When Tamil Nadu votes on April 18, in the second phase of polling, to elect 40 Lok Sabha members, including one from the Union Territory of Puducherry, and to fill up 18 vacancies in the State Assembly, it will be a historic political expedition in more than one way.
For, the hustings have already thrown up bizarre allegations, like Chief Minister Edapadi Palanichamy expressing suspicion over the alleged role of MK Stalin, president of the DMK, in the death of the latter’s father and DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi, who passed away in August 2018 at the ripe old age of 94.
Stalin, on his part, has a plethora of allegations against the Chief Minister as the campaign for the first general election, without both Karunanidhi and his lifelong bête noire J Jayalalithaa who led the AIADMK like a colossus, gains momentum in the state, known for its penchant to give a larger than life aura to political personalities.
Keeping with another political tradition of the state, the major electoral battle is primarily between the two regional parties, the DMK and the AIADMK with the national parties only riding piggyback on either one of them. DMK, which is contesting 20 seats, has given 10 seats to the Congress and has distributed the other 10 to regional allies and the Communist parties.
The rival AIADMK, which is also contesting just 20 seats, has given five seats to the BJP and shared the rest with allies though its own vote bank has been cleaved into two. TTV Dinakaran, the nephew of Jayalalithaa’s friend VK Sasikala, who broke away from the AIADMK with his band of supporters, has fielded candidates in the 40 parliamentary and 18 Assembly constituencies under the banner Amma Munnetra Kazhagam (AMK) and managed to get a common election symbol - ‘Gift Pack.’
The division in the AIADMK has left most of the traditional supporters of Jayalalithaa in the crossroads with the conventional ‘Two Leaves’ symbol and the new ‘Gift Pack’ beckoning from different directions. This has also put the allies of the ruling party, the BJP, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and Desiya Murpoku Dravidar Kazhagam (DMDK) at a disadvantage. For, Dinakaran is expected to wean away a sizeable number of voters, thus turning the elections into a three-cornered contest, leaving Kamal Hassan’s Makkal Needhi Mantram (MNM) and Seeman’s Naam Makkal Katchi to the fringes.
In fact, it was desperation that acquainted the AIADMK with strange bedfellows. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Jayalalithaa had challenged the supremacy of Narendra Modi with her famous buzzword, ‘Lady vs Modi,’ and emerged the third largest party in the House with 37 members. Yet, post-Jayalalithaa, the leadership aligned with the BJP which is so weak in the state that it did not want more than five seats. Even the PMK, which had been viciously and vociferously campaigning against both the AIADMK and the DMK till the elections were announced, was happily embraced by the ruling party out of fear of losing the by-elections.
On the other side, the DMK, the Congress, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, CPI, CPI(M) have been travelling together on the political terrain for quite some time as united an opposition for quite some time and have managed to capture the imagination of the people through their anti-establishment stand. Though historically the dominant political aspirations in Tamil Nadu would run independent of the national mainstream, this election, the state has joined in singing the anti-Modi chorus that is ringing all across the country.
It is a double whammy for the AIADMK-BJP alliance since it has to face two anti-incumbency waves at the same time. Raising the battle cry to unseat the BJP at the Centre and the AIADMK in the state, the DMK and the Congress have managed to offer an alternative through their manifestos. The Congress by touching on local issues like NEET, the national level medical college entrance exam that has been a thorn in the flesh of Tamil Nadu’s body politic even since the AIADMK reneged on the earlier tough stand of Jayalalithaa, who vehemently opposed it, has made a connect with the people.
On the other hand, the BJP’s local leaders have been found to be bumbling in the campaign trail on various fronts. Though they have just five seats to fight for and technically have the backing of the ruling AIADMK and the PMK having a sizeable vote bank in the Vanniyar community-dominated regions, they are struggling to bring in the crowds even to their meetings. When BJP president Amit Shah addressed voters at Lenavilakku, a village near Pudukottai that falls under Sivaganga constituency, the crowds started dispersing even before he arrived, leaving on the ground the lotus flowers that were distributed to them by the organisers. The lotus flowers were meant to be shown when Shah arrived.
Besides, Shah’s brief address in Hindi, translated by the Sivaganga candidate H Raja, only make the people see the BJP as a party that cannot give up on its Hindi imposition, a touchy idea as far as Tamil Nadu is concerned. Even in interviews for channels and newspapers, BJP leaders often refuse to answer sensitive questions. Also with the Opposition repeating reminding the people of the agonies of Demonetisation and the impact of GST on small trade and industry, a clear anti-Modi wave has been created in the state.
It need not be said that Raja is such a highly unpopular leader, known for his acerbic comments and foul language against minorities, that he is no match to his rival in Sivaganga, Karti Chidambaram, which is sort of a pocket borough of his father P Chidambaram.
In Kanyakumari, where BJP’s Union Minister of State Pon Radhakrishnan is seeking a re-election, one of the head priests of Ayyavazhi Hindu cult, Bala Janathipathi Adigalar, has openly come out against the BJP which does not augur well for the party’s poll prospects. For, the cult has a huge following mostly among the influential Nadar community since its inception in the 1840s and would only erode the support of Radhakrishnan. Also the local perception that the projects that Radhakrishnan was initiating would disturb the fragile ecology of the district and that they were being implemented with ulterior personal motives and not to bring development to the local area is gaining strength among the voters. He may bite the dust in the elections. Similarly, BJP’s state president Tamilisai Soundarajan, who is contesting from Thoothukudi, is facing flak for the recent police firing on protestors, opposed to the Sterlite copper smelter plant there, that left more than a dozen people dead. Both the BJP at the Centre and the AIADMK are held responsible for the irresponsible police action. Though the police comes under the state government, the BJP is seen as the force behind it. So, DMK’s Kanimozhi is likely to have an easy walkover against the BJP leader.
It is only in Coimbatore that CP Radhakrishnan, a two-time MP, has a remote chance of winning against CPI(M) candidate PR Natarajan. But even there, the recent sex scandal that broke out in the neighbouring constituency of Pollachi could have a ripple effect and affect his prospects as sons of ruling AIADMK party functionaries are suspected to have a role in the racket that lured women, raped them, recorded the action in camera and then blackmailed them.
That leaves the BJP with Ramanathapuram, where former AIADMK leader Nainar Nagendran is pitted against an Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) candidate, Navas Gani, in a Muslim-dominated constituency, where, too, the ‘Defeat Modi’ slogan has gained strength, particularly after the BJP’s manifesto, titled ‘Sankalp Patra’, has touched a raw nerve with its Hindi nomenclature.
Even the highlights of the manifesto like building of Ram temple, ‘nationalistic vision’, speeding up purchase of defence equipment and weapons, scrapping of special status for Kashmir and so on have no resonance in Tamil Nadu where the political narrative is more on the state’s self-assertion.
Besides, since the fate of the present state government itself will be decided by the by-elections to the 18 Assembly seats, if the ruling AIADMK fails to win at least eight seats, it will lose majority in the House. All eyes are on Dinakaran and his latest election symbol, ‘Gift Pack’. For, most of the 18 seats fell vacant because MLAs owing allegiance to Dinakaran were disqualified. Those MLAs have personal clout in those constituencies and that would come in the way of the AIADMK wresting them back. So, election 2019 might not just bring about a change of rule at the Centre alone but also in the state.