It is perhaps for the first time in four decades that people of Tamil Nadu are going to vote in a political vacuum created by the exit of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader M. Karunanidhi and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader J. Jayalalithaa. While Karunanidhi had clearly indicated and groomed his son M.K. Stalin as his heir, Jayalalithaa did not allow anybody to grow in the party to occupy the second position. Her close associate V.K. Sasikala is languishing in a jail in Bengaluru, serving time for corruption.

Chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, who may be described as an accidental CM, has managed to hold office since the death of Jayalalithaa. O. Panneerselvam, who initially rebelled, is with him now as his second in command.

More than the LS polls, the ruling AIADMK, which has a wafer thin majority in the state assembly, is desperate to win in the by-elections to 22 state assembly seats. It has to capture at least 10 of these to retain power. Both the Congress and the BJP have a negligible presence in the state, winning seats by the mercy of the two Dravidian parties by aligning with one or the other of them. True to this tradition, the DMK has formed a pact with the Congress.

Opinion polls indicate that the DMK-led alliance is likely to sweep the polls. The DMK, in fact, was part of the government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Karunanidhi, a great political strategist, readily aligned with the BJP, which he had been targeting as a Hindu and Hindi chauvinistic party of upper castes.

This time, the DMK sensed the prevailing anti-Modi atmosphere in the state. During two of his official visits Modi faced black flag rallies and had to avoid travelling by road. People seem to be unhappy as he did not visit to see the devastation caused by cyclone Gaja. Farmers are protesting against hydrocarbon exploration projects, Nutrino projects and the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), which they think is against poor villagers. Police firing in Thoothukudi on protesters in front of a copper melting factory is also blamed on the BJP government.

Gandhi, too, before he became the president of the Congress, seemed to distance himself from the DMK, perhaps because of the 2G scam. But the DMK has now magnanimously given 10 seats to the Congress while contesting 20 seats, leaving the rest to its allies.

Jayalalithaa, a close friend of Modi, contested alone in the last parliamentary elections attacking the BJP, and won 37 seats.

After her death, nobody is able to assess the mood of the people. Are they still with the party or have they moved away? What is the strength of the breakaway Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam whose leader, Sasikala’s brother-in- law T.T.V. Dhinakaran, won in the bypoll caused by Jayalalithaa’s death. Surely, the AIADMK has the advantage of the tie-up with the centre-ruling BJP. But recent announcement by some central ministers on the NEET and the Chennai-Salem expressway have come at an inappropriate time as both the DMK and the AIADMK have been promising to do away with the NEET. If the ruling AIADMK loses the bypolls and its government collapses, observers say it may be the end of the party founded by the late M.G. R. and nurtured by Jayalalithaa.

Sampath Kumar is the former head of BBC Tamil service, and currently a faculty at Asian College of Journalism.

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