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Tamil Nadu’s Experiments with Electoral Alliances

For Tamilnadu Bureau: Digital printing of political leaders are in full swing for the forthcoming election in Tamilnadu. Photo: V.Ganesan. | Photo Credit: V_Ganesan

The General Election for the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, to be held on May 16, 2016, will be noteworthy for the attempt by smaller parties to put together an alliance to provide the electorate an alternative to the two major regional political parties that have been in power in the State since 1967 - the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. With just about a month to go before the election is held, R.K. Radhakrishnan looks at the multi-cornered fight in Tamil Nadu, and where the parties stand.

Tamil Nadu is set to witness the most interesting General Election to the State Legislative Assembly since 1967 when the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) became the first regional political party to come to power in a State. Since then the State’s two major regional parties, the DMK and the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), have held the reins of government in the State. Tamil Nadu will vote to pick party/alliance to form a government on May 16.

Tamil Nadu has voted out the party in power since the demise of M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) in 1987 in each general election. A combination of factors made it difficult for incumbents to retain power, which appear to conform to a couple of patterns.

The most evident pattern is alliance arithmetic. When the State’s smaller parties ally with one Dravidian party, that party invariably wins. This has been the experience since 1987. The second is anti-incumbency. This, however, comes with caveats. In 1991, the DMK government was dismissed. It was possibly set to come back. However, a sympathy wave that followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during an election rally in Sriperambudur near Chennai by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on May 21, 1991, ensured that the party was relegated to its worst-ever electoral performance 1 . The second instance is 2001. Tamil Nadu politicians and observers are of the opinion that the 1996-2001 DMK government was possibly among the best that the State had ever seen. But even this government was voted out in the 2001 General Election because the smaller parties, forced out by the DMK in its desire to be the sole party that decides the destiny of Tamils, joined hands with the AIADMK.

Breaking this pattern of the smaller parties (most of them with single-digit vote shares) aligning with either the DMK or the AIADMK, this time around, a nascent third alternative has emerged. Called the People’s Welfare Alliance (PWA), this new combine comprises the following parties:

• The Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam (DMDK headed by a former popular Tamil film actor-turned-politician, Vijayakant,

• The Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), and headed by Vaiko,

• The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), headed by Thol. Tirumavalavan

• The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M),

• and the Communist Party of India (CPI), which constitute the national parties in the alliance, and

• The Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), a splinter from the Indian National Congress (INC), which was initially formed in 1996 to protest the INC’s decision to ally with the AIADMK. 2

The formation of the PWA is noteworthy for three reasons. First, none of its constituents – DMDK, MDMK, VCK, TMC, CPI(M) and CPI- have headed a government. Second, the largest constituent of PWA has an electoral bank of about eight per cent; and third, the total vote support of the alliance, averages 19 per cent 3 .

Two important questions arise from the emergence of this new electoral front. First, is this combine a credible alternative to the AIADMK and the DMK? The second question is the corollary: if not, which of the two entrenched regional parties will be more affected electorally by the new alliance?

Given the en bloc vote shares of the AIADMK and the DMK, which far outnumber the combined vote share of the other parties in the fray, no drastic upset is expected on May 19, the date set by the Election Commission of India to announce the results of the polls. However, the presence of the third front has the potential to change the politics in Tamil Nadu in fundamental ways of which there was no inkling even when the State stepped into election mode in early 2016.

For long, there was a set pattern in the elections to Tamil Nadu: the smaller political parties flock to one of the two major Dravidian parties, the DMK or the AIADMK just ahead of polls. For example, before the 1996 election, the lesser political forces in the State, branded the AIADMK ‘corrupt,’ moved away from it, and joined hands with the DMK. However, in the very next election, in 2001, these parties labelled DMK as a party that stands for ‘rule by a family,’ moved south from Gopalapuram in the State’s capital, Chennai, where DMK president M. Karunanidhi’s house is located, to Poes Garden, barely a kilometre away, where the AIADMK general secretary, Jayalalithaa, lives.

For more than two decades it has been easy to predict which way the Tamil Nadu voter will swing in each Legislative Assembly election: if the DMK had won an election, it is almost certain that the AIADMK will win the next. The movement of the established smaller parties from one combination to another actually made it easy to guess which way the State would vote. Behind this seemingly simple alternating in voter-allegiance of the State voting out one party and electing in another, plain alliance arithmetic was deep at work.

