Tamil Nadu: An election that is Stalin's to lose

  • The only person to have retained the chief minister’s post in back-to-back elections in Tamil Nadu before 2016 was Jayalalithaa’s mentor M G Ramachandran.
Members of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) hold placards with portrait of party president MK Stalin during a rally ahead of the Tamil Nadu state legislative assembly elections in Chennai.(AFP)
Members of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) hold placards with portrait of party president MK Stalin during a rally ahead of the Tamil Nadu state legislative assembly elections in Chennai.(AFP)
Updated on Apr 05, 2021 08:54 AM IST
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By, Abhishek Jha

J Jayalalithaa broke a 32-year-old pattern of Tamil Nadu politics when she steered the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) to a consecutive victory in the 2016 assembly elections. The AIADMK’s victory denied Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) M Karunanidhi a chance to become a chief minister, yet again, at the age of 92.

The only person to have retained the chief minister’s post in back-to-back elections in Tamil Nadu before 2016 was Jayalalithaa’s mentor M G Ramachandran. MGR, as he is popularly known, walked out of the DMK to create the AIADMK and brought Jayalalithaa into politics. He did not lose power after he assumed chief ministership of the state in 1977. It was only after his death in 1987 that the DMK could recapture power and M Karunanidhi became the chief minister in 1989 after a gap of 13 years.

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The 2021 assembly elections are taking place in a very different context in Tamil Nadu. With the death of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, the state has lost the last of its Dravidian giants. The contest is between Karunanidhi’s younger son MK Stalin, who worked in his father’s shadow for decades, and EK Palaniswami, who has only recently established himself as the AIADMK’s leader.

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All indications are that this is DMK’s election to lose. After all, the DMK-led alliance swept the state in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, winning 38 of the 39 seats in the state. If the DMK ends up losing this, it is Stalin who will pay the biggest cost for the loss. Here are three charts which put the 2021 Tamil Nadu contest in perspective.

Has Stalin proved to be a better alliance manager than his father?

Tamil Nadu and Kerala were the only two major states where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or its allies fared badly in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In Tamil Nadu, it was the DMK led alliance which routed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) comprising of the AIADMK, BJP and other regional parties. The DMK had a phenomenal strike rate – seats won as share of seats contested – of 97.8%, if the results are disaggregated on an assembly constituency (AC) wise basis.

The 2019 success for the DMK vindicated a big leap of faith by Stalin. The DMK agreed to contest just 23 Lok Sabha constituencies and gave the rest to its allies, with the Congress as the second largest alliance partner contesting nine Lok Sabha constituencies, which are spread across 54 ACs. Among the biggest reasons for the DMK losing the 2016 elections was the Congress’s poor showing. It won only eight of the 41 ACs which were allocated to it. Under Stalin, the DMK seems to have evolved some sort of a differential arrangement on seat sharing with the Congress in the state election; the party has been given just 25 ACs in the 2021 alliance, a strategy which has allowed the DMK to accommodate the two left parties Communist Party of India (CPI) and Communist Party of India Marxist or CPI (M) in the alliance.

Stalin’s acceptability as a leader has increased significantly

Stalin became the secretary of the DMK’s youth wing at the age of 27 in 1980. He held this position until 2017, when he was 64 years old. An interesting piece of statistic from the CSDS-Lokniti pre-poll survey in the 2016 elections, published in an Indian Express article by Sam Solomon, suggests that the DMK might have paid dearly for keeping Stalin backstage for so long. The findings are worth reproducing.

“According to the pre-poll data, 19% of the voters preferred Karunanidhi as the next chief minister while 10% preferred Stalin. Surprisingly, of those who preferred Stalin, 51% voted for AIADMK while 47% voted for the DMK-led alliance. The reason may be Karunanidhi’s age. Stalin supporters who voted for AIADMK were more likely to say Karunanidhi is too old to be chief minister than those who voted for DMK. This suggests that Karunanidhi’s continued leadership may be limiting the DMK’s appeal, and that the DMK-led alliance might have won had Stalin been clearly projected as the chief ministerial candidate.”

If the findings from 2016 and 2019 CSDS-Lokniti Surveys are to be believed, Stalin’s popularity as a chief ministerial candidate has increased significantly.

DMK’s Dravidian rhetoric cannot surpass the caste quagmire of Tamil Nadu politics

Thanks to its unique political cultural history of anti-caste and anti-Hindi movements, Tamil Nadu has always posed a challenge to the BJP’s Hindutva project. With the post-Jayalalithas AIADMK increasingly appearing to more subservient to the BJP, the DMK has ratcheted up the Dravidian rhetoric against the BJP’s larger politics. However, it will be a mistake to assume that such a strategy is enough to secure a political victory in the state. Tamil Nadu has the largest share of non-Muslim, non-Christian Other Backward Classes (OBC) -- it is 60.4% according to the 2015-16 National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) -- in its population among all states. The state also has a sizeable population of persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes (SCs). Political competition in the state is often driven by animosity between dominant OBCs and SCs, rather than an upper caste versus others binary which is more common in northern states. In fact, parties have to be careful against alienating sub-caste groups . Because the social composition of the population varies across regions, political equations and alliances need to evolve accordingly. For example, the AIADMK suffered a bigger reversal in terms of contested vote share in the Central Tamil Nadu and Chennai regions (the latter includes six districts including Chennai) in the 2019 elections than in the southern and western regions of the state. The Central Tamil Nadu and Chennai regions have a bigger share of SCs, while the southern and western region of the state have a larger share of OBCs. It is likely that SCs, not a traditional vote bank of the AIADMK anyway, abandoned the party more than OBCs in those elections.


    Roshan Kishore is the Data and Political Economy Editor at Hindustan Times. His weekly column for HT Premium Terms of Trade appears every Friday.


    Abhishek Jha is a data journalist. He analyses public data for finding news, with a focus on the environment, Indian politics and economy, and Covid-19.

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