Home >politics >policy >Will Tamil Nadu make history this election?

Chennai: At every state assembly election in the past 27 years in Tamil Nadu, the ruling party has passed the baton to the opposition. This time, no one is so sure.

Ahead of the 16 May election, there is a distinct lack of wave for or against the two dominant Dravidian parties—the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)—making it tough to predict who will walk away with the spoils on 19 May, when results will be declared.

Early local opinion polls have given AIADMK the edge.

“If (AIADMK leader and chief minister J.) Jayalalithaa wins, I think it will be with a wafer-thin majority," said Ramu Manivannan, a professor of political science and public administration at Madras University. “And if she loses, it will be by a whisker; that is my assessment."

“Rural Tamil Nadu could vote for her again, while the industry, seems to me, to be going towards the DMK. The factor against Jayalalithaa is that there was seemingly no governance for the past two-and-a-half years," Manivannan said. The reason for this is that “there is no clear anti-incumbency, there is a general discontent, people are feeling disillusioned and seeking a good alternative that seems to be missing", Manivannan said.

Friends turn foes

The dominance of the two Dravidian parties notwithstanding, the political landscape looks different this time. And that is courtesy old friends turning foes in these polls.

The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and actor Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam’s (DMDK) have both turned against their former senior partners. The PMK and DMDK have previously been allied with the DMK and the AIADMK, respectively.

Now, the DMDK is leading an alliance that includes the Tamil Maanila Congress, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the communist parties and other smaller groups.

A DMK rally in Chennai. Photo: Rajshekar/Mint
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A DMK rally in Chennai. Photo: Rajshekar/Mint

“There are three combines and an independent party contesting these elections—broadly speaking. So, it’s a peculiar situation for Tamil Nadu. But the AIADMK and DMK have better networks of supporters than the others," said P. Radhakrishnan, a former professor of political science from Madras Institute of Development Studies.

Jayalalithaa is aiming for an unprecedented second consecutive term. A Kannadiga by birth, she entered Tamil Nadu politics in the 1980s after starting out as an actress in the Tamil film industry. Despite reports of ill health, the 68-year-old is more visible now to the public than she has been since 2011 when her party won 150 of the 234 assembly seats in the state.

Jayalalithaa’s term this time has been eventful. She was convicted in 2014 on charges of possessing assets disproportionate to her income, disqualified from holding office and sent to jail, before being acquitted by the Karnataka high court and restored to office last year.

Critics describe her as “aloof" and “authoritarian", but to her followers, Jayalalithaa is Amma—their benefactress who makes available meals thrice a day at subsidized rates of 30 through special Amma kitchens, distributes gold coins to girls from poor families and offers free mixer-grinders and fans during the election season.

Her main challenger is nonagenarian M. Karunanidhi, a former scriptwriter in the film industry, before he took over reins of the DMK after the death of its founder C.N. Annadurai in 1969. The Congress is a junior partner in the DMK-led alliance.

Despite his 93 years, Karunanidhi has been campaigning, like his son and potential successor M.K. Stalin and daughter Kanimozhi. The polls are being seen as a test for Stalin as he is seen as the main force behind the DMK campaign. But Karunandhi is clear that he is the party’s chief ministerial candidate.

Corruption and dynasty politics have been the allegations levelled by critics against the DMK patriarch over the years.

To his followers, though, Karunanidhi is the only one who can guarantee good governance in the state of 70 million and advance its development.

Besides this, there is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose star campaigner is none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His cabinet colleagues such as environment minister Prakash Javadekar, power minister Piyush Goyal and urban development minister M. Venkaiah Naidu have also hit the campaign trail in Tamil Nadu.

Demands and aspirations

According to the state election commission, 58.2 million people will be eligible to vote. And 40 million of them are less than 50 years of age. Women marginally outnumber men in the list of the voting population at 29.3 million to 28.8 million. In previous elections, the turnout has been high—between 65% and 70%.

The AIADMK’s poll promises include raising maternity assistance for government staff to 18,000, increasing maternity leave for government employees to nine months from six months, providing 50% subsidy for women to buy two-wheelers and a sovereign of gold for women ahead of marriages.

In contrast, the DMK and the DMDK-led alliance haven’t promised much—the former has promised to increase maternity leave to nine months, while the latter has pledged to ensure half a litre of free milk daily to families with infants and school-going children.

Targeting the youth, DMK has promised free Internet for students, preference for first-generation graduates in government jobs and new medical colleges in all districts. The AIADMK’s promises include free laptops with Internet for senior school students and education loans for unemployed students. The DMDK alliance has promised to waive educational loans and provide free education. Almost all parties have pledged to prohibit the sale of alcohol.

