Want crowds at political rallies? Want voters at the polling booths? Dial the PHGs (Political Help Groups). Come elections, and a considerable number of the women self help groups (SHGs) take on political colours and transform into PHGs in Tamil Nadu. Ever since SHGs were launched during the Jayalalithaa regime in the 1990s, the empowered women members have been perceived as strong votebanks. Between the DMK and AIADMK regimes since the 1990s, SHGs have grown manifold, expanded and evolved into “powerful voices” in their villages. The present DMK regime has painstakingly nurtured SHGs with generous contributions towards revolving funds under the shrewd stewardship of local administration minister MK Stalin.
Election-time is when political parties try to harvest their careful tending of the SHGs. “If political parties need crowds, they call the SHG leaders and pay Rs 100 per head to hire the crowds,” says Congress MLA, C Gnanasekaran. “However, there is no guarantee they will vote for the party which pays them,” he adds. Besides, poll gifts, especially favourites like saris and stainless steel vessels, contributions to village temples are routed through SHG leaders in some places on the eve of the elections. Concerned over the possible exploitation of the over 60 lakh SHG members in Tamil Nadu, the Election Commission has directed district collectors to monitor the flow of funds into their bank accounts and their “political” activities. Now, the district collectors have asked the SHGs to keep off political rallies.
The firm fiat has put fear into a section of SHGs who are wary of getting “politically branded.” P Sumathi, secretary of Rights Trust, based in Omalur near Salem, which has formed 150 SHGs, says, “Though there are invitations, we never identify with any political parties.” Karunanidhi formally launched the first of the SHG in Dharmapuri in 1989, when he was chief minister, to help women in the backward district overcome extreme poverty through savings and reinvestment. But it was Jayalalithaa during her second term as chief minister, who gave SHGs the much needed financial boost to make them grow into a movement through the Central and state sponsored Swarnajayanthi Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY).
“During every election, the local representatives of major political parties approach SHG leaders with a slew of promises and urge us to campaign for their party. There are several instances during which SHGs concede to their requests following assurances of huge loans for launching self-employment ventures,” says an SHG leader in Villupuram district. Dhanalakshmi, an SHG member in Madurai said that “things were not the same” as they were during the recent Thirumangalam by-election. “In the bypolls, we all got gifts of sarees and cash for canvassing. This time, we are still waiting,’’ she said. With the hawk-eyed poll observers doing the rounds in the southern districts, instances of SHGs being wooed have been far less. Gowri of Rajarajeswari SHG in Virudhunagar says parties have canvassed for votes among the groups. In the districts, the officials have a different view.
In Villupuram, the bureaucracy admitted that SHGs were canvassing for votes for the ruling party in this election. “Campaigning by a leader of an SHG among the members and their family has a great impact,’’ says a senior official involved in the SHG movement. “During the previous general elections the parties made a point to take us to all political meetings. Of course, some of the local functionaries visited our houses seeking votes, but that was during their usual campaign trip,’’ says Valarmathi Marthandan, animator of Udhaya Nila SHG at Thurayur in Tiruchi district. She recalls how the DMK and AIADMK clamoured with each other during the previous elections to woo the SHG women.