The Showdown in Tamil Nadu

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Both BJP and Congress hope to gain by piggybacking on AIADMK and DMK, which in turn are stitching up patchwork alliances with smaller parties

IF A POLITICAL PARADIGM shift is on the cards in any state after the upcoming General Election, it would be in Tamil Nadu. Uttar Pradesh may or may not witness the bua-bhatija triumph. West Bengal may see a complete routing of the Left Front. But nothing could be as tectonic a shift in the basic polity of the state as Tamil Nadu, irrespective of the outcome of the election, is about to witness. For the biggest southern state, this is the first election since the demise of its two political monoliths—the last Tamil leaders to build their mythologies on power, charisma, vanity and vendetta. M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa each ran a tight ship and left their respective parties stranded at sea. They also left the electorate without a toggle switch—the one thing that kept elected leaders from acting out their reckless fantasies. And yet, nothing has really changed in Tamil Nadu, where a familiar script is now unfolding on the surface of the political playing board, with the national parties courting the DMK and the AIADMK, who in turn are stitching up patchwork alliances with smaller regional parties.

A fractious AIADMK, which was on weak turf till a week ago, has got a boost after an alliance with the BJP and Anbumani Ramadoss’ Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). Senior AIADMK leaders who until recently were bemoaning the death of cooperative federalism under Narendra Modi, have fallen in line now that the BJP’s Tamil Nadu in-charge Piyush Goyal has acknowledged the regional party as the alliance leader in the state. With 37 MPs, the ruling AIADMK has given up seven seats for the PMK and five for the BJP, both of whom have just one MP each at present. The alliance is seen as a strategy to consolidate the Hindu vote after Amma, and to retain power in the state by winning at least 10 out of the 21 Assembly seats which will also go to polls along with the 39 Parliamentary constituencies. The PMK, which has also negotiated a Rajya Sabha nomination out of the deal, has agreed to support the AIADMK in the by-elections, many of which are in northern Tamil Nadu where the party has a support base among the OBC Vanniyar community. The party had polled a 5.3 per cent vote share in the 2016 Assembly elections, where it went solo, contesting all 234 seats, winning none. Ramadoss, when recently cornered at a press conference in Chennai on the ethics of allying with the AIADMK and the BJP despite apparently incurable differences on NEET and other issues, admitted to opportunism.

The DMK, once regarded with suspicion by the Congress for its alleged sympathy towards the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the rebel outfit responsible for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, cites secularism as the basis of its present-day alliance with the Congress, Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Thol Thirumavalavan’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, the CPI and the CPM. A formidable front with a common minimum political programme, it is, however, plagued by doubts that the DMK is repeating its folly of 2016 by giving away too many seats to the Congress. In the 2016 Assembly polls, the DMK won over half the 176 seats that it contested, while the Congress won just 8 out of the 41 allotted to it. The party has agreed to allot 10 seats—including one in Puducherry—to the Congress in the upcoming Parliamentary polls. It has also reached into an agreement with actor Vijayakanth’s DMDK (Desiya Murpokku Darvida Kazhagam), that the latter will contest in four Lok Sabha seats, leaving the AIADMK-NDA combine in disappointment. The DMDK is now allegedly demanding a Rajya Sabha seat for Premalatha, wife of Vijayakanth.

The AIADMK-BJP alliance is seen mainly as a strategy to consolidate the Hindu vote after Amma, and to retain power in the state by winning at least 10 out of 21 Assembly seats

Would Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi have done things differently? Not necessarily. Like other states, Tamil Nadu, too, routinely became a site of backslapping amicability ahead of Parliamentary polls. The last time the AIADMK contested along with the BJP was in 1998, under the leadership of the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The alliance won 33 of the 39 seats, leaving only six seats for the DMK. But the partnership was short-lived and Jayalalithaa, who was in the Opposition in the state, walked out within a year’s time, withdrawing the support of her 18 MPs as Vajpayee refused to dismiss the DMK government. In 1999, as the country went to the polls again, the DMK became an NDA partner under Vajpayee and was rewarded with three ministerial berths, with Murasoli Maran, A Raja and TR Baalu joining the Cabinet. Ahead of the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, however, the Congress stretched the limits of political possibility to knit together an alliance comprising the DMK, the MDMK and the PMK in Tamil Nadu, effectively sweeping the state. The Congress-DMK combine enjoyed a winning streak through the next general elections despite the MDMK and the PMK pulling out. Then in the 2014 elections, Jayalalithaa, driven by an unshakeable belief in her genius, did the unthinkable: she went to the people solo, with all her reserves of charisma and agility, and won 37 out of the 39 seats.

AFTER JAYALALITHAA’S death and the subsequent split in the party, the AIADMK was left with no option but to ally with the BJP. Even though their leaders dub it a smart move, cadres remain sceptical. On the 71st birth anniversary of Jayalalithaa, Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam wrote a joint letter to party workers to clarify their seat-sharing plan with the BJP. “We have come up with an alliance that could win the elections and would guard national interests like the one stitched up by Puratchi Thalaivi (Jayalalithaa) in 1998,” the statement said. They also reiterated the commitment of the party to its core political ideologies, including guarding secularism, state autonomy and social justice.