Apart from the incumbent AIADMK, and its political parent, the DMK, the other parties can be grouped under two broad heads: the national parties – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which heads the Union government, the INC, the CPI-M, and the Communist Party of India CPI, and the regional parties – the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the MDMK, the TMC, the Puthiya Thamizhagam (PT) and the VCK, the DMDK, and the latest to spawn in the electoral field, the Naam Tamizhar Katchi.

Despite this multiplicity there have been no efforts, until now, to bring these several parties under one umbrella. Though the CPI and the CPI (M) have been working in tandem since 2006 after both parties reached an understanding at the national level, roping in the other parties was an uphill task and could not be achieved. This was because of multiple reasons: fear that the vote base of the smaller parties would further shrink in the event of an alliance with an ‘unviable’ partner, ego issues because each of the smaller parties fancied itself to lead the State at some point in the past, and, not unimportantly, encouragement and tempting offers from the Big Two (the AIADMK and the DMK) to join their fold.

‘Either you or us’

Because of these reasons, the Big Two have been so confident of their sway in Tamil Nadu that a senior DMK leader, Duraimurugan, once quipped in the Legislative Assembly ahead of the 2006 polls: “It’s either you [AIADMK] or us [DMK]. Now that you have had your turn [the AIADMK was in power from 2001 to 2006] it’s our turn now.”

A decade later, on January 23, 2016, he was more emphatic. “No. No. Never”, he asserted, in an interview with a Tamil language TV channel, Thanthi TV , when he was asked if it was possible for any party other than the DMK or the AIADMK to come to power in the State. “Maybe in the future, but not at present,” he added, when asked why was it not possible in Tamil Nadu, if an alternative to the INC and the BJP could come to power in the New Delhi State Assembly [referring to the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party] 4 .

His assertion is borne out by data from the Election Commission of India: After the death of Chief Minister MGR in 1987, either of the Dravidian parties has been swept to power in turns, almost always with the help of smaller parties. MGR, who first became Chief Minister in 1977, continued to occupy the chair until his death.

In 1989, the DMK won 150 of the 202 constituencies it contested in the 234-member Legislative Assembly. The AIADMK had split after MGR’s death, and one faction was led by his wife, Janaki, and another, by his associate and propaganda wing secretary, Jayalalithaa. The faction led by actor-turned-politician Jayalalithaa, won 27 of the 198 it contested. The faction led by Janaki, won a mere two seats. The Janaki faction later merged with the Jayalalithaa faction. Soon after the results, it appeared that the AIADMK would be relegated to history in Tamil Nadu.

However, the 1991 Legislative Assembly elections proved otherwise. The AIADMK, which was in alliance with the INC, contested 168 seats and won 164, aided by the sympathy wave following the assassination of former Prime Minister and INC president Rajiv Gandhi. It was DMK’s turn to suffer the humiliation of being obliterated in the polls, winning a mere two of the 176 seats it contested. DMK president Karunanidhi, who was one of the two DMK candidates that won the polls, resigned from the post as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) soon after, owning moral responsibility for the DMK’s debacle.

Just when analysts wondered if the DMK would ever overcome this humiliation – the party also split after a senior member and mercurial Member of Parliament (MP) Vaiko decided to form his own party in 1992 – it bounced back in 1996, and won 173 of the 182 seats it contested. The AIADMK was at the receiving end this time, winning a paltry four of the 168 constituencies it contested. The party’s general secretary, Jayalalithaa, suffered a shock defeat at the hands of a DMK novice.

In the next Assembly elections too, the same phenomenon repeated: the AIADMK won 132 of the 141 seats it contested, while the DMK won in only 31 of the 183 it contested. The pendulum swung the DMK’s way again in the 13th Assembly elections in 2006: the DMK combine won 163 of the 234 seats it contested. Though the DMK on its own did not win a majority in the Assembly – it managed to win only 96 of the 132 seats it contested – the allies did not push for a share in governance with any seriousness.

The 14th Assembly polls saw the people voting decisively for the AIADMK front; and the AIADMK itself won a massive 150 of the 165 seats it contested. For the first time since 1962, the DMK was relegated to the third place — an usurper in the form of Vijayakant, who led the DMDK, won 29 of the 41 seats it contested in alliance with the AIADMK, and made history. The DMK managed to win in only 23 of the 124 constituencies it contested. For the first time in nearly half a century, the DMK — the first regional party to head a State Government in 1967 — was neither on the Treasury benches, nor was it the main opposition party in the Tamil Nadu Assembly.

