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A Battle with a Difference in Tamil Nadu

Chennai, 20-03-2014: Vaiko, MDMK General Secretary, Vijayakanth, DMDK President, Rajnath Singh, BJP President and Anbumani Ramdoss, PMK leader at the announcement of seat sharing of National Democratic Alliance in Chennai on Thursday. Photo :G_Sribharath

CHENNAI: 13/01/2014: FOR TAMILNADU BUREAU: DMK President M.Karunanidhi sharing alighter moment with VCK leader Thol Thirumavalavan (left) at a public meeting in Chennai on Monday .Photo: K_Pichumani

SALEM 17/04/2014: AIADMK General Secretary Jayalalithaa addressing thegathering at her campaign in Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu, on Thursday. PHOTO: E_LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

Electoral battles in the southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu have mostly thrown up decisive results; the 2009 Parliamentary elections were, however, a departure from the trend. The 2014 Lok Sabha polls have now added a rather interesting dimension to the polity: a multi-cornered contest with the two Dravidian majors — the DMK and the AIADMK — seeking to test the waters all by themselves; and the BJP, hitherto a non-entity in the State, hoping to make a mark in alliance with a few smaller parties. V.S. Sambandan of The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy examines the dynamics at play in Tamil Nadu.

As India votes for a new Parliament, in Tamil Nadu the electoral battle for the 39 Lok Sabha seats (40, if the Union Territory of Puducherry is included) is one that the southern Indian State has not seen in decades.

Not since 1967, when the Indian National Congress fought a Lok Sabha election on its own steam, and lost it, has Tamil Nadu seen a multi-cornered fight of such dimension. The Congress, yet to recover from the 1967 defeat, is going it alone entirely because there were no allies willing to associate themselves with India’s Grand Old Party.

Another lone ranger is the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which aimed initially to emerge as a formidable bloc in the 16th Lok Sabha and nursed public ambitions of leading the nation in a Third Front. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is also facing the electorate with two State-level Dalit and Muslim political parties.

The two national Left parties — the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI (M)] and the Communist Party of India (CPI) — are going it alone as well. The fifth corner in this electoral battle is occupied by a hastily cobbled-together coalition comprising the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), and the Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam (DMDK).

In this multiple battle for the popular vote, the main contest is not between the two major national parties — the Congress and the BJP — but between the two parties that have held office in the State since 1967: the DMK and its offshoot, the AIADMK, which is in power in the State.

The reasons behind this five-cornered contest are not too far to seek. For the AIADMK, it is the possibility of presenting a strong case to stake a claim in the next government, where neither the Congress nor the BJP is predicted to secure a majority on its own. For too long, the AIADMK has not shared power in the Centre.

One key reason is the manner in which the Congress has been reduced to a minor party in the State, after its national-level split in 1969. The last time the Congress contested the Lok Sabha elections without an alliance partner, in the Fourth Lok Sabha election held in 1967, it won in three of the 39 Lok Sabha constituencies in the State. In the 11 Lok Sabha elections held thereafter, it has been in an alliance, with either the DMK (four times) or the AIADMK (six times), with the exception of 1998 when the party allied a couple of smaller parties — the MGRADMK headed by S. Thirunavukarasu (who subsequently ended up joining the Congress in 2009 after merging his party with the BJP in 2002), and the United Communist Party of India headed by D. Pandian (the present State Secretary of the Communist Party of India). For the record, the alliance drew a blank.

The Congress’ re-entry as a lone ranger in the 16th Lok Sabha elections, therefore, sends it to the starting block with a handicap of having lost direct touch with the State’s electorate for close to 50 years — a very long time in politics. The politics of alliances, which started in the late 1960s, has resulted in the emergence of the two State parties — the ruling AIADMK and the DMK — in the forefront of political formations in Tamil Nadu. This has also meant that the importance of national parties has decreased in Parliamentary elections. The marginalisation of the Congress in the State’s electoral line-up provides a backdrop for the manner in which political parties woo the electorate in Tamil Nadu.

Across the districts of Tamil Nadu, popular sentiment a week before the general election 2014 (based on travel by this author between April 15 and April 18) is that this is a battle of the Kazhagams — the ruling AIADMK and the DMK, which till recently was heading the Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA) in Tamil Nadu.