The Cauvery river dispute, NEET controversy and handling of relief efforts during cyclones Gaja and Ockhi by the present state government are the main points of contention between the two alliances

Political observers say that the alliance is a clear indication of the BJP becoming an influential factor in the state. “Though the AIADMK is said to be at the helm of the alliance, it is pretty clear who will be calling the shots. Bargaining with the BJP has become an increasingly tough task, especially for the AIADMK, which lacks a commanding leadership,” says P Ramajayam, a columnist and political commentator.

BJP leaders are however, giving the ruling party its due and have been careful not to cross the line in public. “In Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK is the principal party of the alliance and the BJP is also a part of that combine. There is no confusion,” clarifies BJP state unit president Tamilisai Soundararajan. The party had sniffed opportunity when the two factions within the AIADMK were at war with each other. It is widely believed that the BJP had a crucial role in effecting a truce between Palaniswami and Panneerselvam. It was the defection by TTV Dinakaran, nephew of Jayalalithaa’s close aide Sasikala, who set up his own party, the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), that has made the AIADMK desperate for an alliance in the state.

“The AIADMK, under constant threat from Dinakaran’s AMMK, has become a puppet of the BJP. They do not have the confidence to face the people [on their own] and that is why they have given away seven seats to the PMK,” says social activist Selvaraj Murugaiyan.

“AMMK’s performance could be decisive in this election. The party knows it is capable of stealing a chunk of the votes from the AIADMK. Dinakaran, a good election manager for the AIADMK in the past, could play spoilsport for the party this time,” adds P Ramajayam. Dinakaran’s AMMK will be focusing on the by- elections first but is yet to spell out its poll strategy.

The DMK once regarded with suspicion by the Congress for its alleged sympathy towards the LTTE, the rebel outfit responsible for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, cites secularism as the basis of its present-day alliance with the Congress

The DMK has roped in ‘like-minded’ parties with whom it can share an ideological platform. “The Left parties are natural allies of Dravidian politics. I accept that there were some deviations in the past but this time we have come together to oppose Hindutva forces,” says a district-level leader from Madurai, requesting anonimity.

“The DMK is on a strong wicket under the command of MK Stalin, who has emerged as the most powerful leader in the state after the demise of his father Karunanidhi, and Jayalalithaa. The leadership has managed to douse the internal issues of the party and the DMK seems to be on a winning track,” says Ramajayam.

“The DMK can gain significantly only if they are able to rope the DMDK into their fold. But I don’t think they could find seats for them. They made a big blunder by giving 10 seats to the Congress,” says Selvaraj. The same feeling was reflected by some DMK foot soldiers we met on the ground. “It is okay to work with the communists. They have a cadre base in the rural areas who are ready to work selflessly for the victory of our candidates. But the Congress is not the same,” says Rangarajan of Madurai.

The AIADMK-BJP combine also have their work cut out for them. They will have to fight a two-tier anti-incumbency wave— both at the state and the national levels. Sentiment against Narendra Modi is stronger in Tamil Nadu than elsewhere in the country because of a number of reasons—the Cauvery river dispute in which the final verdict went in favour of Karnataka; the NEET controversy where Tamil medical students felt they were being discriminated against; and the poor handling of relief efforts during natural calamities like Cyclone Gaja and Cyclone Ockhi. Tamil Nadu has been the only state where the Prime Minister had to face balloons printed with ‘go-back’ slogans.

“In the delta region, even before Gaja, there was an anti-incumbency wave because hundreds of farmers had committed suicide and the state and the central governments did nothing. After Gaja the people expected it to be declared a national disaster. But it never happened. The refugee-like condition of the camps, slow rehabilitation process, arrest of the youth who were at the forefront of the struggle to demand better action, all these may impact the outcome of the elections,” says Kavin Malar, an independent journalist and social activist who has been working with rescue and relief operations in cyclone-hit Nagapattinam.

Commentators feel that the political entry of superstars Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan is not expected to have a big impact. The AMMK could have stitched up an alliance with Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Neethi Mayyam but Dinakaran seems to be concentrating his resources on Assembly constituencies where he can prove his might.

The BJP and AIADMK have announced a set of sops to counter anti-incumbency. The distribution of gold rings to newborns and a string of medical camps across the state marked the 71st birth anniversary celebrations of Jayalalithaa. “We are confident that we can win all the seats this time with the help of Modiji’s good governance at the Centre,” says P Vijayalakshmi, an AIADMK worker in Theni district. “Relief packages for farmers by the Centre coupled with our state government’s financial aid schemes are going to have a big impact. Moreover, Amma had done many things for the Tamil people which they will not forget easily. We can still bank on her good deeds. Her soul will see us through.”