A different election

The General Election to the 15th Legislative Assembly, however, is different, confusing and interesting. For the first time in over two decades, the two major Dravidian parties, the DMK and the AIADMK, do not have the support of strong allies. The AIADMK, which has been insisting that all its allies contest in its ‘Two Leaves’ symbol, has only minor parties in its fold. The DMK has an emaciated INC, the Dalit-politics based PT, two political parties that have a Muslim voter-base, Indian Union Muslim League and the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, and some minor parties.

That both the Dravidian parties are anxious because of the lack of allies is clear from the fact that both parties are taking steps that can be considered unusual. For instance, in the AIADMK, there’s no place for dissent. The party leader is the know-it-all and has absolute command over the party. She orders, everyone else follows. Dissent has serious repercussions, and being expelled from the party is the least of serious actions that the party initiates against those who don’t conform. Once a position of authority such as the post of the party’s district secretary is taken away from a leader, he is as good as a castaway.

Not this time. For instance, though some of the senior Ministers have been in the bad books, all of them have been given tickets. Though a few party functionaries were removed from their posts – including former Ministers V. Senthil Balaji, Dr. C. Vijayabaskar, D. Jayakumar and C.V. Shanmugham – they have also been given tickets to contest. Some old-timers, who were deprived of electoral or political presence earlier, such as former Ministers C. Ponnaiyan, S. Semmalai and former Member of Parliament O.S. Manian, have been fielded as candidates. A retired Indian Police Service officer and former Director General of Police, R. Natraj, who was removed from the party in late 2015 following a misunderstanding, and reinstated, is the party’s candidate from urban Mylapore, in the heart of Chennai.

The All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi founder, R. Sarathkumar, initially announced that he was severing ties with the AIADMK 5 . Following a lukewarm response from the DMK front, he expressed an interest to get back to the AIADMK alliance. He was taken in, and given a seat too. That the AIADMK has been extremely careful with its selection of candidates is borne by the fact that not all prominent deserters from other parties were given tickets to contest this poll.

Only a few prominent deserters were given seats. These included a former DMK Minister Parithi Ilamvazhuthi, who was one of the two DMK contestants to win the 1991 Assembly election, and a former DMDK MLA, K. Pandiarajan, the founder of a business consultancy firm, Ma Foi. There was only one factor guiding this selection: Does the deserter stand a good chance of winning the seat? If the answer was ‘no,’ the door was shut.

The party is making sure that any oversight is corrected, even after the list of candidates was announced. As of April 15, the published list of candidates has undergone changes five times, leading to a replacement/change of constituencies of at least 15 candidates. The last such change was announced on the morning of April 18, changing eight candidates.

Another master stroke was the party’s insistence that all allies contest under the ‘Two Leaves’ symbol: it has a bigger recall than the symbols of its minor allies 6 . This upset the TMC, a breakaway faction of the INC, which then decided that it could not be part of the AIADMK front.

Wooing Vijayakant

In the battle of perceptions, it appears that the DMK fared poorly, compared with the AIADMK. The AIADMK, which won 37 seats of the 39 it contested from in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls without allies, was putting up a brave front: It had won a big election just two years ago, hands down, on its own. There was no reason why that cannot be repeated. Hence, in all public meetings, the AIADMK’s emphasis has been on its record of the welfare schemes, and its leader’s vision and sagacity.

The DMK had tied up with the INC in mid-February 7 , but the combine itself is not enough to win an election. It badly needed Vijayakant’s DMDK to come on board to make sure that the DMK alliance won the polls.

Actor-turned-politician Vijayakant had proved his strength at the polls in the 2006 Assembly elections: contesting on his own, the DMDK polled just over eight per cent of the votes. In the 2011 Assembly elections, when he contested in the AIADMK alliance, the vote-bank seemed almost intact: the party polled 7.88 per cent of the valid votes.

His stock as a leader has only grown among the people, though he has been the worst performing Leader of Opposition in the history of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, going by interventions made in the House. He has often been criticised and poked fun of, for his lack of oratorical skills, his demeanour when in the public eye, and his eagerness to pick on the media on some pretext or another.

The appeal of Vijayakant lies in his rags-to-glory story: a dark-skinned, non-English speaking, inarticulate person belonging to the Other Backward Castes making the cut both in the fair-skin obsessed film world, and politics. During the days when he was full-time actor, Vijayakant was one of the five bankable stars in the film industry – the other four being Rajinikant, Ajit Kumar, Vijay and Kamal Haasan.

