When it comes to constructing a polity that is devoid of the two largest national parties, i.e. the Congress and the BJP, few states take the lead as Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu was the first truly large state to boot out the Congress in the 60s, and the party has never seen a return to power since then, and is unlikely to ever do so. The BJP on the other hand has never managed to gain a foothold as an ostensible Hindi speaking party; anathema to the masses and a sure death knell for its chances in the state.
Tamil Nadu has built its political history, and shaped its present, from a long-standing Dravidian movement which goes back to pre-independence times, backed in no small measure by extracts from the burgeoning movie industry. Literally every Chief Minister after Congress’ Kamaraj, has had some association with cinema, a dubious distinction that stands unmatched to this day by any other state. Tamil Nadu is also in some ways a banal state when it comes to political analysis from a purely academic perspective. With a bipolar polity (DMK vs. AIADMK), similar political ethos (both are derivatives of the Dravidian movement), and a tendency for the ruling party to be booted out after their term is completed (a trend that only MGR managed to beat), the election cycle in Tamil Nadu is devoid of the uncertainty and the nail-biting photo finishes one expects in other states.
All of this is poised to change this year however, as Tamil Nadu heads into what is clearly the most uncertain election since the splintering of the AIADMK in the late eighties, precipitated by the death of MGR. A party reeling under corruption charges with palace intrigue behind closed doors, a CM who has spent time in prison and is heavily criticised for cultivating sycophancy that is beyond cringe-worthy, a motley group of people who hope to change the status-quo led by a person who has a tendency to shoot his mouth, and a minor party that has ambitions way beyond anything that it has ever achieved; makes this one blockbuster election that is worthy of one’s time and attention, despite more interesting contests in other poll-bound states such as Kerala and Bengal.
The Stalinist era begins?
The DMK, battling a clear perception battle with regards to corruption is trying its best to make a strong comeback after a poor outing in the 2011 assembly, and 2014 general elections. While the 93 year old Karunanidhi is still the official CM candidate, it’s all but evident to everyone on the ground that it’s his son Stalin, who is leading the charge. While Stalin was always seen as the presumptive heir to Karunanidhi, the former mayor of Chennai has had to stem off pretenders to the throne such as his elder brother MK Azhagiri, and the Maran brothers. Azhagari once seen to be the de-facto ruler of Madurai, has seen his wings clipped since 2013. A poor showing for the DMK would be seen as a direct referendum against Stalin, and this could see a tectonic shift in the party, with possible splinter groups forming around the divided brothers. Stalin, realizing the Achilles Heel of the party, has tried hard to sell the idea that the new DMK would not condone corruption like it did under the UPA. While this might be seen as a sign of changing times, the average voter doesn’t necessarily take this at face value, more so considering their continued association with the Congress which is reeling under new corruption charges day after day. While the DMK might see a resurgence in the Chennai region and might even end up sweeping most seats there, thanks to the ostensible mismanagament of the state Govt. in the aftermath of the Chennai floods, the party will struggle in other parts of the state where it battles not just the AIADMK, but also Ramadoss’ PMK and the Vijaykanth led MNK alliance. For people fed up with the Dravidian style of politics, this election offers a real opportunity to bring down the grand old party of Tamil Nadu to a level it has never been to since the times of MGR, and as far as this author is concerned, is a positive trend in the long run.
The Mummy returns?
Silly puns aside, Jayalalitha has a real opportunity to buck history and anti-incumbency to return to power thanks to a divided opposition. While there is a significant erosion in goodwill among the urban voters, especially the youth, Amma still enjoys support in rural areas of Tamil Nadu, and has a strong support base among women voters. Jayalalitha has had some success in tackling the power crisis (mostly by purchasing it from other states), and her Amma schemes have been well received by the poorer sections of society; positive signs in her favor. Her aloof nature, rumors of ill-health, and inaccessibility to even senior party members is however hurting her cause, and it will require serious canvassing by the AIADMK cadre to see the party over the finish line, particularly in Chennai. Her renewed closeness to the Sasikala clan is seen as another bugbear for AIADMK supporters. The average voter is also getting fed up of the Amma personality cult and the sycophancy surrounding Jayalalitha, signs that the state is moving away from the matinee-idol style of politics that it has been long known for. No matter how this election turns out for the AIADMK, Jayalalitha will have to set in motion a clear succession plan post her era, lest the party disintegrates post her time and sees realignment behind Vijaykanth or other newer players.
