In Tamil Nadu, the main opposition party today seems to be the Election Commission (EC). In an unprecedented statement at a poll rally, Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi appealed to the Centre to rethink the powers conferred on the EC and restructure it. His son and deputy chief minister M.K. Stalin, alliance partners S. Ramadoss of the Pattali Makkal Katchi, Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and, most importantly, Union home minister P. Chidambaram of main ally Congress have all been critical of the EC during the campaign.

This is a dangerous demand and an attempt to dilute the independent nature of one of the few bodies left uncorrupted in the Indian system. Every opposition party has been lauding the EC for its strict enforcement of rules.

The EC has been steadfast in preventing efforts by politicians to distribute cash in exchange for votes. It told a court that complaints about the public being harassed were untenable since half of Tamil Nadu’s population were members of some political party or other. Some seizures proved the EC’s point that political parties are using various methods to smuggle cash. Lakhs of rupees were recovered from the house of a poor tea stall owner, more was discovered on a bus owned by persons connected to the ruling party.

All told, several crores have been seized by the EC and not even 10% has been claimed back by anyone showing the requisite documentary proof. The now notorious Thirumangalam model is sought to be replicated in the assembly elections. During the Thirumangalam bypoll in 2009, M.K. Alagiri, another son of the chief minister, correctly predicted the exact margin by which his party would win. It was an open secret that voters in Thirumangalam were flooded with money distributed along with the morning milk and the daily newspaper.

Those who took the money pledged their vote by placing their hand on their head, that of a child’s head, or over a pot of buttermilk considered divine by rural people. Since then, every election in Tamil Nadu has been dominated by the cash-for-votes culture.

This election is a do-or-die contest. For Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch Karunanidhi, who will be 90 in two years and is confined to a wheelchair, this is a fight to protect his family and party interests. The succession issue between sons Stalin and Alagiri has to be resolved one way or the other. The second-generation (2G) spectrum case has wife Dayalu and daughter Kanimozhi vying for a mention in the chargesheet.

While failure will spell disaster, with the Congress dropping him and mending fences with rival All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), success could come with strings attached as he may be forced to share power with his allies.

Failure will mean the disintegration of the monopoly of the family in various spheres of public life, business and media. Success will trigger intense consolidation and liquidation of whatever dissent or opposition that exists.

Jayalalithaa Jayaram and her AIADMK become active only at the time of elections. If the party allows the DMK to come back to power, it will be in the lurch. It has managed to keep afloat as Tamil Nadu voters have been alternately voting for the DMK and the AIADMK in all elections since 1991.

Meanwhile, film star Vijayakanth and his Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) have only got a 10% vote share thus far to show for the effort expended in the past five years. The party’s alliance with the AIADMK may even erode part of that, since all its votes came from people unhappy with both the main formations. Success on the other hand would give it a fresh lease of life.

This election has also seen the death of oratory, which had dominated Tamil Nadu politics for nearly 70 years. Orators such as C.N. Annadurai changed the game of political campaigning for ever in the 1940s. This was nourished and perpetuated by the likes of Karunanidhi and Vaiko (of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam).

The emergence of television has meant the death of fiery speech-making. Orators have been replaced by film comedians and actresses. Comedian Vadivelu is on a DMK-sponsored road show to settle scores with neighbourhood rival Vijayakanth.

Money power in another form also dominates the elections. The freebie culture ushered in by a desperate DMK in 2006 has been appropriated by the AIADMK too. In a burst of competitive populism, both have promised a range of consumer goods.

The DMK’s main campaign platform is development, while the AIADMK is calling for an end to Karunanidhi’s family rule. The 2G scam has so rattled the ruling DMK that it has decided not to depend on its traditional base of urban voters. It has shifted all its major leaders, including Karunanidhi and Stalin, to rural seats. The AIADMK is worried that the rural voter may abandon it in favour of freebies offered by the DMK and, hence, it has unleashed a counter promise of more freebies to retain the rural voter.

This election will be a watershed for politics in Tamil Nadu. More political spaces will become vacant with the possibility of new formations and alliances emerging after the elections.

The fight between the arch-rivals is too close for any prediction. The margins will be narrow in most seats. But the trend will be uniform and the possibility of a hung assembly is remote.

Having watched elections since 1971, this is the first one I have seen which is run in a business-like manner, thanks to the EC’s stern measures. The sobriety thrust upon voters by the EC has, to some extent, been relieved only by their road shows.

Actually, the contest is not just among parties—money is also fighting the elections. Irrespective of the parties in the fray, for the discerning voter and citizen, who wins—money or the EC—is what ultimately matters.

Gnani Sankaran is a Tamil writer, journalist, theatre person and video filmmaker.