He does not dish out political philosophy, nor does he coherently articulate his vision for Tamil Nadu: he broadly says that he wishes to do good for the people of the State. “Karunanidhi’s enemy is Jayalalithaa. Jayalalithaa’s enemy is Karunanidhi. For both of them I am their enemy. For Stalin, he is his own worst enemy,” he thundered at a public meeting. Simple, straight and easy to understand language shorn of the usual high-brow Tamil that leaders usually speak.

Vijayakant’s success is that he relates to the average Tamil, especially youth, on the street. The connect is not very difficult to understand. Many people this correspondent spoke to, baffled by the popularity of a man who has done nothing of significance in the Legislative Assembly for two full terms, identify with Vijayakant spontaneously.

“He is sincere,” said one young man in his early twenties, who said he had come to attend a political rally for the first time in Kanchipuram this February. This correspondent had heard similar reactions from young people in Virudhachalam ahead of the 2006 elections. Vijayakant had contested the seat. The DMDK had contested 232 of the 234 constituencies that election. The lone victor was Vijayakant.

The young people see him as a success story that they can aspire to be in their chosen avocation, and they appear to comprehend what he means when he says that he would do good for the people of Tamil Nadu.

Hence, the DMK wooed Vijayakant publicly via the media 8 , and also through back channels. For a while, it seemed as if Vijayakant was also considering the proposition. The suspense on the DMDK’s prospective ally took another turn at a public meeting on February 20, in Kanchipuram, the southern temple-town, and birthplace of the DMK founder, the late C.N. Annadurai. Vijayakant merely announced, after a voice vote in the rally, that his party cadres wanted him to the ‘king’ and not ‘king maker 9 .’

This comment emboldened those in the decision making levels in the DMK to assume that the DMDK was certainly joining the DMK front. After all, it appeared to make political sense: If the DMDK joined the DMK alliance, there was no doubt that the combine would sweep the State. This was a ‘win-win’ for both parties: the DMK would form the government, and the DMDK would have a sizeable number of MLAs in the Assembly.

Joining the AIADMK was not an option for the DMDK because the former had poached eight of the 29 MLAs from the party. The DMDK was also hounded, both inside and outside the House by the ruling party. Also Vijayakant, who was the Leader of the Opposition, was repeatedly ridiculed by AIADMK MLAs in the Assembly.

For the longest time, it seemed that the DMDK, which was formed in late 2005 as a party that offered an alternative vision of progress and development for the State, would join hands with the DMK, the main challenger to the AIADMK. This perception was further backed by the public positioning of Vijayakant and his top associates, who concentrated more on attacking the ruling AIADMK, giving the perception that an alliance with the DMK was a natural course of action. Moreover, as the AIADMK had tried to weaken the DMDK by poaching its MLAs, the only course of action open to the DMDK was to align with the DMK.

The dilemma of the third party

Traditionally, the third largest party in Tamil Nadu never had much of a choice: if it wanted to protect its numbers in the Assembly, it had to align with the either of the Dravidian parties which had held the reins since 1967 – the DMK or the AIADMK.

There were two examples before Vijayakant: that of the PMK, and the MDMK. The PMK, after the first two elections, had aligned with one major Dravidian party or the other, and had reaped handsome dividends. The MDMK, which was formed in 1992 after the DMK split, also followed the same path. But MDMK made the wrong call in 2006, while for PMK, 2011 was the catastrophic year.

The PMK contested its first Assembly elections in 1991 on its own, secured just one seat of the 194 it contested but managed 5.86 per cent of the valid votes. In 1996, it improved the number of seats to four, but the vote share dipped to 3.84.

Possibly unnerved, it then embarked on a journey of aligning with one Dravidian party or another, made the right call each time till the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. The 2011 Assembly polls too was a debacle for the party: it won a mere three of the 30 seats it contested in the DMK alliance. A good 20 years after it took the dive into parliamentary politics, the PMK’s vote share had dipped marginally. It managed a mere 5.23 per cent.

The MDMK promised a lot. In 1996, when it fielded candidates State-wide, it garnered 5.78 per cent of the votes, though it did not win a seat. The MDMK’s critical year was 2006. There was a strong possibility of the party, now over a decade old, winning a majority of the 22 seats in the Assembly, offered to it by the DMK in seat-sharing talks. However, it chose to re-align with the AIADMK at the last moment. The result? It won a mere six of the 35 seats it contested. The party’s vote share remained around the same level as it was when it was formed – 5.98 per cent.