Captain O Captain
To a lot of people, the Vijaykanth led MNK is seen as the first real alternative to the two Dravidian parties. While ‘Captain’ might have cobbled up a motley alliance of disparate parties, the numbers are not necessarily in his favor. The DMDK’s vote share has stayed largely static since its inception in 2006 at around 7-9%, and the seats it garnered in the last election was largely due to its alliance with the AIADMK. Vijaykanth would have to increase his vote share by more than 300% to have an outside chance in forming the Government. While the alliance will end up garnering a lot of Dalit votes thanks the presence of the VCK, Vaiko’s MDMK is unlikely to contribute significantly to the tally, making it nearly impossible for the alliance to form the Government, especially considering that anti-incumbency is not as profound as in some other states. Vijaykanth’s unwilligness to parley with the DMK, and alienation of former MGR loyalist Panruti Ramchandran who was seen as the brains behind his ascent, could result in Captain only helping the AIADMK return to power. Despite claims to the contrary, Vijaykanth is also seen as a person who has a very strong affinity towards alcohol, and this will not help his cause in a state where prohibition is on the agenda of every party and is a major talking point among the electorate.
The prodigal son:
Dr. Ramadoss’ PMK has decided to run a solitary campaign under the leadership of Anbumani Ramadoss. The PMK enjoys a strong support base among the Vanniyar caste, and for long has been a ‘top-up’ party for the DMK and the AIADMK to get them over the line in past elections. Anbumani has seen a growing support base among youth voters, and has talked passionately about real issues instead of solely relying on hand-outs, but this is unlikely to shake-up the status-quo and he will struggle to get votes outside the party’s core base. The PMK to this day struggles to shake off the tag of a casteist party, and will struggle to gain votes among the backward classes. Nevertheless, the party seems to be heading in the right direction, and subsequent elections could result in the PMK making significant gains, especially if the DMK ends up as a divided house, and if the AIADMK lacks a strong leader post Jayalalitha. Anbumani’s brand of politics, focusing on sustainable development, nature conservation, delinking of politcs from cinema, decriminalisation of homosexuality, and a consistent stand on prohibition, are welcome agendas to the public discourse, and could set the tone for future elections. In the event of a hung assembly, the PMK with 20 odd seats could also be a kingmaker, setting the stage for Anbumani to take his place in the sun and enable him to build up momentum for the 2021 elections.
Like every other election, the biggest losers are once again the two national parties, the Congress and the BJP. The Congress has all but given up hope in playing a significant role in Tamil Nadu state politics ever again, and is happy to play second fiddle to the DMK. The BJP might have much loftier goals, but they would be lucky to gain even one seat in this election. The Narendra Modi effect is however quite visible in the election campaign of all parties. When MK Stalin talks about a single window clearance for setting up businesses, you know that the Modi style of developmental politics has made inroads into the state. The BJP needs to build a strong cadre base and a well-oiled state machinery if it has to become a player in Tamil Nadu, something that it lacks to this day. The party will also have to try hard to shake its tag of being a north-Indian party and must try to build a political movement based on the Tamil ethos, tasks which are at least a decade in the making.
The big takeaway:
No matter which party comes to power, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that the 2016 Tamil Nadu election will be a watershed moment in the history of the state.
The bipolar nature of the polity is unlikely to last post this election, the cult of personality is waning, and people have realised that base populism is unlikely to help them in the long run. While the vagaries of the first-past-the-post might see the AIADMK over the line with support from smaller players, it’s clear that a major churning has begun. All parties will have to bend head over heels to earn that extra vote, and will be subject to greater levels of scrutiny than before. Tamil Nadu has for far too long been known as a state to vote on the basis of emotion rather than pragmatism, and four decades later, emotions have been replaced by innate cynicism. In a country like India that is probably the biggest harbinger of change.
Featured Image Courtesy: Indian Express
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