There are many indicators that show why it will be difficult to predict a winner this time.
Every election is important in a democracy — but some are more important because of the circumstances in which they are held. Tamil Nadu, which goes to the polls on April 18, is facing one such important election, the results of which could change the decades-long course of regional politics in the state.
For more than three decades now and roughly since the beginning of coalition governments at the Centre, the two main Dravidian parties, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) or the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), have played a vital role in New Delhi. The only exception being the current Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
The way the BJP and the Congress have courted the AIADMK and the DMK respectively show that the two regional majors are expected to play a vital role in any coalition formed post-May 23. With 39 Lok Sabha seats, Tamil Nadu is merely the fourth largest state — yet it is a state which commands its presence at the centre. Two factors are responsible for this: one, the minimal presence of the BJP and the Congress in the state; two, the electoral monopoly the DMK and AIADMK enjoy across the state. Both these factors are evolving, and that’s why this election is a game-changer in Tamil Nadu/Dravidian politics.
There are many indicators that show why it will be difficult to predict a winner this time or do the usual crystal gazing on the basis of previous trends.
The 2019 Lok Sabha polls will be the first major election to be held in Tamil Nadu after the death of former Chief Ministers J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi. While Kalaignar, as Karunanidhi was called by his admirers, was the last in the pantheon of Dravidian leaders who shaped Tamil Nadu’s contemporary cultural identity and electoral politics. Jayalalithaa single-handedly led a party that not only countered Karunanidhi’s DMK but also commanded New Delhi’s respect.
For a majority of people in Tamil Nadu, the DMK is synonymous with Karunanidhi, who was in active politics for more than half-a-century. The AIADMK has had only two leaders — its founder MG Ramachandran (MGR) and Jayalalithaa. This election will test the AIADMK’s current office bearers, who by no stretch can be compared to MGR or Jaya.
“This is an important election because there is the absence of a towering personality. It is a ‘wave-less’ election where the narrative is not dominated by any of the leaders. Loyalties to this leader or that party is getting shattered in this election,” says Kombai S Anwar, a political analyst and documentary film-maker.A weak AIADMK, a not-so-strong DMK
The death of Jayalalithaa in 2016 not only put the state government through a series of crises but also sent the AIADMK on a downward spiral. Since then it has not been able to recover. At one time the party was split into three factions, and today it faces a major threat from a breakaway faction led by TTV Dhinakaran. A perception that the state government is kowtowing the Centre’s line in the state and that the AIADMK is controlled by the BJP has further eroded support from voters who view the saffron party as a threat to Dravidian culture and regional pride.
The DMK, on the other hand, is placed much better. In MK Stalin, Karunanidhi’s son, the party has a leader who has risen up the ranks. However, he too is finding it hard to fill into the vacuum left behind by Karunanidhi. In this election, he will have to prove that he has the acumen to lead the party and keep the DMK as a force to reckon with in Tamil Nadu.
“This election is important for Stalin. He needs to evolve as a leader. This campaigning has done him lots of good, where he has been steering the campaign for the party and the alliance. He can show that he is not simply the son of his father, but the man of his own times,” says Dr R Manivannan, professor and head, Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Madras, Chennai.Known unknowns
The uncertainties detailed above add to the unpredictability of this election.
It is largely believed that the AIADMK, which won 37 of the 39 parliamentary seats in 2014, will lose a considerable number of its votes. The party’s lack of confidence is evident in the fact that it is only contesting 20 seats this time. That said, it is not clear if the votes the AIADMK loses will go en masse to the DMK.
Perhaps, the biggest factor is the Dhinakaran-led Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK). Though Dhinakaran has fielded a candidate from every constituency, he is likely to cause a stir in the southern part of the state where the Thevars, an important caste group in central and southern Tamil Nadu, are predominant. The AMMK’s performance in Theni and Sivagangai needs to be watched.
What has weakened his case is that AMMK candidates are treated as independent candidates and could move to either the AIADMK or DMK camp after winning the election.Smaller parties
Another factor which increases the importance and uncertainty of this election is the presence of small political parties which have the potential to upset preconceived electoral theories in the state. This election will decide whether or not Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) and Seeman’s Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) have what it takes to attain a respectable political velocity. While the MDMK has allied with the DMK and the DMDK with the AIADMK, the NTK is fighting it alone.
The NTK’s politics is a case study in itself. An ultra-nationalist regional party which has Velupillai Prabhakaran, the slain leader of the banned Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as its mascot, is believed to have a minimal but dedicated presence in the southern districts. The party focuses on building an informed citizenry and focuses on education and gender equality; of the 40 NTK candidates contesting this time, 20 are women.
The entry of Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) is unlikely to upset the major regional parties, but it could chip at the corners. In an election when there are multiple known unknowns, its performance will determine its impact and longevity.Alliance contradictions
The transfer of votes in Tamil Nadu is not as easy as it is often said to be. Stitching alliances does not ensure that all the votes, which the parties in the alliance would have gathered had they been contesting the polls individually, will go to the alliance candidate. The main reason for this is the complex caste structures across the state.
The AIADMK and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) are a part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Tamil Nadu. The PMK predominantly represents the Vanniyars, a dominant caste group in northern Tamil Nadu, while the AIADMK has traditionally cultivated a goodwill among Dalit voters. MGR’s pro-poor image and the AIADMK’s poverty-alleviation schemes have helped towards this. However, the AIADMK-PMK alliance is an unlikely match because the Vanniyars and the Dalits have a tense relationship. Given this, it is difficult to see a vote transfer from theAIADMK to the PMK.
Thol Thirumavallavan is the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) founder and candidate for the DMK+ alliance from Chidambaram. The VCK is a pro-Dalit party which is seen suspiciously by the upper castes in the region. The DMK has a good following in the constituency but is working overtime to see that its traditional vote-base is transferred in favour of to the VCK candidate this time.
“Special meetings are being held where local DMK cadre and party leaders are told to canvas votes for Thirumavallavan. In some places where the party is strong, the candidate’s (Thirumavallavan’s) name does not appear on posters. Stalin’s name along with other local DMK leaders’ name and the poll symbol is what is advertised. This is an ingenious technique to ensure that party votes are not lost,” said a senior journalist who has covered every Tamil Nadu election since the mid-eighties.The flow of money
The various reports of money being seized by the Election Commission of India (ECI) across Tamil Nadu is an indicator of the nervousness among parties. Since March 10, when the Model Code of Conduct came into effect, the ECI has seized unaccounted cash, jewels and other items worth Rs. 552 crore. This is proportionally higher than what has been seized in recent years.
Tamil Nadu is infamously associated with the freebie culture, which has spread to other states as well. It was during the 2016 assembly polls that the ECI, in the first time of its history, decided to cancel polls to two seats (Aravakurichi and Thanjavur), following reports of a large scale bribing of voters.
The high volumes of unaccounted cash is an indicator that many parties are uncertain about their electoral prospects, and money is being used to influence voters much like the infamous Thirumangalam by-election in 2009 or the Andipatti by-election in 2002.TINA factor
Despite these uncertainties, many believe that the DMK has a slight edge over its main rival, the AIADMK. Auto-drivers at an auto-stand near the AIADMK headquarters at Avvai Shanmugam Salai in Chennai, told me why: “Traditionally most of us have voted for the AIADMK, but this time we’re not sure. Look at what happened to the party! Many neutral voters who chose Amma (Jayalalithaa) last time, might turn to the DMK.”In an interview to this author, actor-cum-social activist Balaji said, “Don’t expect change this election. If people selected one party last time, this time they will go for the other party. Real change will happen many years from now”.