The experience of both the PMK and the MDMK is similar: one wrong call and the game was up. Regaining that lost ground is next to impossible. Wiser from these lessons, Vijayakant also wanted to see what other option was there for his party.

If Vijayakant was prepared to gamble, there was a third choice open to him: that of joining, even leading, a third front. It was perhaps with this mind that he announced his intention of going alone at his party’s women’s conference on March 10 in Chennai. Soon after he announced his decision to go it alone, his wife, Premalatha, who, for all practical purposes is said to run the party, announced that the DMDK would welcome any party that wanted to join the front led by it.

While the announcement threw a spanner in the DMK plans, the BJP, which was desperately looking for a workable alliance in the State, and the nascent third front in the State, saw the announcement as an opportunity to rope in the leader, who was being wooed across the political spectrum by all parties barring the AIADMK and the PMK.

The leaders of the BJP from New Delhi and Chennai met Vijayakant repeatedly, but could extract no assurance. The question that repeatedly came up was if the BJP would allow Vijayakant (popularly known as ‘captain’, after the name of a film character he portrayed), to lead the team. The response by the BJP leaders was that Modi was their captain!

It was under these circumstances that the leaders of the Third Front in Tamil Nadu pulled a political master stroke. They decided that they as a single entity, will align with Vijayakant and allow him to lead the combine. That way, the main demand of DMDK would be met.

Third Front

Four of the parties that traditionally moved back and forth from the AIADMK front to the DMK front during alternate elections – the MDMK, the CPI, the CPI-M, and the VCK – have come together to form a third front, and named it the People’s Welfare Front.

Though the Front was formed in October 2015 to push for prohibition, and its leaders spoke about being together for fighting social issues, in November 2015, the clutch of parties dropped the word ‘Front’ from its title and added ‘Alliance.’ Since then, they have been projecting themselves as an alternative to the AIADMK and the DMK, and have been trying to rope in political parties which share their views. Though VCK leader Thol. Tirumavalavan was the brain behind the formation of the alliance, he and the others suggested that the leader of the largest party in the alliance, the MDMK, should lead the alliance. Vaiko was appointed convenor of the alliance.

Vijayakant finally announced on March 23 that his party would join hands with the People’s Welfare Alliance. The new entity was named “the DMDK-PWA alliance”. Vijayakant has been projected as its chief ministerial candidate. While the DMDK was initially given 124 seats to contest, the four PWA constituents together will field candidates in the remaining 110 constituencies. “When the PWA leaders met me today and told me that ‘You be the king and we will be the kingmakers’, I immediately signed the seat-sharing agreement,” Vijayakant told reporters soon after the March 23 event. “Vaiko asked me whether he could announce that a coalition government would be formed [if this alliance is voted to power]. I immediately told him that he could do so,” he added.

His decision to ally with the Third Front, an untested force, which, on paper would not be able to win a seat on its own, caused heartburn among senior leaders of the DMDK. They said they had met Vijayakant and explained to him that the move was the equivalent of committing political suicide. “It was only after all the options were exhausted that we decided to form a rebel group,” explained Mettur MLA S.R. Parthipan, when asked about the formation of a rebel front.

The DMDK’s propaganda secretary and Erode (East) MLA, V.C. Chandrakumar, who led the rebels, has been with Vijayakant for over 30 years — since the days that the actor formed the fan club. Another MLA, C.H. Sekar, was also a confidant for the past three decades. The three asserted that it was in DMDK’s interest to align with the DMK. They were promptly expelled from the party. The three, along with a few other disgruntled elements formed the ‘Makkal’ [People’s] DMDK, and have aligned with the DMK.

For these MLAs the issue is personal. Both Chandrakumar and Parthipan insisted that the main aim of the 2016 polls should be to defeat the AIADMK. Parthipan has 11 cases filed against him during this regime. Chandrakumar has five. “The Makkal Nala Kootani [PWA] is a joke. They will only end up helping the AIADMK win,” said Parthipan.

The breakaway faction will not dent the DMDK much: in the monolithic, even feudal party structures in most of the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu, the leader is the most important vote-catcher, everyone else barely matters. At the level of local organisers, the three — and the few who joined them — will be missed in their respective localities. This could translate into few thousand votes.

