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Elections 2019: How Delhi is making inroads into the Dravidian heartland

(L-R) Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Tamil Nadu CM Edappadi K. Palaniswami of the AIADMK; Congress president Rahul Gandhi being presented a sword by DMK president M.K. Stalin at a public meeting in Chennai. (AFP/PTI)Premium
(L-R) Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Tamil Nadu CM Edappadi K. Palaniswami of the AIADMK; Congress president Rahul Gandhi being presented a sword by DMK president M.K. Stalin at a public meeting in Chennai. (AFP/PTI)

After the deaths of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, BJP and Congress have forged alliances with AIADMK and DMK for Elections 2019. But will these again be cases of 'bad friendship ending in disaster'?

Chennai: The results of forthcoming elections in Tamil Nadu will keep psephologists, political scientists, and historians busy for some years to come. Numbers will be crunched. The strength of various political parties will be weighed. Permutations and combinations will be worked out. But that is in the future. At this moment, however, it is a nightmare for political analysts and pollsters as they try to make predictions amidst a jumble of complex alliances.

The broad outlines of the alliances at least were a foregone conclusion. For all the outward wrangling, the major parties were clear about their partners. After the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-Congress falling out in 2014—M. Karunanidhi had bitterly said “kooda natpu kedai mudiyum (a bad friendship will only end in disaster)"—the Congress, in the last couple of years, has cozied up to the DMK. In 2014, as expected, the Congress had ignominiously lost in all seats, winning less than 5% of the votes. The only candidate to salvage some prestige, H. Vasanthakumar, is likely to give the lone sitting Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of parliament (MP) from Tamil Nadu, union minister Pon Radhakrishnan, a run for his money if both were to face-off in the southernmost constituency of India, Kanniyakumari.

Karunanidhi chose his son M.K. Stalin, over daughter Kanimozhi and his other son M.K. Alagiri, as his political heir in Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
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Karunanidhi chose his son M.K. Stalin, over daughter Kanimozhi and his other son M.K. Alagiri, as his political heir in Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). (PTI)

Two months ago, DMK president M.K. Stalin jumped the gun when he declared Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s candidacy for India’s top position. Though moderation has characterized his later pronouncements, the DMK has surprisingly conceded 10 out of the state’s 40 Lok Sabha seats to the Congress—an indication less of the Congress’s ground strength and more of its chances to do a repeat of United Progressive Alliance (UPA) I & II (at least according to Stalin’s calculations).

On the other side, despite some hiccups—with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) MP and deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha M.Thambi Durai making frequent anti-BJP noises—the BJP was left with a Hobson’s choice: either ally with the ruling AIADMK or go alone.

Former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, the late J. Jayalalithaa.
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Former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, the late J. Jayalalithaa. (HT)

Since J. Jayalalithaa’s death, the AIADMK has been little more than a puppet, the strings being pulled from Delhi being scarcely disguised. The revolt of O. Panneerselvam (OPS)—stopgap chief minister for three times—was contained, and a peace brokered between rival party factions. United by their fear of T.T.V. Dhinakaran, the jailed V.K. Sasikala’s nephew, both the current chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami (EPS) and OPS have relied on the BJP to keep him in check.

Dhinakaran gave anxious moments when he defeated the official AIADMK candidate in the R.K. Nagar assembly constituency that fell vacant after Jayalalithaa’s death. Thanks to the BJP’s support, it has been a steady ride downhill for Dhinakaran—his houses and property were raided; he was himself jailed on charges of bribing an election commission official in his bid to win the official electoral symbol of the AIADMK. Despite this, the beaming smile on his cherubic face gives the AIADMK leadership the jitters. Most political pundits agree that, even if his party, the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), cannot win a single seat, he can seriously dent the AIADMK’s victory chances.

BJP’s skirmishes in Tamil Nadu

Despite providing opportunistic and self-serving support, the BJP has kept the AIADMK on tenterhooks. The present Tamil Nadu government has had the houses of both its chief secretary and the director general of police raided by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Raids on a couple of minister’s houses add to this dubious distinction. Not too long ago, BJP president Amit Shah dubbed the AIADMK as the most corrupt government in India and heralded a “kazhagangal illa Tamilagam (a Tamil Nadu without the Kazhagams)", analogical to a Congress-mukt (free) Bharat.

