Theni, a valley town at the foothills of the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu, is up for an interesting battle in the Lok Sabha elections between two old friends, TTV Dhinakaran and his old mate Thanga Tamil Selvan of the DMK. The AIADMK has fielded VT Narayanasamy in the constituency.

The former blue-eyed boy of J Jayalalithaa, Dhinakaran, has a slight edge over Tamil Selvan. Many staunch loyalists of the DMK are with Tamilselvan, an MLA from the Andipatti assembly constituency in Theni district. Many voters want to give Dhinakaran a chance this time.

The election euphoria was missing, and there was no sign of a Lok Sabha election while driving through Usilampatti, Andipatti, Theni, Vaigai Dam, and Cholavandan. Only the party office of AMMK at Theni was buzzing with activity.

Both Dhinakaran and Tamil Selvan used to be with the AIADMK, and it is said that Dhinakaran was instrumental in introducing his rival to J Jayalalithaa. Tamilselvan became an MLA from Andipatti and later joined Dhinakaran’s AMMK. However, in 2019, he resigned and joined the DMK.

Interestingly, Theni was the only constituency, out of the total 40 in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, where the AIADMK (then part of the NDA) won in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. P Ravindhranath, son of O Paneerselvam, won the seat by beating EVKS Elangovan of the Congress.

The district in southwestern Tamil Nadu is considered a’star’’ constituency, comprising six legislative Assembly segments: Sholavandan (DMK); Usilampatti (AIADMK), Andipati (DMK), Periyakulam (DMK), Bodinayakanur (AIADMK), and Cumbum (DMK). During both MG Ramachandran and Jayalithaa’s reigns, this constituency was considered to be one of AIADMK’s major strongholds. 

MGR in 1984 and Jayalalithaa in 2022 won the Assembly seats from Andipati. Dhinakaran is trying to revive the legacy left behind by his two mentors.

Dhinakaran’s AMMK is now part of the BJP-led alliance. This is an opportunity for him to have a major electoral victory and a stepping stone to take on his bitter foe, Edappadi K Palaniswami, and take control of the AIADMK. For the AIADMK too, this is a prestigious battle after things fell apart in the party in the last five years.

Theni is known for the large-scale trading of garlic, cotton, cardamom, grapes, bananas, mango, and chilli. It hosts the second-largest weekly market in Tamil Nadu and the fourth-largest in South India. 

Water from the ‘controversial’ Mullaiperiyar Dam, which is located in the Idukki district of Kerala but operated and maintained by Tamil Nadu, is diverted through a tunnel to augment the flow of the Vaigai river. The water is stored in the Vaigai dam in Theni and released to meet the irrigation needs of Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Sivagangai, and Ramanathapuram districts.

Despite the water source from Vaigai dam, Theni constituency is faced with major issues such as water shortage and wild animals destroying standing crops. Farmers have been for a long time demanding an increase in storage level in the Mullaiperiyar reservoir to 152 feet from 142 feet. There is also a lack of water storage, and this is critical considering that 90 per cent of the constituency is located in rural pockets. These are some of the key issues to be sorted out by the new MP.

Caste matters

Interestingly, both Dhinakaran and Tamil Selvan belong to the Mukulathor, a community dominating the Theni constituency. AIADMK’s candidate belongs to the Naicker community.

Dhinakaran, whom many consider an outsider in the constituency, could get support from Ravindhranath, while the local lad, Tamil Selvan, will bank on the DMK’s strong organisational strength.

“It is a tough fight between both Dhinakaran and Tamil Selvan. It is very difficult to say who will win,” said auto driver Srikanth in Usilampatti.

However, as one travels away from Madurai towards Theni, there is a gradual shift in preference towards Dhinakaran, who released a manifesto for the constituency on Friday. He had promised to increase the water level at the Mullaiperiyar dam to 152 feet as well as deepen the Vaigai dam.

“Dhinakaran is young, energetic, and enthusiastic. He will certainly do something for the constituency,” said Sabapathy, a farmer in Sholavandan, located on the banks of the Vaigai and one of the most fertile lands in the region.

However, his friend Shekhar says he would vote for Tamilselvan, who hails from the Theni district. “AIADMK’s Raveendranath did not do anything for the constituency,” he rues.