Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections 2021: Why DMK-led alliance has an edge

Theni: Tamil Nadu Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam during an election campaign, in Theni district.  (PTI)
Theni: Tamil Nadu Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam during an election campaign, in Theni district. (PTI)


In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the ruling AIADMK-led alliance’s vote-share in the state fell to 30%, the lowest level seen in the past two decades

The upcoming state elections in Tamil Nadu has very high stakes for the key contenders to power. For incumbent chief minister, Edapaddi K. Palaniswami, and his deputy, O. Panneerselvam, this is a fight to establish their position as the rightful heirs to the legacy of J. Jayalalitha after the drubbing their party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (AIADMK) received in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. For their chief opponent, M. K. Stalin of the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK), this is an equally important fight to establish his own position within his family and party as the rightful heir to the legacy of M. Karunanidhi, and to reinvigorate a party that has been out of power in the state for a decade.

Yet, it will be a mistake to presume that the Tamil Nadu elections are only about these personalities and the parties helmed by them. A lot depends on the performance of a number of smaller regional and sub-regional parties that wield influence across different communities and pockets of the state, and have the capacity to shift their support base to the alliance they are a part of. It is therefore not surprising to see both major parties, AIADMK and DMK enter the electoral fray with large-sized alliances.

Source: CSDS Data Unit
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Source: CSDS Data Unit

DMK has the most allies (12), followed by the AIADMK (9), which has lost a few allies recently. Even the newer entrants such as Kamal Hassan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) and TTV Dhinakaran’s party Amma Makala Munnetra Kazagam (AMMK) are contesting these elections in alliance with a fairly diverse group of parties.

While the new entrants could upset calculations in some parts of the state, broadly, the elections will be a battle between the groupings led by the rival Dravidian parties, DMK and AIADMK.

The DMK-led alliance not only has a larger number of allies but also seems to have an edge over the AIADMK-led alliance. In a state with a long history of booting out incumbents, AIADMK will struggle to retain power. To be sure, the AIADMK did buck the anti-incumbency trend in the last assembly elections since 2016. But that was under the charismatic leadership of J. Jayalalitha, who is no more.

The only other Tamil leader to have beaten anti-incumbency in the past five decades was the state’s popular chief minister and AIADMK founder, M.G. Ramachandran, who enjoyed three successive terms as chief minister. Ramachandran first became the chief minister of the state in 1977 and remained unchallenged till his death in 1987. Since then, only his protege, Jayalalithaa has managed to buck anti-incumbency, that one time, in 2016.

It is important to note that though the AIADMK-led alliance managed to break the trend in 2016, it saw a sharp drop in vote-share and seat-share. While the alliance’s vote-share declined roughly 10 percentage points between 2011 and 2016 to 41 percent, it’s seat-share in the assembly fell 25 percentage points to 58%. From 195 assembly seats in 2011, it fell to 136 in 2016.

The DMK-led alliance saw its vote-share rising nearly 9 percentage points over the same period to 39.7% in 2016, just a little shy of the AIADMK-led alliance’s vote-share. This also reflected in victory margins across assembly constituencies, which were much lower in 2016 than in 2011. If the AIADMK only barely scraped through in 2016, even with Jayalalitha, it will face a much tougher fight now, without her presence. The additional incumbency of five more years is another liability, given the state’s history.

The recent Lok Sabha elections provide another pointer to the DMK’s rising chances in the state. In an election where the Modi-wave boosted the fortunes of almost all National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allies, the AIADMK was a notable outlier. It managed to win only 1 of 40 Lok Sabha constituencies in the state. The DMK-led alliance won the rest 39.

The AIADMK-led alliance’s vote-share dropped to 30%, the lowest level since 1996. The DMK-led alliance’s vote-share surged to 53%, the highest level since 1996. The surge in support for the DMK-led alliance was spread evenly across social groups and communities, an analysis of the post-poll survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS shows.

All in all, it will be quite a surprise if AIADMK manages to hold on to power in the 2021 state elections. But then, surprises too have been a part of the state’s and the country’s electoral history.

Sanjay Kumar is a professor at the Delhi-based think-tank, CSDS, and a political analyst.

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