BJP president Amit Shah.
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BJP president Amit Shah. (PTI)

Why then the decision to ally with the AIADMK? Put simply, the BJP has nothing to lose. Since 2004, neither the AIADMK nor the DMK has allied with the BJP. What the BJP can bring to the alliance table is exponentially less than the damage it can do to its ally. In other words, aligning with the BJP amounts to the proverbial Dhritarashtra Aalinganam (embrace)—in idiomatic English, the kiss of death.

In 2004, the BJP contested six seats in alliance with the AIADMK. Fifteen years later, after completing a full term as the first majority government in a quarter of a century under a charismatic leader as prime minister and a shrewd strategist as party president, the BJP will, in fact, contest one seat less! Surgical strikes, across the border bombing of terrorist camps, etc., seem to have had little bearing on seat sharing. How does one explain this curiosity?

T.T.K. Dhinakaran, the nephew of Sasikala.
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T.T.K. Dhinakaran, the nephew of Sasikala.

Perhaps no other sitting prime minister has scored so low on the popularity charts in Tamil Nadu. H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral were obscure, but not unpopular. The euphoria evoked by Narendra Modi in many sections of the Indian populace and regions has singularly been absent in the state. Anti-Modi slogans are deeply popular. #gobackmodi is a trending hashtag whenever he deigns to visit the state. Inexplicably, everything that goes wrong in Tamil Nadu is attributed to him.

In the hugely popular pro-Jallikattu protests in January 2017, anti-Modi slogans were legion though he had little if anything to do with bullfighting. It was a repeat during the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET) controversy (the national common medical exam was seen as Delhi’s imposition against the wishes of Tamils). Every slight to Tamil pride, every perceived threat to Tamil identity gets associated with Modi.

V.K. Sasikala is serving a four-year prison term in a disproportionate assets case.
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V.K. Sasikala is serving a four-year prison term in a disproportionate assets case.

Last year, on a visit to Chennai, he barely stepped on Tamil soil. Unfortunately, it is hard not to think that the prime minister has taken this personally. By refusing to meet distressed farmers from the Kaveri delta, by making only a token appearance when the Ockhi storm hit, of all places the only constituency had BJP won; and not visiting the state at all after Cyclone Gaja struck, the prime minister has tended to alienate himself from the Tamil electorate.

The feuding party leaders of the BJP’s Tamil Nadu wing have not helped in mitigating this unpopularity. Tamilisai Soundararajan, the party’s state unit president, has made it a regular habit of putting her feet in the mouth. H. Raja’s intemperate remarks have caused much revulsion. As a shrewd commentator remarked, as long as the BJP relied on the likes of Tamilisai and Raja, Tamil Nadu was safe from Hindutva.

Also read: Coalition politics returns as BJP, Congress bank on regional parties

Despite such weaknesses, the BJP’s attitude towards the AIADMK reeks of hubris. The official picture released when the alliance was formally announced tells it all: Amit Shah is seated imperiously while OPS sits deferentially on the seat’s edge. To rub it in, Amit Shah declared that the alliance would be called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and not after the AIADMK. The AIADMK has little choice but to swallow these insults. The sole objective is to neutralize Dhinakaran’s challenge and establish itself as the true inheritor of Jayalalithaa’s votebank.

(From left) PM Narendra Modi with Tamil Nadu CM Edappadi Palaniswami and PMK founder S. Ramadoss in Chennai.
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(From left) PM Narendra Modi with Tamil Nadu CM Edappadi Palaniswami and PMK founder S. Ramadoss in Chennai. (PTI)

Hanging on to power for as long as possible will do for now.

Unsure of being able to piggyback on the AIADMK alone, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), which is influential among the powerful Vanniyar caste, has been roped in with two seats more than the BJP and a promised Rajya Sabha seat in future as a bonus. The combination of BJP’s religious communalism and PMK’s casteism cannot but alarm democratic forces. But that’s another story.

M.K. Stalin’s loser tag

The incumbency factor is a millstone that can weigh down any ruling party. With the AIADMK and the BJP allying together, anti-incumbency must get raised to the power of two, and warm the cockles of many an opponent’s heart. But paradoxically, the rival DMK’s president, Stalin, appears to be on the backfoot.