For voters who want better connectivity, more job opportunities and better standards of schooling, however, there seems to be a sense of discontent.

In Selai village of Tiruvallur district, a bus connection to Tiruvallur town tops the list of demands. Free education is a close second. “The freebies which we have got (from AIADMK) in the past like the mixer-grinder are useless. What we want here is a bus connection and roads. The main town (Tiruvallur) is 4km from here," said Rathi, a 45-year-old homemaker, who uses only one name.

It is unsurprising then that the village has a large number of two-wheelers.

“If we have a bus connection, everyone can use it. For us, this is important and so is education. If we could get free education, we could make our own lives," said 17-year-old Rujita, Rathi’s daughter, who hopes to be a tea-cher or bank employee one day.

Desire for change

Both Rathi and Rujita aren’t averse to the idea of voting for one of the political newcomers. “I think the PMK would be a good choice," said Rathi.

Fifty-year-old Chinnayan, who owns a fruit juice shop in Thaneerkulam village along the highway connecting Tiruvallur and Avadi, also seems open to elect someone new as the CM.

“I would like a complete change from the AIADMK and the DMK. We have tried both of them. Now, we should consider a change," he said, adding that DMDK’s Vijayakanth would be a good choice for the CM’s post.

Another voice in support of DMDK is Rajesh, a 22-year-old engineering student in Tindivanam, 120km from Chennai.

“Freebies are of no use. We should be given the confidence to stand on our own feet though education and better opportunities to get jobs. Those educated should be given jobs according to merit. This is what I want. I think there is a disconnect between the AIADMK and the DMK and the voters, especially people like me. So, I think we should give the DMDK a chance and see how things go," he said.

Former sociology professor S. Sundaram from Madras University said, “The youth vote will be key factor. They are independent thinkers; so, they will not allow their thoughts to be influenced by one freebie or another and this will play an important part in electing the next CM."

If there are people demanding change, there are others who prefer to stay with the tried and tested. “If parents (AIADMK and DMK) are not doing anything, how can you trust an uncle (PMK or DMDK)," asked Natchiappan, 56, a small trader from Pudukottai, who has settled in a small village on the outskirts of Chengalpattu, 50km from Chennai. “None of the politicians come and speak to us; so, they don’t know us and we don’t know them," he said, adding that he would vote for Amma.

Asked about the prospects of the BJP, Natchiappan said the party did not seem to have any leaders forging ground-level contacts with the people. “If they get in touch with us, they could change our opinion, but as of now, we don’t know them."

Freebies and floods

Support for Jayalalithaa seems the strongest among the lower strata of society.

“There is no doubt, Amma will return as CM," said K. Ravi, a labourer in Ambattur, on the outskirts of Chennai. “I will always support her; she has done good for us," he said, listing the opening of subsidized Amma kitchens as her best work.

Others like Dharmakoti, a 21-year-old homemaker in Tirunelveli district, lauded Jayalalithaa’s initiative to give free mixer-grinders and fans. “These are useful," she said, rejecting criticism that the freebies never really worked.

“People who are used to freebies, free food... their mind becomes dormant and you cannot expect informed decision-making from them," said analyst Radhakrishnan.

Backing for the AIADMK also comes from the business community. Said Srivathsan, 65, who owns a silk sari shop in Kancheepuram, “There are only two parties here of any significance—AIADMK and DMK. Others like the BJP are irrelevant. There is not much difference between the two (Dravidian parties). But the levels of corruption are less under AIADMK rule," he said.

Voices in favour of the DMK too come from varied quarters.

Vinod, a 22-year-old taxi driver in Chennai, was full of praise for the DMK for building flyovers in Chennai. He recalled that it was during the DMK administration that the metro was introduced in Chennai. “As soon as Jayalalithaa came, she stopped the metro construction alleging corruption. So, there is a lot of traffic holdup in the city with metro construction incomplete in many areas," he said.

If there is one factor that is expected to swing support away from the AIADMK, it is the Chennai floods of November-December.

“During the floods, it was the DMK cadres that helped me," said N.V. Ravi, who owns a shop retailing industrial rubber in Ambattur. “I think freebies make people lazy. People like Stalin and Anbumani Ramadoss are leaders of the next generation. We have had no industrial development at all during the five years of AIADMK rule," he said.

“That (the Chennai floods and rescue efforts) will be a major factor influencing my vote," said B. Vidya, a 37-year-old special educator and resident of Kotturpuram in Chennai, where flood waters submerged ground floors of most houses, destroying furniture and other valuables.

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