The Nilgiris constituency in western Tamil Nadu, famous for its picturesque hills and tea, is seeing an interesting fight between DMK and BJP. Two strongmen are wrestling it out — the incumbent A Raja, former Union Telecom Minister from DMK and L Murugan, former Tamil Nadu BJP president and Union Fisheries Minister.

BJP, the underdog, has palpably managed to level up with its opponent.

It is not as though Nilgiris is a DMK citadel. In 2021, in five of the six assembly constituencies that fall under Nilgiris Lok Sabha constituency, the winners won only narrowly. BJP’s M Bhojarajan lost to Congress’ R Ganesh in Ooty by 5,348 votes. Four of the six went to AIADMK, one to Congress and one to DMK.

Yet, when it comes to Parliament elections, A Raja is a big factor, as he has been the constituency’s representative many times. Raja is a familiar face and it was assumed that would work in his favour. A tour through the constituency shows that that may not be true.

This newspaper has heard a narrative from within BJP that L Murugan was a bad choice. Already a Rajya Sabha member and a central minister, what motivation would Murugan have to fight — was the refrain. But things have clearly turned out to be different. Murugan is campaigning hard. In places like Coonoor and Ooty, BJP’s campaign scores in terms of visible and decibel levels.

More than his own work, two factors seem to be powering Murugan’s campaign. First, the RSS — BJP’s support base — has worked hard in the last two years to lay the foundation for BJP. Second, there is palpable resentment against Raja.

Voices of resentment

The sentiment “Raja has done nothing for the constituency” reverberates all over the hills. In Ooty, this correspondent asked a woman, who owns a grocery shop, whom she would vote for. As though she was waiting for an opportunity to vent her anger, she spoke eloquently about how the DMK had failed her and how she could barely take home ₹50 after a gruelling day’s work. Even as she was speaking, another woman passing by, jumped in to say that she would never vote for DMK.

A youth, who mans the pay-counter at a public toilet in Ooty, expressed his feeling of being let down by DMK. In the vegetable market, all but Muslims said they would vote for BJP. In Coonoor, a woman who owns a small fast-food restaurant said her family had always voted for DMK but this time she would not.

Tight contest

AIADMK, whose candidate is Lokesh Tamizhselvan, son of a former Speaker of the TN assembly, seems to be deep in the background.

The constituency has about 3 lakh people of the Badaga tribe, mostly Lingayats. They have traditionally been with the Congress. In the Sogathorai villlage, 8 km from Coonoor, businessline had lively conversations with a bunch of prominent persons of the community — most of them small tea growers. Many of them said they would back BJP. R Haldurai, a hardcore DMK backer, said while he wouldn’t vote for BJP, about 20 per cent of Badagas could have shifted to BJP. S Chandru, a BJP supporter disagreed with the number — his own view was 50 per cent of Badagas would back BJP.

It is not a clear victory for BJP. Conversations that bl had with shopkeepers, street hawkers, passers-by, restaurant staff and so on indicate that chances are almost equal. The winner by no means can be declared. But what can be said is that the win shall be with only a narrow margin.