The grey-haired palmist has been telling customers’ fortunes on the beaches of Chennai for the last 15 years. But on Tuesday, unknown to her, she was reading a ‘powerful’ hand.
Mint had given her an image of deputy chief minister O. Panneerselvam’s hands, taken from an online picture.
Then the hands, again unknown to her, of Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, and the leader of the opposition M.K.Stalin of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
Both, she said, had the promise of a long life, recovered from recent setbacks and, importantly, enough luck to capture power and money. When asked which one would win in a fight between the two hands, she was vague. Clearly, even fortune tellers don’t know what lies in store for the main protagonists in the Tamil Nadu elections, due on Thursday, when 38 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats go to the poll. (The EC on Tuesday cancelled the election to the Vellore constituency). In addition, by-elections to 18 assembly seats will be held on Thursday and another four on 19 May.
Like the palmist, many are uncertain about which way the polls are headed. But almost everybody accepts that the results will create history—the first chapter in the story of two dominant Dravidian parties, without their larger-than-life leaders for the first time.
Tamil politics have long been associated with the idea of nambikkai—trust in the party symbol and the leader. For the last several decades, that symbol has been either the AIADMK’s “two leaves" or the DMK’s “rising sun" and the leaders the iconic J. Jayalalithaa or M. Karunanidhi.
Jayalalithaa’s death in 2016 and Karunanidhi’s two years later have introduced a sense of uncertainty in Tamil politics. Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK swept 37 of the state’s 39 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 and in 2016, she became the only leader to come back to power for a second term since 1989, winning 134 of 227 assembly seats.
Now, the party has to win 20 of the 22 assembly seats in the byelections to be contested on Thursday and in May—just to stay in power, amid anti-incumbency, splinter groups, splitting votes and a general resentment of its tie-up with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
There are three splinter groups within the AIADMK who claim the legacy of Jayalalithaa. The EPS-run party got to keep the “two leaves" symbol for this poll, over claims by a major splinter group led by T.T.V. Dhinakaran, nephew of Sasikala, a former top aide of Jayalalithaa, now in jail.
“In people’s minds, this is no more about this party or that party. It is more about what does this mean in the overall situation," said Vijay Anand, founder and CEO of entrepreneurial hub The Startup Centre in Chennai.
The DMK is also not holding up really well, even as it expects to make gains from the splitting of AIADMK votes. After Karunanidhi’s death, his son Stalin has been trying to emerge as the leader, but success has not been uniform across the state. He is taking all the help he can get: the DMK is part of an unusually large coalition (the spectrum ranges from Congress to the Communist Party of India). Worryingly for the DMK, Tamil people have not really forgotten the 2G scam, involving some of its leaders.
“Why should we vote for DMK? To get a 5G scam now?" asked Ramesh, a cab driver in Chennai.
“We need to uphold Hindu values. Stalin is an atheist and has been bashing Hindu customs, we won’t vote for him," said Vallinayagam, a port worker in Thoothukudi, where Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi, a two-term Rajya Sabha MP, is debuting for the Lok Sabha against the BJP.
Both parties also betting on a fresh party floated by actor Kamal Haasan may not create much impact.