The subtext behind this battle of the big two is that the eye is not just on 2014, but two years down the line, on 2016, when the election to the Tamil Nadu State Legislative Assembly is scheduled to take place. It is against this backdrop that one has to see this multi-cornered fight in the State.

The DMK gained the most from this alliance politics, be it with the Congress or the BJP, having held Union ministerial portfolios since 1989, when the late Murasoli Maran made the debut as a Union Minister. This party’s decision to go it alone is also reflective of its eagerness to regain its space in the State Assembly. A look at the performance of the DMK in the State elections is a clear pointer to why the party chose to contest elections without the Congress.

Having been alliance partners (barring 1989, when the Congress contested the State Assembly elections on its own), the Congress’ true vote base is hard to assess. In a way, this difficulty in measuring the votes held by the political parties in the State is not restricted to the Congress, as both the DMK and the AIADMK have been aligned with either of the major national parties and/or the Left parties over the past five decades.

The key answer that will emerge from this multi-cornered contest, therefore, is the true measure of the political parties in Tamil Nadu. Herein lies the bigger picture: this election is more about political parties consolidating their positions before the next Assembly election. The vice president of the Congress, and its chief campaigner, Rahul Gandhi made it clear that he would like to see his party in power in the State in 2016. So does the leader of the DMDK, Vijayakanth, an actor-turned-politician and the State’s Leader of the Opposition. For the DMK and the AIADMK, the need to fight for every vote in every constituency is evident from the hectic campaigning that is on.

Issues, policies and votes

If the Indian electorate is presented with a near polarisation — centred on the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, and his record of both delivering growth in Gujarat and having been on the watch when the anti-Muslim riots took place in 2002 in that State — deep south, it appears to have had little impact.

“Hindutva politics has no place in Tamil Nadu,” asserted a villager, who lives in a hamlet that forms part of Villupuram constituency, about 185 km south of the capital, Chennai. His friend chips in: “There really isn’t space for anyone else except the two parties (the ruling AIADMK and the DMK). ‘Captain’ [Vijayakanth] could have played a role, but he’s now with the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party); So let’s see.” The latter, a peasant, adds, “We’ve been living like brothers here. Who buys the paddy we cultivate? It’s the Muslim trader. What have we got against each other? This will not work here,” he is emphatic.

Further west, nearly 400 km from Chennai, in Erode, located in the more prosperous belt of Tamil Nadu, the emotions are not so emphatic. A youngster, who works as a cash collection agent, is not too upset that the BJP is in alliance with the party he supports, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK). “I don’t think it matters much. It all depends on the candidate, his track record, and our expectation of what he will do,” he says, rather convinced. The western belt has been a traditional AIADMK stronghold, and there is little to suggest that the situation there has changed much. “Of course, it’s more difficult to predict now because there are many parties contesting, and though they [the smaller parties, the Congress, the BJP and the Communists] may not cross the mark on their own steam, there is a possibility that they can split the votes,” says Rajaram, a grocer in the busy town.

As far as issues go, the lack of major industrial progress, coupled with the failure of agriculture, is cited as a reason for a dash of disenchantment with the political class in the western region. “You may see a lot of towns growing — more shops and so on — but they are all a result of the collapsing farm sector,” the grocer adds. In a pointer to the transition of the State’s economy towards the services sector, he adds a note of caution: “Without industrialisation, I don’t know how long this will last.” Yet, the big question, will this translate into an anti-incumbency vote in the region, finds no clear answer. “We’ll decide on polling day,” says Rajaram, clearly indicating that he is in no mood to reveal his choice.

Perhaps the biggest issue confronting the State for over a century is the Cauvery river water sharing dispute. “Does it really matter?” asked a disgruntled elder man in Thanjavur, about 320 km south of Chennai, and the heart of the Cauvery delta region. “None of the parties is going to deliver. It’s a big issue. It is a matter of livelihood. It is a matter of sustenance, but who knows when there will be a solution? In the meantime, I will vote depending on which government gives us benefits,” he rued.

This widespread sentiment that the state is seen as a provider of benefits rather than as an apparatus that provides for sustainable growth is a pointer to both the expectation of voters and the parameters based on which significant sections of Tamil Nadu’s 5.5-crore-strong electorate are likely to exercise their franchise.