In early April, the TMC, which parted ways with the AIADMK over the Dravidian party’s insistence on contesting in the ‘Two Leaves’ symbol, also threw its lot with the third front.

Three front-ranking leaders of the TMC, led by a former MLA, S. Peter Alphonse, quit the party, and re-joined the parent party, the INC. This has eroded the TMC further.

Despite the setback caused by the desertion in its ranks after the decision to join the PWF, the latter welcomed TMC, and gave it a prominent place in the alliance.

The curious story of the PMK

The most curious story this election, however, is that of the PMK. A party with barely six per cent of the votes, largely from northern districts of the State, has again decided to go alone, aspiring to capturing power in the State.

Very many months ahead of the 2016 Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly elections, a curious green-and-yellow poster began suddenly appearing on walls across the State. It read: Maatram (change), Munnetram (progress), Anbumani. Green and yellow form the distinctive colours of the most opportunistic political party in Tamil Nadu, the Pattali Makkal Katchi. The poster also had a picture of the party’s heir apparent, Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss, son of the founder-leader, Dr. S. Ramadoss.

Never mind that the phrase was borrowed from Barack Obama’s U.S. Presidential campaign. Never mind that the PMK, at best an also-ran in Tamil Nadu’s caste-ridden politicalscape, did not have the numbers to even dent the fortunes of the two major Dravidian parties that have ruled the State since 1967 – the DMK and the AIADMK. In the last few elections, the PMK’s vote share has been between five and six per cent.

But 2016 is different and political parties sometimes indulge in acts that defy logic. The message from the PMK, which had deftly changed from one alliance in the State to another to stay on the right side for a very long time since 1996, was clear: that it was making a run for the top. Never mind that the party will not make it; but it will most definitely increase its vote share because it is contesting all constituencies in the State on its own. With the improved vote share — and possibly a decent presence in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly — the party hopes to be in a place where allies come in search of it when the poll bugle is sounded in 2021.

Anbumani has been talking about ending corruption and ushering in development. His own record speaks otherwise: there are two serious Central Bureau of Investigation cases against him on charges of corruption in the case of two private medical colleges. His effort to quash the CBI case has failed in Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court. His detractors insist that he deliberately killed three of India’s vaccine producing units (including in Coonoor and in Chennai) to favour foreign suppliers. This is also being probed 10 .

It is also a fact that for his rural health mission and his work against tobacco ban, he received the Luther Terry award, a prestigious U.S. honour. Anbumani has been visiting villages and towns in the Vanniyar belt of northern Tamil Nadu, pleading with people to give him a chance. The party has a detailed set of priorities, and even what the PMK will do on Day 1 of coming to power has been put out.

Anbumani has a clear agenda, and for the first time he is presenting it well. He comes across as someone with genuine interest in the affairs of the State. The party’s strategy appears to be two-fold: appeal to the caste Vanniyars in north Tamil Nadu by stressing the obvious fact that the party stands with them and for them, and project Anbumani across the other parts of the State to show that he is more important than the party.

Anbumani’s strategy of talking about development, and pleading for a chance is straight out of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s book – it is the same tactic that worked so well for Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Just as the BJP overcame the hurdle of appealing to a larger base of people other than the Hindus, who overtly support his policies, by projecting development under Modi in Gujarat during his years as Chief Minister, Anbumani’s strategy to appeal to a larger voter base is by showcasing his ‘achievements’ as the Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare between 2004 and 2009 in the United Progressive Alliance cabinet.

In addition, the PMK has regained some of the lost ground in parts of north Tamil Nadu, its traditional vote base. Ironically, this was because of the ‘strong stand’ it had taken against inter-caste marriages, especially that of Dalits marrying Vanniyars. A DMK politician from Dharmapuri, on the condition of anonymity, said that even the Other Backward Castes are appreciative of the PMK’s approach on the issue. This paradox in a State that has championed the case for dilution of caste boundaries is stark.

However regressive this might sound in a democracy, the fact remains that the caste-based parties are a reality in India. The PMK, which, at one point of time tried to forge an alliance with the Dalit-based VCK, had to give up the idea in a few months after resistance from its traditional supporters – the Vanniyars who are classified as Most Backward, but are a notch or two ‘above’ the Dalits in the social pecking order. Efforts by the PMK to expand its own electoral footprint by forging an alliance with the VCK, hence, was a failure. ‘Development’, therefore, is the party’s ‘Plan B’ to achieve that objective.

