For half-a-century, elections in Tamil Nadu meant one thing: a clash of the titans. On one side was playwright-turned-politician M Karunanidhi, who helmed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and became chief minister five times.(PTI)
For half-a-century, elections in Tamil Nadu meant one thing: a clash of the titans. On one side was playwright-turned-politician M Karunanidhi, who helmed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and became chief minister five times.(PTI)

Lok Sabha elections 2019: An unpredictable battle of jumbo alliances in Tamil Nadu

The 2019 general election will play out without either of these two political giants – Karunanidhi died last year and Jayalalithaa passed away in 2016 -- for the first time in generations.
By MC Rajan and M Manikandan | Hindustan Times, Chennai
UPDATED ON APR 05, 2019 08:29 AM IST

For half-a-century, elections in Tamil Nadu meant one thing: a clash of the titans. On one side was playwright-turned-politician M Karunanidhi, who helmed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and became chief minister five times. And, on the other was J Jayalalithaa, an actor who rose through the ranks of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) to claim the chief minister’s chair five times.

But the 2019 general election will play out without either of these two political giants – Karunanidhi died last year and Jayalalithaa passed away in 2016 -- for the first time in generations. Instead, it will be an unpredictable election between two jumbo alliances, one led by the DMK and the other by the AIADMK.

 

In the last election in 2014, the AIADMK swept the polls on the back of Jayalalithaa’s popularity and won 37 of the state’s 39 Lok Sabha seats; the DMK drew a blank. But the political scenario has changed dramatically since then. Karunanidhi’s son MK Stalin has taken over the party, but there is disarray in the AIADMK with many claimants for Jayalalithaa’s legacy, including chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami , deputy CM O Panneerselvam and her confidant VK Sasikala’s nephew and rebel AIADMK leader, TTV Dhinakaran.

“As of now, the DMK has an upper hand and appears to be ahead in the race. It is organisationally much stronger than the truncated AIADMK,” said Aazhi Senthilnathan, a political analyst.

The other thing of interest is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The saffron party won one seat the last time but has wrested five seats in its alliance with the AIADMK. Its opponents characterise it as a “north Indian” party that has no organic roots in one of India’s most culturally strident states.

TWO YEARS OF CHAOS

In December 2016, Tamil Nadu plunged into a political crisis when Jayalalithaa died. The same week, Panneerselvam became chief minister but was ousted by Sasikala, who anointed herself Jayalalithaa’s heir and took strides to place herself in charge of the AIADMK. A corruption conviction, however, upset her plans and put her behind the bars. She named Palaniswami as the next CM, triggering a rebellion by Panneerselvam.

A months-long stand-off ensued, during which time governance in the state ground to a halt. Eventually, the two sides made up and expelled Sasikala and Dhinakaran, who had earlier been named deputy general secretary of the party. The Palaniswami-Panneerselvam combine won a tense floor test after the speaker disqualified 18 legislators loyal to Dhinakaran, a decision upheld by the Madras high court in October.

But in December 2017, Dhinakaran bounced back by winning the by-election in the prestigious RK Nagar assembly seat, which was held by Jayalalithaa. He has since formed the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK).

Tamil Nadu’s next assembly election is not until 2021 but 18 assembly seats are going to the polls along with the Lok Sabha election, and are being billed as a mini assembly poll. In addition, the state government’s reluctance in holding the local body elections for three years is being seen as a sign that the AIADMK is apprehensive of a rout. “The political climate too is not advantageous to the ruling AIADMK,” said Senthilnathan.

But career politicians are not the only ones in the fray. After fevered speculation for months, Tamil superstar Rajinikanth, on December 2017, announced his entry into politics. Shortly afterwards, his contemporary and popular actor Kamal Hassan decided to launch his party, Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM).

In a state where movie stars command huge popularity through a network of fan clubs, it is unclear how much of an impact the two new entrants will have.