Issues that should normally be seen as those in the domain of the local body, for instance, maintenance of roads and public spaces, or the State government — supply of electricity and water — are now seen as failures which should be borne by the MP. In contrast, an MP tends to get rewarded (or punished) for “benefits” provided (or not provided) by the State government. One of the main talking points among the electorate is the reach of the State Government’s welfare schemes to the electorate.

Other than this, on the issue of secularism, there is consolidation of the votes of the minorities and Dalits against the BJP. This consolidation is most visible among the State’s estimated 3.4 million Muslim voters.

“Modi will not get a single Muslim vote in Tamil Nadu,” asserts Allah Pitchai, a youngster in Udumalaipettai, about 490 km southwest of Chennai. “We do not know how he will treat the Muslims. He may even be good to us, but by including the Temple construction issue in the Manifesto, he has lost our community’s votes,” he said. “This time around, the votes are going to the DMK,” he asserts. This Muslim consolidation in favour of the DMK is a familiar strain across Tamil Nadu’s districts.

Christians, who comprise the State’s single-largest religious minority group, at 3.7 million (6.02 per cent), have not expressed their preference, it does not comprise a bloc vote which either of the main parties can count as theirs. When it comes to the Dalits, two political parties, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and the Puthiya Tamizhagam (PT), representing the Parayars and the Pallars respectively, have also supported the DMK.

When it comes to the issue of secularism alone, therefore, the DMK appears to be better placed in terms of alliances and declared support. Moreover, going by the 2001 census, the Muslim population exceeds one lakh in more than 10 constituencies. In this context, the minority vote could determine the outcome in at least one-third of the constituencies in the State.

If one shifts the focus from the immediate to the near distant 2016 Assembly Election, the game plan adapted by the major political parties becomes more evident. Any inroad by the BJP will be at the cost of the existing players. The most susceptible to such an inroad, according to an academic in Tiruchi, is the AIADMK. The DMK’s vote base is likely to remain intact, he said. The impact of the BJP’s alliance with the DMDK and other coalition partners is another unknown. The reasoning behind this is that the coalition partners, the MDMK and the PMK, were started as parties to wean away votes from the big two in Tamil Nadu — the AIADMK and the DMK. While the MDMK is likely to retain its voter base in the event of an inroad by the BJP, the same could not be the case for either the DMDK or the PMK.

For the DMK, its collaborative politics with the national parties — the Congress and the BJP — has meant that when it comes to the Assembly elections, it would have to concede seats to its partner. A DMK party worker in Pollachi pointed out that his party had to pay the price for this in the 2011 Assembly elections in which it contested only 119 seats in the 234-member Assembly. This made it an improbability for the DMK to form a government on its own as it had to win in 117 of the 119 seats it contested. “This is the most important reason why the DMK chose to go without the Congress in this election,” the party worker said.

With barely two years to go for the next Assembly election, the DMK’s campaign has also focussed largely on what it terms the “unkept promises of the AIADMK rule”. That the DMK is not alone in this race for the 2016 Assembly election is also evident from the statements made by Congress and BJP leaders.

For the AIADMK, however, it is now time to pitchfork itself into a point where it occupies a significant position in the forthcoming Union government. This makes the electoral fight in Tamil Nadu one in which no quarter is given by the AIADMK to criticise the DMK for letting down the interests of Tamil Nadu — be it on the Sri Lankan Tamils issue or the sharing of Cauvery waters.

Yet another feature that stood out during the tour of the districts is the nonchalance with which local party functionaries talk about money power in the elections. Functionaries of both the AIADMK and the DMK said that people had got used to getting money to vote, and therefore, money will be spent. The vigilant Election Commission of India, for its part, has maintained that it will crack down on such activities.

As electioneering in Tamil Nadu closes, there is still a very mixed picture on which of the two major parties — the AIADMK or the DMK — will score a decisive victory. Opinion surveys by publications, barring one Tamil magazine, give the advantage to the ruling AIADMK. The final call to be made by the voters will be between these two parties in the forefront, with the two national parties — the Congress and the BJP — ironically, but not surprisingly, trailing in the race.

This article has been corrected for a factual error

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