Five cornered contest

Five different combinations are vying for the people’s attention, and votes this time around.

The AIADMK is the biggest party in Tamil Nadu. Coming after a sweeping victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the party believes that it can pull off an encore. “I have been across many constituencies. People welcome all of Amma’s [Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s] schemes,” says Tamil Maanila Muslim League leader, Sheikh Dawood, who is contesting in the AIADMK alliance. “All criticism against her is motivated and is because the opposition is unable to tolerate the good work the government has done,” he asserts.

At an election rally in Dharmapuri, Jayalalithaa thundered on April 13: “I do everything I promise. I even do things that I had not promised.” She listed Amma canteens, Amma Salt, and other similarly named schemes to drive home her point. “Only a mother knows what her children want,” she said, and added that she would bring in more schemes for the benefit of people of Tamil Nadu.

The DMK front has allies such as INC, Indian Union Muslim League, Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, Puthiya Tamilagam and Makkal DMDK. The DMK has approached this election systematically: its leader M.K. Stalin first undertook a trip across the State to study issues for himself. Later, a DMK team, led by senior leader and former Union Minister T.R. Baalu, held multiple sittings across the State to come up with a manifesto, which is a road map on how the State should move forward.

“It is a manifesto written by the people, not us,” said women’s wing leader Kanimozhi, Rajya Sabha MP and daughter of DMK president, Karunanidhi, who was part of the committee. “We listened to people, and also pored through the four lakh plus suggestions and requests that were given to Stalin during his tour,” she added. The DMK believes that its sincerity, its systematic approach, the anti-incumbency, its strength on the ground, and the allies will help it win this election.

Leaders of the PWA admit in private that they will not be able to form a government after the 2016 polls, though they publicly maintain that the combine will sweep the polls. The PMK will be a force to deal with in the northern belt, though it is a very, very long way from forming a government in Tamil Nadu. The BJP and its allies will come up last in the electoral battle in the State, despite the fact that the BJP will put up a strong show in parts of Coimbatore and the southern tip, Kanyakumari.

In the other seats, the only issue of interest will be to find out if the supporters of the BJP outnumber that of the ultra-Tamil nationalist party, the Naam Tamizhar Katchi to occupy the last position in State’s multi-cornered election.

The one lone-man party that has not been in the reckoning, Seeman’s Naam Tamizhar Katchi, is contesting all the constituencies. This can become a headache for the DMK as Tamil nationalist youth disillusioned with both the Dravidian parties form the party’s base. His party is expected to manage 1,000-1,500 votes in many constituencies. This could be the margin between victory and defeat for the DMK in at least a few constituencies. In the 2011 Assembly polls, the DMK lost over 60 constituencies by a margin of less than 5,000 votes.

Many observers feel that the DMK bungled it again in forming alliances ahead of an election- for a third time in five years. While Stalin’s track record as an administrator is excellent, his ability to put together a winning alliance is in doubt. The first time he blundered was in 2001. After a period of excellent governance from 1996 to 2001 the chances of the DMK being voted in again was good. But the DMK antoganised allies and literally drove them away. This time around, apart from failing to stitch together a decent alliance, the anxious DMK blundered in giving away a huge number of seats to the Congress, and another 20 to its minor allies. The AIADMK, on the other hand, insisted that all allies fight the election in its symbol, two leaves.

This will also be the third straight election that DMK treasurer and Karunanidhi’s son, Stalin, will lead for all practical purposes. He has already lost the 2011 Assembly elections and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The 2011 loss can be attributed to the DMK’s problems after the outbreak of the 2G spectrum scam, in which two of its senior politicians were arrested and jailed. The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, which pegged the 2G spectrum sale loss at Rs.1.75 lakh crore, is something that can possibly never be erased from the minds of the people across the country because of the sheer amount involved. The Central Bureau of Investigation, which invesitigated the case, filed in a CBI court that the loss was around Rs.30,000 crore. The PWA is bringing up the 2G scam at its rallies. But the AIADMK too hopes that corruption will not be a major issue in this election. Karnataka’s appeal against the aquittal of Jayalalithaa in the Weath Case is being heard now in the Supreme Court.

If the anti-incumbency votes are split four ways, it appears that the ruling party will benefit. A fragmented opposition helped AIADMK win a landslide in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, and DMK drew a blank.

