With the passing away of two political icons -- Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi -- Tamil Nadu is bracing for an open season in politics, with multiple fronts waiting to fill the void.
On May 22, Tamil Nadu police officials, some of whom were not in uniform, opened fire at a crowd of 20,000 protesters in the town of Thoothukudi (Tuticorin).
The crowd had gathered to protest against the environmental pollution allegedly caused by the Sterlite Copper smelting plant situated on the outskirts of the town.
The incident led to the death of 13 protesters, while 102 others were injured. This led to severe criticism of the All India Anna Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) state government for having used force against citizens. It gave observers a glimpse into the growing anger against the AIADMK government.
In December 2016, AIADMK matriarch and then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, died in Chennai after over two months of illness.
Her death marked the end of an era and beginning of chaos in Tamil Nadu’s political circles.
Jayalalithaa had until 2016 controlled the AIADMK with an iron fist for over two decades. Her death left a void in the party and the state's politics, which her lieutenants quickly scrambled to fill. But, according to critics, the ensuing chaos destabilised the party and the state.
Hours after Jayalalithaa's death, former two-time stop-gap chief minister, O Panneerselvam, took over her reins in the state. But, his tenure lasted just under two months when he was forced to resign, dramatically, after coming under pressure from Jayalalithaa’s long-time confidante, VK Sasikala.
While Sasikala had never participated in electoral politics, commentators suggest that she exerted influence in party matters due to her proximity to Amma.
Sasikala's supporters within the party intended to install her as the chief minister. However, their plans were foiled, as just days before she was expected to take over as chief minister, the Supreme Court (SC) delivered a verdict against her in a disproportionate assets case, sending her to four years in jail.
Scrambling to keep control over the party, Sasikala appointed her nephew TTV Dhinakaran as the AIADMK General Secretary and installed Edappadi K Palaniswami as the chief minister.
Palaniswami managed to prove majority on the floor of the House, quashing a challenge from Panneerselvam and other rebel Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs).
In August 2017, the two AIADMK camps -- led by Palaniswami and Panneerselvam -- merged and side-lined Dhinakaran.
While they were successful in retaining control of the party and keeping the "Mannargudi mafia" (from where Sasikala hails) away. AIADMK was destabilised and the state government was left on the brink of collapse.
The anti-incumbency factor within the state government has grown over the last year, observers suggest.
RK Radhakrishnan, Associate Editor, Frontline and a political commentator said, "The problem is mainly with legitimacy" and added, "The people’s mandate was for Jayalalithaa, not her lieutenants."
The AIADMK leadership "could not continue without Jayalalithaa" and her schemes, Radhakrishnan shared.
The Sterlite protest and government's handling of the situation also impacted public perception, he pointed out.
CR Saraswathi, spokesperson of the Dhinakaran faction told Moneycontrol, "This government is surviving only because of the central government. That is why they do not attack the Centre."
Saraswathi claimed that the government had discontinued several welfare schemes started by Amma and said that there were mounting complaints against the ministers.
"People are very unhappy with this government. They only announce schemes. These schemes are not reaching the people," Saraswathi added.
"We are fighting against this government. We are ready for polls and we will beat them. We know the people’s pulse," Saraswathi asserted.
Inheriting Jaya's legacy
While Palaniswami and Panneerselvam had effectively won the battle to take control of Tamil Nadu's ruling party, the war to inherit Jayalalithaa's legacy had just begun.
Both sides wanted to win the Dr Radhakrishnan Nagar constituency in Chennai, which had fallen vacant after Jayalalithaa's demise. It was a fight to inherit Amma's legacy.
After losing an electoral symbol dispute, Dhinakaran, called by some as Sasikala's proxy, was forced to fight as an Independent candidate in the by-poll.
Amid allegations of cash being distributed to voters, Dhinakaran won the bypoll by a margin of more than 40,700 votes, in December 2017.
The Dhinakaran faction is now waiting for the Madras High Court’s judgement in a case challenging disqualification of 18 MLAs who support Dhinakaran.
The MLAs had been disqualified by Speaker P Dhanapal in September, shortly after Dhinakaran was ousted from the party.
