Here, a nuclear plant is the rival

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What is common between an academic, a social activist and a Catholic priest? Five years ago, they gathered at a coastal village in Tamil Nadu to protest against the nuclear plant at Koodankulam. This month, they are making a bid to gatecrash the Lok Sabha on Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) tickets.

In 2008, the anti-nuclear struggle united academic and researcher SP Udayakumar, priest-turned social activist Pushparayan Victoria and Roman Catholic priest Father MP Jesuraj. They have been camping on the grounds of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Idinthakarai, a village in Tirunelveli district, since 2010 under the banner of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE).

Now, Udayakumar, Pushparayan and Jesuraj are fighting the General Election from Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi constituencies, respectively, under the banner of AAP.

“Our prime focus is the anti-nuclear struggle,” says Udayakumar. “We will return to Idinthakarai once the voting is completed on 24 April. For us, this is an opportunity to gain more support for our cause.”

Udayakumar, 54, jumped into the political fray in a bid to keep the anti-nuke struggle alive on the national stage.

“For many politicians, elections are a do-or-die battle. But for us, it is a chance for resurrection. We have been buried alive for fighting for our right to live. Now this is a chance for all of us to reignite our struggle,” says Udayakumar, who faces 358 criminal cases, all slapped during the anti-nuke protest movement.

Once considered a Congress bastion, Kanyakumari is witnessing a six-cornered contest this time. All the major parties have fielded Nadars to take advantage of the communal equation in the constituency, which has 13 lakh voters.

“If I can get 2.75 lakh votes, I will win,” says a confident-sounding Udayakumar. “We are fighting the election not to wield political clout or enjoy celebrity status. Our focus is the Koodankulam struggle, for which we have pledged our lives. If we win, our cause will win. If we lose, then we will return to our turf.”

Kanyakumari continues to be a prestigious constituency for the Congress — the party has won here 14 times — which has fielded retail king H Vasanth Kumar as its candidate. The BJP candidate is its state unit president Pon Radhakrishnan, who hopes to ride the “Modi wave”.

In 2009, the DMKs J Helen Davidson defeated Radhakrishnan by a margin of 70,000 votes. But the DMK was in an alliance with the Congress back then. This time, the DMK has fielded former AIADMK legislator FM Rajarathnam. The AIADMK is banking on D John Thangam to capture the seat, while the CPM has deputed former MP AV Bellarmin to put up a fight.

“In Kanyakumari, either the AIADMK’s John Thangam or the BJP’s Pon Radhakrishnan will win. AAP has no chance here,” says Alloysius, a local fisherman.

But Udayakumar begs to differ. “I have changed the political equation here and I am getting very good response from the coastal areas,” he says. “Political votes will be polled on the usual pattern this time. But our strength are the women and youth voters who are craving for change.”

People cutting across party lines agree that Udayakumar has changed the political equation in the constituency and spiced up the electoral battle. His 25-day campaign has attracted good support.

“It is true that Udayakumar’s campaign has evoked a good response in the coastal belt,” says Anthony Luke, another local fisherman. “If the Church had aligned with him, he would have easily won the election from here.”

Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church has played it safe and kept an equal distance from all the political parties, including the BJP. Church leaders feel that aligning with one political group may invite the wrath of other parties.

“Many of us support Udayakumar personally. But the Church doesn’t want to rake up any unnecessary controversy by supporting a particular political party or candidate,” says a local Catholic priest on the condition of anonymity.

Being a fledgling party, the biggest challenges facing AAP in Tamil Nadu are the lack of an organisational structure and shortage of funds. Udayakumar agrees that raising funds for the election campaign was his biggest challenge. “I could raise only Rs 10 lakh for the campaign. But other parties are spending more than Rs 1 crore,” he says.

But AAP volunteers and anti-nuke activists are working day and night to carve out a political space for Udayakumar.

Located 87 km away from Nagercoil, Tirunelveli lies on the west bank of the Thamirabarani river, where MP Jesuraj, a Roman Catholic priest and a key leader of PMANE, is testing the political waters.

Since 2001, Jesuraj has served as a priest in Tirunelveli district, which falls under the Roman Catholic Diocese of Palayamkottai. For the past three years, he has been part of the PMANE agitation. A brilliant organiser and tough negotiator, Jesuraj, 36, has a wide network in the coastal areas of Tirunelveli. But his decision to contest the polls came as a big surprise to many, including church leaders.