DMK president M.K. Stalin.
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DMK president M.K. Stalin.

Stalin has been groomed for the DMK’s mantle for decades now. Through various manoeuvres, he has risen to be the undisputed leader of the party. The demise of Karunanidhi may at best make little difference to the traditional vote bank. Even in the last two elections, Stalin practically led the DMK into battle though with indifferent results. If the DMK lost all seats in the 2014 elections, in the 2016 assembly elections, it managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. With a massive presence in the opposition (98 out of the 234 seats), Stalin has proved not up to the task of putting a government devoid of all popular consent on the mat. Even party faithfuls feel stumped by the distinct lack of proactive strategies.

From contesting the 2014 elections alone, Stalin has now veered towards building a broad alliance. However, the fact that 10 seats have been conceded to the Congress defies logic, especially when the Congress’s strike rate is pathetically low. Time and again the DMK has shown that in straight fights with the AIADMK, the DMK fares well. The vehemence of Stalin’s expression of annoyance with the PMK for its distasteful double-dealing, negotiating as it did simultaneously with both the AIADMK and the DMK, is not a good sign. The delayed seat sharing with junior partners such as the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and the Indian Union Muslim League has also not gone down well.

Tamil Nadu chief minister E.K. Palaniswami.
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Tamil Nadu chief minister E.K. Palaniswami. (PTI)

But all said, the ground reality still favours the DMK alliance. By what magnitude, will it be a close race, etc. will be revealed in May.

Tamil Nadu after Jaya, Karuna: Lok Sabha polls to influence state’s politics

Irrespective of the results, this will be the first election in the state since the passing of Jayalalithaa (in December 2016) and Karunanidhi (in August 2018).

If Karunanidhi dominated Tamil Nadu politics for half a century, Jayalalithaa shared this domination in a bitter rivalry with him for at least half of that period. Both left deep imprints on national politics as well. If Karunanidhi propped up at least two Union governments—the United Front in 1996 and the UPA I in 2004—Jayalalithaa toppled the BJP-led NDA government in April 1999 after giving it a hard time for 13 months, when its very survival depended on her support. Shortly after, she brought a Congress coalition tantalizingly close to power.

Tamil Nadu deputy chief minister O. Panneerselvam.
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Tamil Nadu deputy chief minister O. Panneerselvam. (HT)

In the 2014 parliamentary elections, her party coined the slogan: “Modi or the Lady?" Jayalalithaa swept the polls winning 37 out of 39 seats on her own, garnering an astonishing 44.5% of votes. But it was a pyrrhic victory, as the Modi-led BJP won a majority thus putting a wrench in her national plans, and Mamata Bannerjee’s ambitions as well.

Admittedly both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa have cast a long shadow on Tamil Nadu politics. Predictions that the AIADMK will implode have been belied. The day of reckoning for the AIADMK government has been postponed with the chief minister Palaniswami skating on thin ice with more than a little support from New Delhi. If by-elections for 21 seats vacated by the disqualification of 21 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) for voting against the party’s whip is to be held simultaneously, it would amount to a general election to form the state government.

Also read: The roller coaster ride of Tamil Nadu politics

Consequences and questions

Elections 2019 will decide many things. How will the two Dravidian majors fare after the demise of their towering leaders? What will be the shape of the DMK in the post-Karunanidhi era? How many of AIADMK’s traditional voters will remain with the official party, and how much will be garnered by its challenger, Dhinakaran? Will smaller parties continue to tilt the scales?

Also read: Will a political vacuum fuel growing anger in Tamil Nadu?

But then these are the mere trees. One should not miss the woods. Ultimately, the big question is: who will have the finger on the nuclear button in the event of a coalition government? In plain terms, will Modi have a shot at power again by looking beyond the Hindi heartland? Or in other words, what can the BJP reasonably hope to gain from Tamil Nadu? Even a die-hard bhakt would not bet on more than one of the five seats. The bottom line for the BJP in Tamil Nadu boils down to little more than limiting the Congress’ victory.

Also read: The fruits of Sabarimala: BJP’s game plan in Kerala, Tamil Nadu

A.R. Venkatachalapathy is an author, most recently, of a book on contemporary Tamil Nadu, Tamil Characters: Personalities, Politics, Culture.

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