If the Dhinakaran faction wins the case, they would seek a floor test and vote out the AIADMK government.
"We are waiting for the judgement," Saraswathi said. "If the verdict goes against us and the Speaker’s decision to disqualify the MLAs is upheld, we will lose men. However, if the verdict is in our favour, we will seek a floor test," Saraswathi added.
"As it is, they (AIADMK) are running a minority government," Saraswathi asserted.
The Dhinakaran camp feels there is a likelihood of the assembly polls happening along with the general elections in 2019. The camp is already preparing for the same.
In a bid to claim Jayalalithaa's legacy, Dhinakaran launched his own party in March called the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) – naming it after Amma.
Dhinakaran and his supporters have targeted the AIADMK leadership, calling them "betrayers" of Amma's cause.
Dhinakaran's supporters suggest that his bypoll win showed that the people were backing him as the true successor of Jayalalithaa. However, others said that Dhinakaran's party is too small to replace AIADMK.
Nevertheless, the Dhinakaran camp claims that the real fight will be between them and the DMK.
Claiming that the people are backing Dhinakaran, Saraswathi said, "You see the crowd. They come on their own to see Dhinakaran. There are youth and ladies. People know that Dhinakaran is the right person."
"The real fight in the election is between us and the DMK," Saraswathi claimed.
On the other hand, Radhakrishnan was of the view that Dhinakaran is the only option to lead the AIADMK, he argues that Sasikala's nephew is not a popular leader otherwise.
Analysts have attributed the chaos in the AIADMK to Jayalalithaa not having a succession plan although she dreamt of her party ruling "for the next 100 years".
Unlike Jayalalithaa, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)'s M Karunanidhi did have a succession plan.
Years before his death, Karunanidhi had steadily manoeuvred his son MK Stalin to lead the party.
Their critics suggest that potential challengers such as Vaiyapuri Gopalsamy, commonly known as Vaiko -- who went on to form his own party -- were systematically weeded out to make way for Stalin. At one point, Vaiko was seen as Karunanidhi's ideological protégé.
In 1980, Stalin was made the secretary of the party's new youth wing. Nine years later, he was made to contest for the assembly from the Thousand Lights 'safe seat' in Chennai.
Stalin was made the mayor of the Tamil Nadu capital in 1996 and got a cabinet position in his father's government in 2006. He was finally elevated to become the state's first deputy chief minister in 2009, ahead of other senior leaders.
Five years ago, Stalin was named Karunanidhi's heir apparent. He promptly took over key functions of the party after Karunanidhi's health started deteriorating.
Critics suggest that unlike his father, Stalin is not a self-made politician and his 'inexperienced' leadership could spell doom for the party founded by Karunanidhi's mentor CN Annadurai.
To back their argument, critics point out that the DMK had fought the 2016 assembly polls under Stalin's leadership, in which they faced a defeat at the hands of AIADMK. This AIADMK victory was for the first time a party had retained power in the state since 1984.
However, since taking over as the Leader of Opposition, Stalin has been trying to step up his game. The absence of Jayalalithaa has helped him further.
The 65-year-old has been leading the opposition's charge on various issues. But, he is yet to face a major electoral test.
Since 1967, the state has swung between just two major parties -- AIADMK and DMK.
Analysts think DMK now might be better positioned to take advantage of the anti-incumbency than it had in 2016. Voters could be heading towards the DMK in droves, angered by the AIADMK government’s performance. In terms of an organisation structure, DMK continues to be seen as the only party big enough to replace the AIADMK in the state, analysts suggest.
The DMK cadre is confident of tapping into the prevailing sentiment on the ground, pointing at government’s alleged “scandals and corruption”.
Speaking to Moneycontrol, DMK Spokesperson Saravanan Annadurai claimed that “no other party has an organisation” like theirs.
The cadre is also firmly behind Stalin, Annadurai said, claiming that “Stalin is the strongest leader”.
Radhakrishnan expressed that DMK is the only party big enough to win the election in the state.
However, Radhakrishnan added that “If he (Stalin) does not win the next election, then there would be a problem (for Stalin’s leadership).”
