard the prosperity of the city renowned as a manufacturing hub.
It was an audacious claim to make in Tamil Nadu's richest and second-largest city, studded with small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Since Mr Modi, 68, controversially banned 86% of the cash in circulation and introduced the GST, a much-heralded tax reform with a complicated roll-out, MSMEs across the country have been seriously winded.
Since July 2017, when the GST was first introduced, more than 40% of Coimbatore's nearly 50,000 MSMEs, engaged in the production of a range of goods from textiles to auto parts and gold jewelry, have logged out of business.
Sivakumar, 41, did not attend the PM's rally. Till last year, he ran a small manufacturing unit that produced parts for motor pumps. When it went out of business, he got a job as a security guard at a Coimbatore hospital. He earns Rs 8,000 a month, a third of his earlier income. "A GST of 18% ruined my business," he said. "The BJP candidate has promised that the rate will be slashed to 5% if his party returns to power. But it's already too late for me."
"I miss Amma", he said of J Jayalalithaa, the iconic Chief Minister who died in hospital in 2016. Her party, the AIADMK, has allied with the PM's party for this election for Tamil Nadu's 39 parliamentary seats. "I will always be an AIADMK supporter, but how can I vote for the BJP after it ruined me?" Sivakumar said.
Like the rest of Tamil Nadu, Coimbatore votes on the 18th of this month. While the AIADMK has teamed with the BJP, the opposition DMK has partnered with the Congress and Left.
In all but three parliamentary elections so far, Coimbatore has selected a national party over the two regional heavyweights. The AIADMK won the seat for the first time in 2014, after asking people in the state to choose between 'Modi or the Lady' (Jayalalithaa). She swept Tamil Nadu, winning 37 of its 39 seats. After her death, the AIADMK has been ineffectual in power, a party so rudderless and riven with factionalism that it cannot hope to hoover up much support now.
Its partner, the BJP, which won one seat in Tamil Nadu in the last general election, has chosen as its candidate CP Radhakrishnan, who has represented Coimbatore in the past in parliament including the late 1990s when the city was bloodied by communal violence. In 1997, 18 Muslims were killed when the police fired on a mob; months later, serial bomb blasts across Coimbatore killed at least 50 people and injured more than 200.
"Violence is bad for industry, so Coimbatore has (since then) stayed relatively peaceful, but fringe elements on both sides of the religious divide have been gaining in strength and in the run up to the 2019 elections, there has been a spurt in competitive communalism between fundamentalist organisations like the Hindu Munnani and Hindu Makkal Katchi and the Al-Umma which political parties have been quick to exploit," claims an elderly trader.
While Mr Radhakrishnan has repeatedly claimed in public gatherings that the DMK-led alliance which includes the Congress and the Left is "anti-Hindu", he told NDTV that he was running an "inclusive campaign for development, not for any particular caste or community".
Mr Radhakrishnan belongs to the Gounders, a backward caste which forms more than 40% of the population in Coimbatore district and 60% in western Tamil Nadu. It has over the years become prosperous and influential, owning large swathes of land and with big shares in the transport and poultry sectors. Traditionally, the Gounders favour the AIADMK; Chief Minister E Palaniswami and eight of his cabinet ministers are Gounders.
Running opposite Mr Radhakrishnan, age 61, is the Left's RK Natarajan, who too has earlier represented Coimbatore in the Lok Sabha. "In a normal situation, when there is no wave or polarisation, Coimbatore does not vote on caste or religious lines. The Left parties have won this seat seven times," he said, while meeting voters in an area of the city known for auto manufacturing plants. "The people of this constituency prefer to elect someone who is best positioned to represent their business interests in Delhi. Thousands of people have lost their jobs because of the BJP's disastrous economic policies," he said.
On social media, the PM's supporters and detractors clash on his trips to Tamil Nadu with hashtags like #GoBackModi feuding with #WelcomeModi. Mr Natarajan's cadres, similarly, try to talk up among voters an alleged 'emotional disconnect' between Tamil Nadu and Delhi since 2014.
"He refused to meet the distressed farmers of the Cauvery delta who protested in Delhi for 150 days last year," Rama, a young Left activist tells a group of farmers. On college campuses, Mr Modi's government is blamed for implementing NEET in Tamil Nadu - an entrance exam for medical colleges; the state did not use the exam till the Supreme Court ordered otherwise in 2018; some students killed themselves over the exam.
The DMK-led alliance is also targeting the BJP-AIADMK partnership with the "Pollachi sex scandal" - barely a month ago, videos from Pollachi, the constituency that adjoins Coimbatore, showed young women being sexually exploited by a group of young men, allegedly with links to the ruling party. "It will definitely influence women voters who are concerned about their safety," says Radhika, an employee at a Coimbatore hotel, who is from Pollachi.
It's clear that here the mood-board for the elections is radically different than that spread across the north. "Tamil identity is being subsumed by a pan-Indian identity," wrote Arun Vishwanathan, a student first-time voter on social media. "Mr Modi says we should cast our first vote to strengthen the nation, I will start by strengthening Tamil Nadu."