Hassan announced his MNM will go solo in the LS polls. Rajinikanth is yet to fashion his outfit, Rajini Makkal Mandram, into a political party. And, actor Vijayakanth, who launched the Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam (DMDK) in 2005, has failed to keep up the momentum after successive electoral debacles. Though the party won 29 seats in the 2011 assembly election, in the company of the AIADMK, in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, it couldn’t open its account. It is fighting five seats as part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

MAJOR ISSUES

A decades-long dispute with neighbouring Karnataka over sharing the waters of the Cauvery river always flares up during elections and is expected to have a bearing this time around, too. The AIADMK government is likely to highlight its record of conducting Global Investors Meet 2019, handling of cyclone Gaja’s aftermath, and bringing an All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) to Madurai, while the DMK is expected to attack it, saying that the investments from GIM are just on paper and the state debt has inflated to 3.92 lakh crore.

Anger continues to simmer in southern Tamil Nadu over the re-opening of the Sterlite Copper smelting plant, which residents of the port town of Thoothukudi say is responsible for polluting groundwater. At least 13 people lost their lives in police firing during protests against the plant in May last year.

Also in the southern region of the state, which has been a traditional base of the AIADMK, the Supreme Court’s curbs on the manufacture of firecrackers has resulted in the closure of 1,000 units in Sivakasi, rendering thousands unemployed. In Kanyakumari district, 191 fishermen’s deaths and the devastation left in the trail of cyclone Ockhi in 2017 are likely to influence the polls. The proposed Salem-Chennai Greenfield expressway has also seen massive protests in the region on environmental grounds.

In the Cauvery delta region, the relief work after the Gaja cyclone are likely to be used by the opposition in its campaign. In the industrial and manufacturing belt of Coimbatore and Tiruppur, the impact of the Goods and Services Tax is likely to be a poll issue. And, of course, there is the inquiry into the death of Jayalalithaa, which sees a cache of documents or a voice clip leaked to the press every few months.

Tie-uPS AND DEMOGRAPHICS

The DMK-led alliance comprises the Congress, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchhi (VCK) of Thol Thirumavalavan, Left parties, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) of Vaiko and the Indian Union Muslim League.

The AIADMK has aligned with the BJP, the Vanniyar-focussed PMK and DMDK, Kongu Nadu Makkal Desiya Katchi (KDMK) – a Gounder (an other backward class sub-caste) party.

“Since the pro-jallikkattu protests of December 2016, there is a strong feeling that Tamil Nadu is being discriminated against by the Centre. The BJP has to confront the opposition charge that the (Narendra) Modi government is controlling the AIADMK government. So, the anti-incumbency factor would affect both BJP and AIADMK. Yet, this would not result in a sweep for the DMK, despite having formed a mega alliance. For, Dhinakaran poses a threat of eating into the traditional vote base of the DMK in the delta region as well as the southern districts,” said Tharaasu Shyam, a political analyst.

The capital Chennai, with three Lok Sabha seats, continues to be a citadel of the DMK, which also enjoys support in the Cauvery delta, where four LS seats are located and is dominated by the Kallars, Agamudayars, Mutharayars, Vanniyars - (OBC sub-castes) and Dalits.

The AIADMK usually counts on the Gounders, who dominate the western part of the state with six Lok Sabha seats, and the Mukkulathor Thevars (Agamudaiyar, Kallarand Maravar castes), who are an OBC sub-caste and dominate the central and southern region with eight Lok Sabha seats. The Vanniyars, yet another OBC caste who dominate the northern districts with 10 Lok Sabha seats, usually back the PMK. The Dalits have a strong base in Villupuram, Chidambaram, Tiruvallur and Tenkasi.

“The AIADMK has lost the support of a section of the Mukkulathor castes, which have been weaned away by Dhinakaran,” said Aazhi Senthilnathan. The Nadar community, a backward caste, is concentrated in the southern districts and has backed the BJP in Kanniyakumari in the 2014 election.

A key feature of the state’s politics is the continued domination of the lower castes – something experts say is rooted in Periyar’s movement against Brahmanism . “In 1935, the lower castes started to dominate state politics in the Madras presidency. With political awareness, they (OBCs) had launched the Justice Party, the precursor of the Dravidian movement. While DMK founder CN Annadurai became the chief minister in 1967, his cabinet had a majority of OBCs. His successor M Karunanidhi also followed that strategy.

Even matinee icon M G Ramachandran, who launched his own party AIADMK, toed the same plan. In 1991, Jayalalithaa, a Brahmin by birth, became CM. But, she was the only Brahmin in her cabinet and the majority was OBCs,” said Samuel Asir Raj, a professor at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli.

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