It also did not help that the DMK too has been changing candidates. In one case (Sholavandan) the party claimed that the candidate who was announced was not relieved of her Government job in time; in two other cases, the party said that the candidates expressed their desire to retire. There are still murmurs in various parts of the State over the choice of candidates. For example, there is no candidate from the Baduga community in the Ooty belt, and there have been protests in Palayamkottai and Tirunelveli over the choice of candidates.

To add to DMK’s troubles, a senior INC leader P. Chidambaram, made a public statement that Congress didn’t get many constituencies it had desired. It appears that the problems will lengthen well into the date of filing nominations 11 .

Techno-campaigning, a key outreach mode

The 2016 polls will be fought on technological platforms as well as on the streets. News television, WhatsApp and Facebook, will be as influential as public outreach programmes in this poll. According to 2013 data by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), Tamil Nadu has 71.81 million mobile phone connections, second only to Uttar Pradesh in the country. Television penetration is very high in Tamil Nadu after the DMK government distributed free colour televisions to people between 2006 and 2011.

At present Tamil Nadu has approximately 14 per cent of the total cable TV homes in the country, says a TRAI Consultation Paper on “Tariff issues related to Cable TV Services in Non-CAS Areas” dated 25th March 2010 12 . “This translates to approximately 1.3 crore cable TV homes in Tamil Nadu considering about 9.4 crore cable TV homes in the country,” says a 2013 consultation TRAI paper on ‘Monopoly/Market Dominance in Cable TV services 13 .’

Aware of the immense reach of both cable TV and the mobile phones, all political parties have set up separate cells to disseminate their points of view through these media.

Separating propaganda from fact has become even more difficult for the voter, as political parties hire tested public relations agents to handle their media relations. But the Tamil Nadu voter has rarely been fooled; as is evident from the results of the many elections from 1967. There is no reason, yet, to believe that he or she will be, this time around.


1. ^ Election Commission of India, n.d. Statistical Report on General Election, 1991 to the Legislative Assembly of Tamil Nadu . Last accessed April 16, 2016.

2. ^ This new version of the TMC had nothing to do with its earlier version under the same name, which was formed by Congress leader the late G.K.Moopanar in 1996 protesting the decision of the All India Congress Committee to align with the AIADMK without taking into consideration the political climate in the State. Ahead of the 1996 elections, the TMC aligned with the DMK, and the alliance – which also had the CPI and the Forward Bloc – swept the polls. Moopanar’s son, G.K.Vasan, took over the party in 2001, after the death of his father.In 2002, following a deal with the INC, Vasan merged his party with the parent party. Twelve years later, he broke away again, claiming that the INC was not working in the interests of the Tamil people.

3. ^ In the 2011 State Assembly polls, the CPI had a vote share of 1.97 per cent, the CPI(M) had 2.41, the DMDK, 7.88 and the VCK, 1.5. The MDMK didn’t contest the polls and erstwhile TMC had merged with the INC and hence its present version was not a separate entity.

4. ^Thanthi TV , 2016. “ Kelvikkenna Bathil: Interview with Durai Murugan “, January 23. Last accessed April 16, 2016.

5. ^The Hindu , 2016. “ Sarathkumar returns to AIADMK front once again “, March 24. Last accessed April 16,2016.

6. ^The Hindu BusinessLine , 2016. “ AIADMK’s ‘two leaves’ to contest all seats in TN “, April 4. Last accessed April 16, 2016.

7. ^ Yamunan, Sruthisagar, 2016. “ Congress, DMK firm up alliance “, The Hindu, February 13.

8. ^The Hindu , 2016. “ Karunanidhi confident of DMDK joining DMK front “, March 8.

9. ^ Yamunan, Sruthisagar, Venkatasubramanian V., 2016. “ I want to be king, not kingmaker: Vijayakant “, The Hindu, February 21.

10. ^ Sharan , Abhishek, 2012. “ CBI to probe 2007 govt ban on vaccine production “, Hindustan Times , October 01. Last accessed April 16, 2016.

11. ^ Balaganessin, M, 2016. “ Chidambaram disappointed with allocation of seats “, The Hindu , April 18. Last accessed April 28, 2016.

12. ^ TRAI, 2015. “ Consultation Paper on Tariff issues related to Commercial Subscribers “, July 14. Last accessed April 16, 2016.

13. ^ TRAI, 2013. “ Consultation Paper on Monopoly/Market dominance in Cable TV services “, June 03. Last accessed April 16, 2016.

This article was last updated on April 23, 2016, to incorporate additional information, and to correct editing errors.

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