Dhinakaran camp’s spokesperson Saraswathi claimed that DMK would be beaten in the election.
“In RK Nagar (bypoll), Stalin had the support of 12 allying parties. Still, the DMK candidate lost his deposit,” Saraswathi said.
“(I am) 200 percent confident that we will definitely replicate the success (of RK Nagar bypoll),” Saraswathi asserted.
The Indian National Congress, which governed the state until 1967 has been reduced to a minor player in the last few decades. In terms of the vote share, Congress finished third in the 2016 assembly polls, polling 6.47 percent of the votes. It had fought the polls alongside the DMK.
Critics point out that DMK failed to win in 2016 because Congress’ performance dragged the alliance.
However, analysts suggest that DMK would still need the Congress to achieve a certain vote share in the state.
Radhakrishnan also feels that the two parties were most likely to fight the election together.
"Congress and the DMK are natural allies. They will go together," Radhakrishnan added.
When asked about the possibility of DMK and Congress fighting the 2019 Lok Sabha election together, DMK spokesperson Annadurai asserted, "DMK and Congress are allies right now and we will fight the election together."
Open rebellion in DMK
In spite of the clear succession plan in the DMK, there were minor hiccups in Stalin taking over as the party president.
Stalin’s elder brother MK Alagiri came out of political hibernation days after their father’s death in August.
In the 2000s, Alagiri used to be a party strongman, drawing support, especially from the Madurai region. He was made the Minister of Chemicals and Fertilizers in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) 2 government.
Eventually, he was sidelined from the party and Stalin was announced as Karunanidhi's political heir. Alagiri was expelled from the party in 2014 by Karunanidhi in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls for "anti-party activities".
On August 13, Alagiri staged an open rebellion, challenging Stalin in staking claim for the party's leadership.
Speaking to the media at his father's burial site at Marina Beach in Chennai, Alagiri said that he was "pained" by what had been transpiring after his father’s death, and said, "all the real supporters" of the party were backing him.
But, the estranged elder brother said that neither he nor his son Dayanidhi Alagiri yearned for any position in the party and they only wanted to return to the DMK.
Supporters of Alagiri dubbed his September 5 rally as ‘a milestone’ in the 67-year-old’s political career. However, the rally received a mild response, putting Alagiri’s political comeback in jeopardy.
For now, their younger sister MK Kanimozhi, who is considered DMK’s point-person in Delhi, is also backing Stalin.
Analysts say, as long as Stalin can win elections for the DMK, there would be no threat to his leadership and that Alagiri would have to wait for Stalin to make mistakes.
Alagiri has not announced his course of action yet. It remains unclear if he will launch his own party. However, he could contest the Tiruvarur Assembly seat which fell vacant after his father’s death.
Radhakrishnan, however, feels that Alagiri is "not a big player" and he will "not make any difference" for DMK.
When asked if Alagiri would be successful in cutting into the party’s votes, DMK spokesperson Annadurai offered no comments.
Reports suggest that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) National President Amit Shah has been in touch with both of Karunanidhi’s sons -- Stalin and Alagiri -- for a tie-up.
But, observers suggest that such an alliance is unlikely.
In his maiden speech as the party president, Stalin had asked the party cadre to teach a lesson to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, accusing it of trying to polarise the country.
"The Narendra Modi government is trying to paint the nation in the colour saffron (a symbol of Hindutva). Let's teach it a lesson," he said.
Interestingly, Vaiko, who had quit the DMK in 1994, has also announced his party Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK)’s alliance with the Stalin-led party, to take on the AIADMK and the BJP.
The saffron surge
In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, AIADMK had swept the state, winning 37 out of 39 parliamentary seats. The two seats they did not win went to Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP -- and its ally Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK).
Still, the ruling party at the Centre has very little presences in the state.
Opinion polls have suggested that the saffron party could make significant losses in the northern states especially due to a probable anti-incumbency sentiment in Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
It may also find it difficult to repeat its impressive performance in Uttar Pradesh because of a 'united opposition' there. The Samajwadi Party (SP), Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and Congress are expected to contest the 2019 polls together, in a bid to stop the anti-BJP votes from splitting.
