DMK President MK Stalin.  (Photo: PTI)
DMK President MK Stalin. (Photo: PTI)

DMK tastes bittersweet win in TN as it loses its Rahul bet

Despite registering a near sweep in Tamil Nadu, DMK and Stalin’s wait for power at the centre has only got longer

NARENDRA MODI, DMK, CONGRESS : A little past noon, as the magnitude of the BJP’s victory became clear, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee declared in a tweet: “All losers are not losers". The oxymoronic statement immediately invited mockery, but if it were true of any political party on Thursday, it would be the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

After nearly a decade in the state’s political wilderness, the party’s regional alliance is all set to sweep Tamil Nadu (DMK-Congress alliance seems set to win at least 31 of TN’s 39 Lok Sabha seats, as of 9pm). Yet, the party’s headquarters, Anna Arivalayam, in the heart of Chennai, bore little sign of celebration, even by 11am when the trends had become clear.

While all losers may not be losers, all winners are not winners either. DMK president M.K. Stalin had placed all his eggs in the Rahul Gandhi basket, becoming the only prominent leader outside the Congress to back the Congress chief for the prime minister’s job. The disappointment on Thursday was hard to miss. Stalin did not step out of his house till late in the evening.

Parimala Devi, 43, a mid-day meal cook, was at the DMK headquarters in the morning and wasn’t quite able to understand why the rest of India voted the way it did. “I don’t know about the country, but we are clear about our future. And there is no Modi in it," she said. The murmur which soon became a refrain was: “At least our position is not as bad as that of the Congress."

“For the DMK, there cannot have been a more bitter victory," said Sumanth Raman, a Chennai-based political analyst. “Not only is the path to power at the centre gone for next five years, but the path to power in the state (from 22 assembly seats which witnessed a by-poll along with the national election), which they would have been more keen on, also looks gone for the immediate future," he added.

With Tamil Nadu overwhelmingly rejecting a party and personality (Modi) who will be helming the government in Delhi, a slew of schemes and programmes for which central assistance would be critical lie in the balance. The state is one of the most urbanized in the country and about six of its cities are vying for metro rail projects—which can’t move ahead without the centre’s approval. Chennai’s own swanky new metro is hoping for a significant expansion into the suburbs.

“If the city needs to stay liveable, the metro has to expand. And fast," said A. Veeraragavan, a professor of transportation engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.

Chennai is the only major city (apart from Kolkata, to an extent) where the BJP has not been able to make any significant inroads. But urban aspirations are high. This election season, many cities in Tamil Nadu wanted a permanent fix on water. Good public transport is another constant demand. Urban amenities, such as parks and the incredibly popular Amma canteens that sell subsidized meals, have a significant electoral impact, unlike many other parts of the country.

One of the enduring legacies of the late-1990s and 2000s, when coalition governments ruled the roost, was that politicians from Tamil Nadu often used ministerial positions to amplify the state’s urban growth, said a professor at Madras University who asked not to be named. “They mostly managed to get prominent infrastructure portfolios. The state’s excellent highways are a testament to this," he said.

Due to these “indirect fund devolutions", the state’s urbanization could be managed to an extent and the economy could be kept going at a reasonable clip to meet rising aspirations, he said. For most of the previous decade, Tamil Nadu had between 3-6 ministers in the Union cabinet. Now, the rising wave of southern opposition, of which the Lok Sabha results in the state are only a manifestation, show that Tamil Nadu with its history of Dravidian politics and opposition to Delhi is well past that compact which worked well for a period.

That may be the case with neighbouring Kerala too, which is trying to boost its own growth, primarily through the development of high-skill industry clusters around Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram. But in a polarized political climate where any sign of cooperation is a liability, the urban-led growth strategy of both the states will face serious impediments.

But there is still some hope even in this polarised environment, said Swarna Rajagopalan, a political scientist and founder and director of the Prajnya Trust, a non-profit based in Chennai. Since Tamil Nadu and Kerala are the “only remaining spots of resistance", the Modi-led government may actually try to give special attention in order to remedy the resentment. “They may try to win the people over," she said.

Ordinary residents do not have such high hopes. “Modi will be a big setback for the state. Tamil people have voted clearly to reject Modi. We are already not getting anything (from the centre). What difference does it make?" said John Immanuel.

Though BJP state president Tamilisai Soundararajan had been peddling the sentiment that there is neither a “pro-DMK nor an anti-ADMK wave" and the BJP has a chance in the absence of DMK’s Karunanidhi and the AIADMK’s Jayalalithaa, the degree of annoyance with Delhi seems hard to bridge.

It often results in casual jokes about the inevitable misery ahead. Around noon on Thursday, when it had become clear the BJP would reach the majority mark on its own, B. Ganesan, 51, a cab driver, said he had begun preparing for the next round of demonetization. “I think Modi had a difficult childhood and couldn’t play too much. Now he is playing with the country," he said.

But voices like Ganesan’s will be necessary outposts of resistance, especially due to the BJP’s overwhelming majority, said Rajagopalan. “The clock has come full circle. It was the DMK which stood against a Congress hegemony in the 1950s and 60s. That was about a strain of linguistic diversity. Today’s fight is also about diversity. It’s ironical that the DMK is playing the same role in Indian politics that it did many decades ago."

The Dravidian party’s victory, after all, was built on nearly three years of strident resistance mounted by Stalin who tried to put forth an alternative vision, unlike many other regional leaders (he hired a professional agency after 2014 to strategize and began a mass contact program which lasted a year). While there is enough disgruntlement against Stalin’s party, and its history of casual indulgence in corruption, his primary appeal is a growing perception that “Tamil interests" need to be protected and that the BJP’s vision of India is a threat to the Tamil way of life. Ultimately, due to its numbers in the new Lok Sabha, it would be necessary for civil society and social movements to coalesce around the DMK, Rajagopalan said. “Because they carry credibility. They represent the voice of the people from this one tiny outpost of resistance."

“They will matter and, thankfully, they have nominated at least a few intelligent, well-spoken individuals. Their voices will carry the sentiment of people who have a different idea of India," Rajagopalan added.