“My people asked me to contest the election for the sake of our cause,” says Jesuraj. “We decided to join AAP after much debate and discussion. I need to win from Tirunelveli for saving the Koodankulam protest as all the other political parties have ditched us. Now, we can’t take any more chances.”

Jesuraj’s simple, yet aggressive campaign has endeared him to plenty of young and women voters. “I’m a familiar face in this constituency,” he says. “I have worked with the people here for more than 13 years. After all, Koodankulam falls under the Tirunelveli constituency.”

He is pitched in a six-cornered contest with KRP Prabhakaran of the AIADMK, incumbent member SS Ramasubbu of the Congress, Devadassa Sundaram of the DMK, S Sivananenthaperumal of the DMDK and R Dhanaraj of the Indian Christian Secular Party.

“My attempt is to get 2.5 lakh votes as there is sharp division. I hope to win from Tirunelveli,” says Jesuraj.

If Jesuraj wins, he will become only the second Catholic priest to get elected to the Lok Sabha. The first was Father Anthony Murmu, a Jesuit Priest who won from Rajmahal in Bihar in 1980. However, the Church forced him to quit later.

“Those days are long gone,” says Jesuraj. “I will not resign as we need to be in Parliament to carry on our protests against the nuclear power project at Koodankulam.”

Jesuraj admits that his life changed after joining the anti-nuke struggle five years ago. “We have been aggressively protesting against the Koodankulam project for the past five years,” he says. “Now, there are 368 criminal cases registered against me. I have never indulged in violence nor am I involved in any criminal activities. But the police registered cases against our people to thwart our movement. They never touched any of the corrupt politicians in Tamil Nadu. In such a situation, we have to gain political power to defend our rights.”

Earlier, Bishop Jude Gerald Paulraj had asked Jesuraj to withdraw his nomination because the Catholic Church prohibits priests from contesting elections on behalf of any political party. But Jesuraj refused to budge. “As far I’m concerned, the people are more important,” he says. “I had promised them that I would not leave them in their misery. For me, serving my people is serving my Lord.”

During his door-to-door campaign, Jesuraj concentrates on the coastal belt, where he tells the people how important the election is for them. “Our people are working in the villages and organising neighbourhood meetings,” he says. “The people know that this is the only chance left for us. I hope they will vote for me.”

Meanwhile, Idinthakarai, the epicentre of the anti-nuke struggle, wears a deserted look. In the coastal village located 80 km south of Tirunelveli, a few people are gathered at the protest venue, where they discuss the election campaign.

Evelyn Ratheesh, a housewife, is confident that Jesuraj will win with a thumping majority. “We enjoy the support of the people living in the coastal villages. They will remember our struggle and vote for Jesuraj,” she says. “An election victory will change our destiny. We will close down the nuclear plant and save our children from disaster.”

But Amari Nassreyan, another housewife, hits a note of caution. “If the Church had backed us, we would have won. Rival candidates are bribing voters,” she says.

Like Evelyn and Amari, hundreds of women are campaigning for Jesuraj. For them, it is not a mere political battle; it is a chance to change their destiny.

In the port town of Thoothukudi, Pushparayan Victoria is busy on the final lap of the long and winding election campaign. The 46-year-old is giving his political heavyweights a run for their money. “I’m comfortable as we have a good chance of winning the election,” he says.

Pushparayan is facing a seven-cornered contest as the AIADMK, DMK, Congress, MDMK, CPI and the BSP have all fielded their candidates. “I hope to win at least 2.4 lakh votes. Both fishermen and farmers have come forward to support me,” says Pushparayan, who left priesthood to become a full-time social activist.

According to Pushparayan, Thoothukudi was always sympathetic towards the anti-nuke protests and many fishermen have pledged their support for the cause. “For me, winning or losing won’t make a difference. I will return to Idinthakarai after the election,” he says.

Pushparayan has been part of the anti-nuke movement for the past five years and played a key role in keeping the protest alive. “With the election, we could reach out to many people who were not linked to our protests,” he says. “In a way, it is going to help us a lot in the future.”

The tough election battle is a new experience for the anti-nuke activists. They have learnt to expand their network beyond Koodankulam. If they win at least one seat, they are going to renew their protests with new vigour.

For the Aam Aadmi Party, it is a golden chance to take root in Tamil Nadu soil where Dravidian parties hold sway.

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