In Tamil Nadu, two first-timers fight to preserve party legacies
In Tamil Nadu’s assembly election, there is neither a strong wave in favour of the incumbent, nor intense anti-incumbency generating a visible wave for the challenger. It is an election which is, in characteristic Tamil Nadu fashion, a bipolar contest between the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) despite the presence of several other players in the fray.
It is an election which is also an all-out political war between a chief ministerial candidate by design, DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi’s son, MK Stalin, who has been waiting for his turn for decades, and a chief minister by accident, Edappadi Palaniswami who has kept the AIADMK together after J Jayalalithaa’s death in December 2016 and has surprised many by coming into his own.
The challenge for AIADMK
Interviews with a cross-section of voters, across the state, in the past month, indicate that this will be a closely fought battle, but observers give an edge to the DMK, largely because the AIADMK has been in power for 10 years, there is a desire for change, and citizens want to give to give Stalin a chance. But what complicates the electoral landscape is that this desire for change isn’t necessarily accompanied with deep anger against the ruling party. CM Palaniswami isn’t disliked.
Also Read | Tamil Nadu: An election that is Stalin’s to lose
The challenge for the AIADMK, however, is that after Jayalalithaa’s death, the party’s vote base faces the threat of splitting in five directions — towards Naam Tamizhar Katchi’s S Seeman in rural areas, Makkal Needhi Maiam’s Kamal Haasan in urban centres, Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam’s TTV Dhinakaran in southern and central regions, and the principal opposition DMK in pockets of the state.
Another factor is the alliance arithmetic. The DMK has stitched together a rainbow alliance with a combination of Left, Dalit and Muslim parties to keep intact a “secular alliance” while the AIADMK has lost some of its allies, including Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) when seat-sharing talks failed. Vijayakanth’s party is contesting i60 seats after joining hands with AIADMK’s rebel-faction led by Dhinakaran.
AIADMK’s main allies — Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — continue to attract and polarise the voters with their ideologies based on caste and Hindutva respectively. The ruling party has reached out to the minorities — Christians and Muslims constitute 12% of the state population — and asked them not to judge AIADMK based on its alliance with the BJP, but how this translates into voting is to be seen.
As the incumbent force, AIADMK also has to quell the anger from movements such as the justice for sexual assault victims in Pollachi, farmers protesting against the Salem-Chennai expressway and several other Centrally approved projects.
The nature of campaigning
The uncertainty about this election also stems from the fact that for the first time in decades, towering personalities who dominated the political landscape of the state have all gone. This is the first election without Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, and both parties have used images of their late leaders in campaign machinery, named schemes after them in election manifestos, and vowed to bring their rule.
Stalin has said all the 234 candidates in the DMK’s coalition are Karunanidhi’s candidates. He began his campaign targeting the dual leadership of AIADMK’s Palaniswami and O Panneerselvam for corruption, and has alleged that the AIADMK is a slave of the BJP.
In the last leg of his campaign, Stalin claimed that the election was a direct fight between the DMK and BJP to reclaim the rights and autonomy of Tamil Nadu. “Every vote for the AIADMK is a vote for the BJP,” he has repeatedly said in the final days, ahead of polling. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, the Stalin-led Opposition won 38 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats, riding on an anti-Narendra Modi wave and confronting an AIADMK that was in disarray without Jayalalithaa. As the polls draw closer, Stalin is urging voters to repeat their 2019 decision.
The message has resonated with loyal voters. “It’s going to be a tough fight but the DMK will race ahead,” said a hotelier, S Prabhakar, in Cuddalore from the southern region which is the stronghold of the DMK.
The AIADMK is, however, countering charges by drawing its strength from Palaniswami’s image as the common man’s CM and the party’s relatively efficient management of the Covid-19 cases in Tamil Nadu.
Palanswami has highlighted his government’s work and welfare schemes. “In AIADMK, even a cadre and a farmer like me can become the chief minister but under DMK only their family will grow,” Palaniswami says at least once in his campaign everyday. He has targeted the DMK on cases of land-grabbing, strong-man culture and arrogance, evoking memories of the time the party was in power a decade ago.
The party’s loyal voters, especially in stronghold regions, say they will stick to it.
“No matter who contests for the AIADMK, I’ll vote for the party and Palaniswami has done well and created any problems for the people,” said a small vendor, G Desikan in Coimbatore. He belongs to the western region, which has been an AIADMK citadel that helped Jayalalithaa retain the government in 2016.
BJP leaders, including Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, have campaigned on the ground that Tamil Nadu requires a good state-Centre relationship for its benefit. The ruling combine has also targeted DMK over dynastic politics with Stalin’s son Udhayanidhi making his debut from Karunanidhi’s constituency. “You want Udhayanidhi ’s growth or your growth?” Shah asked a crowd last week to which Udhayanidhi retorted with the home minister’s son, Jay Shah’s position in the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
The two parties have also engaged in high-quality visual campaigns on social media and hired political strategists. The DMK is taking the advice of Prashant Kishore’s Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC). Palaniswami personally roped in Sunil Kanugolu in 2020 who had previously worked for the DMK and Stalin’s image building in the 2016 assembly elections.
Political analysts say that no matter who wins, the margin would be narrow. “In many constituencies the winner will be decided by a difference of 10,000 votes,” says political commentator Maalan Narayanan. “I don’t see any major sweep. In recent years, AIADMK was able to contain the anti-incumbency (in 2016), Modi came back with more numbers in 2019 and in 2020, Nitish Kumar was able to come back to power in Bihar. If opinion polls are to be believed, Kerala may go back to the LDF. And so it seems people don’t mind incumbency as long as you get a decent rule and nobody harasses you everyday.”
The smaller players
But while the contest is essential bipolar with voters who have fixed loyalties, there are also several other players who are relying on swing voters in this election.
Voters face a conundrum. On the one hand, there are too many choices — there are five parties in the fray vying to form the government — and on the other, voters are aware that these forces don’t have a real shot at winning power in Chennai.
Those who are disenchanted with both the leading parties want an alternative, although this is a small group. “Kamal Haasan does very different movies and he would be a different chief minister too,” says C Chitra. “I know it will take another five years for him to win over the electorate. And we will support him until then,” she says, having convinced some members of her family in Salem to vote for Haasan. But in a sign of the challenge for newer forces, Chitra’s husband’s is still with the AIADMK and will vote for his older party.
Another actor with a degree of support is Vijayakanth, but he isn’t contesting and hasn’t spoken a word while campaigning due to his ailing health. Admirers from his days in cinema in the 1980s and 90s say they know he won’t make it but continue to have a soft corner for him. The actor’s wife, Premalatha, is making her electoral debut and evokes him in almost every sentence.
Tamil nationalist Seeman, has captured the audience with his fist thumping oratory and switching from classical Tamil to colloquial expletives. “Everyone says Seeman will never get a chance but unless we vote for him how will he?” says a cement shop owner S Viswesananthan in Villupuram. “No one has had any benefits from both parties, and they make fake promises, at least Seeman is practical. I like his speeches.”
Dinakaran, abandoned by his aunt VK Sasikala, is expected to play a spoiler for the AIADMK, eating into the Mukkalathor community vote bank of the party in at least 25-30 seats. Sasikala who has decided to step away from politics is quietly touring temples across Tamil Nadu. If the AIADMK loses, it would bring the focus back to Sasikala’s potential moves to reclaim the party.
But political observers believe that these smaller forces, without a formidable track record or organisational base, may affect the prospects of the bigger forces, depending on specific constituency alignments, but will have little impact on their own in the 2021 election.