The BJP will, therefore, look at the North East, Eastern India and the southern states to offset some of those losses. BJP also hopes to beat the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) combine in Karnataka -- the only southern state where they enjoy significant support.
Over the last three-four years, BJP has been trying to make inroads into states where it does not have a broad base. Besides Odisha and West Bengal, the party has been actively trying to set foot in Andhra Pradesh (where it is no longer allied with the N Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Kerala, Telangana and Tamil Nadu.
Political analysts suggest BJP's organisational structure in Tamil Nadu continues to be inadequate and the ideological difference may not help them garner support on the ground. The BJP candidate in the RK Nagar by-poll in 2017 had received lesser votes that the 'None of the above' option.
Radhakrishnan feels, "BJP has given up on Tamil Nadu. But, they will be looking for a post-poll alliance."
Nonetheless, BJP's Amit Shah is said to have told party workers that an alliance between the party and a regional player is in the works, and a formal announcement will be made by October.
Tamil Nadu has a long history of superstars making it big in politics. Former chief minister and founder of the AIADMK Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran, or simply MGR, and Jayalalithaa were both popular film actors before they joined politics.
Their rival Karunanidhi also belonged to the film industry. He was a celebrated screenwriter and was credited with politicising cinema with Dravidian ideology. Personal popularity of these superstars worked well for their parties electorally.
But, Jayalalithaa's death left a void in the state's politics which continues to remain unoccupied.
The latest to join the trend are superstars Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan.
Political commentators suggest that both Haasan and Rajinikanth sense that the timing is right for them to enter politics in absence of two political heavyweights -- Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi.
After years of speculation by the media and his fans, Rajinikanth announced his plan to take the political plunge on December 31, 2017.
The actor intends to turn the Rajini Makkal Mandram (RMM), a fan outfit, into a party, a few months before the election.
The 'movement' is currently in its primitive stage. It has been accepting membership of people who are not affiliated to any religious or caste-related outfits.
The actor has said that the ongoing efforts are to build a strong foundation for the party and has asked his fans to remain quiet and "make noise at the right time".
Speaking to fans, Rajinikanth had said, "Politics in the State has deteriorated very badly. Democracy has undergone severe decay. In the last year, the political events that unfolded in Tamil Nadu have made the people hang their heads in shame. People in all states are laughing at us. If I do not do anything in a democratic way to change this situation, the feeling of guilt will affect me till my death."
While announcing his political ambitions, Rajinikanth said that he intends to put up candidates in all 234 assembly seats during the next assembly election and that decision over contesting the 2019 Lok Sabha polls will be taken at a later stage.
His contemporary, Kamal Haasan, has taken the fast lane.
In February 2018, Haasan launched the Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) and expressed his appreciation for the Dravidian ideology. In many of his interactions with the public, Haasan has kept a one-hand distance from BJP.
Haasan has been giving interviews to the media, attending events and has actively spoken out on key developments in the state.
In April, Haasan launched his party’s mobile application where people can report issues ranging from corruption to civic problems for a possible redressal.
Analysts have pointed out that the initial fanfare may not necessarily translate into votes and that it will take time before Rajinikanth and Haasan can make an impact.
"Everyone loves superstars. But, I am not sure who will vote for them. A lot will depend on the policies they come up with," Radhakrishnan said.
DMK's Annadurai said, "You cannot expect people to enter politics and storm to power. You need to work on the ground."
The political landscape in the southern state has turned a full 180 degrees in the last few years. In 2014, a powerful AIADMK led by Jayalalithaa had swept the state in the general election. The DMK, being led by a then frail Karunanidhi had failed to win a single seat in the Lower House of parliament.
Five years on, AIADMK's house is in chaos and a wave of anti-incumbency has crept in. The Dhinakaran-Sasikala faction could prove to be AIADMK’s nemesis. The DMK, on the other hand, is being led by a new-generation leader, raring to prove his metal in absence of his father.
The BJP continues to lack an organisational structure and popular support in the south. But, the Amit Shah-election machinery is known to pull rabbits out of his hats.Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan are heading into an election that promises to be like none other, with no experience in the game. This continues to be an open season in Tamil Nadu politics.