MK Stalin (left) and Edappadi K Palaniswami (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
FOR A WHILE, it seemed like the rinse-repeat cycle of Dravidian politics was about to be broken. There were others in the fray who had set out to disturb the settled order of things. Or so it seemed. As the polls loom closer, however, the great cinematic hope of Tamil Nadu and alleged one-time unmaker of J Jayalalithaa, actor Rajinikanth, has exited the stage without even making an appearance, and Kamal Haasan remains a shadow-boxer in the entrenched duopoly of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), no longer content to be an éminence grise, has been eyeing opportunities amidst the messy remainders of Jayalalithaa’s legacy and is yet to find its moment. Other parties in the state, such as Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) and Seeman’s Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK), are scrabbling at small vote banks. Despite the flux in Tamil politics in the past four years, the tradition of two-to-tango
remains surprisingly unbroken. Outgoing Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and DMK President MK Stalin are the only jousters in the arena, with all other contenders reduced to rumbles in the distance, and even their own eminent predecessors, the late J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi, made part of the furniture of the post-hero politics of Tamil Nadu.
While it is not a multi-cornered contest, Tamil Nadu 2021 is unlikely to be a cinch for either party. For one, the aspirants, who are each seeking the people’s mandate for the first time in their careers, are far from equally matched. Stalin, who for the first time faces an Assembly election with the full support of the DMK cadres, is up against sacks of money and the desperation to hang on to power that has kept AIADMK together despite vicious infighting since the death of Jayalalithaa in 2016. In alliance with the Congress and smaller regional parties, DMK is in a better position to contest a vast majority of the 234 constituencies than AIADMK, which will come under pressure to cede ground to Anbumani Ramadoss’ Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), BJP and other allies. While the anti-incumbency that has built up over a decade and the split leadership of AIADMK are handy weapons in DMK’s arsenal, the party has betrayed its anxiety by relentlessly catastrophising AIADMK rule, to the extent that it ran an entire round of campaign meetings across the state on the theme of ‘rejecting AIADMK’. “I agree it makes us look weak. The negative campaign was Prashant Kishor’s idea and he got the leader’s okay, so we could not do anything about it,” says a DMK spokesperson, peevishly adding that while Stalin has adopted a more consultative approach with his partymen in the past year, ground truths sometimes fall by the wayside in a professionally-run campaign. Besides, the doom loop of dynastic politics continues to impact DMK’s popularity, especially with the rise of Stalin’s son, actor and party youth wing secretary Udhayanidhi.
There is no crisis of narrative, argues Su Thirunavukkarasar, Congress MP from Tiruchirappalli and chairman of the party’s campaign committee for Tamil Nadu. “Corruption, the lack of unity within the party, unpopular leaders, ten years in power and a doomed alliance with BJP—the odds are stacked against AIADMK,” he says. The key charge against AIADMK—that of throwing its traitorous lot with the ‘anti-Tamil’ BJP—is likely to stick, especially when framed in the tautology of Dravidianspeak. The AIADMK leadership has little choice but to defer to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah even as its second-rung leaders criticise the national party in a bid to raise the morale of party workers. In a supple re-negotiation of the alliance-of-convenience, AIADMK, in its annual general council meeting on January 9th—where it ratified the declaration of Palaniswami as the chief ministerial candidate—commended the Centre for its vaccine drive and welfare schemes on the one hand, even as its deputy coordinator, KP Munusamy, speaking at the event, dubbed the national party “immaterial to the election”. “Our only rival is the DMK,” he told partymen in clear terms, in a throwback to AIADMK under MG Ramachandran, who had relied on leaders like K Kalimuthu to lyrically dismiss the Congress—then an ally at the Centre—as a spent force in the state without having to personally implicate himself. Importantly, BJP, which had been openly bickering with its regional ally, has now softened its stance, with party national general secretary and Tamil Nadu incharge CT Ravi admitting on January 11th that it is a “minor partner in an alliance led by AIADMK”. Says senior state BJP leader KT Raghavan, “We believe this is a mutually beneficial alliance. We know for a fact, for instance, that the reduced margin in the DMK’s victory in the Vellore bypoll in 2019 was due to the Triple Talaq Bill.” In his 30 years with the party, there has never been a more conducive sociopolitical moment for BJP in Tamil Nadu, he says.
“This is an issue-less election. The one thing affecting AIADMK cadres is the alliance with BJP, whom they blame for the drubbing they took in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. They believe that in a direct contest between AIADMK and DMK, they would have a fighting chance,” says political analyst, journalist and author Maalan Narayanan. AIADMK won just one out of 38 Lok Sabha seats that went to the polls in 2019, with its vote share tanking from 44.3 per cent in 2014 when it had contested the Parliamentary polls alone under Jayalalithaa, to 18.8 per cent. Even adding the 5.25 per cent votes polled by the splinter group led by Jayalalithaa aide VK Sasikala’s nephew TTV Dhinakaran, the volley of votes that went to the DMK camp seems to point to women and the SC community of Arunthathiyars, who had traditionally voted for Amma, switching sides. “It is very simple this time. The side backed by BJP will lose,” says TKS Elangovan of DMK, citing among the failures of the AIADMK, its inability to get the BJP Government at the Centre to scrap the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) and to disburse the Goods and Services Tax (GST) dues.
With Rajinikanth exiting the stage without even making an appearance, in the entrenched duopoly of DMK and AIADMK, Tamil Nadu 2021 is unlikely to be a cinch for either party
Share this on
HERE ARE LARGE chinks in DMK’s own armour. In a show of strength, the party launched its campaign from the Kongu belt in western Tamil Nadu, considered an AIADMK stronghold because of caste affiliations and its representation in the Cabinet, with the chief minister and several ministers hailing from the Gounder community that is among the dominant castes in the region. In 2016, AIADMK won 42 of 47 Assembly seats from the region. More recently, it proved its hold over western Tamil Nadu in the local body polls held in the state in December 2019 by winning big in the chief minister’s home district of Salem, and in Erode, Namakkal and Coimbatore. The DMK organisation in the Kongu region, insiders say, has been busy battling its own internal issues. After the passing of senior leaders like CT Dhandapani and Veerapandi S Arumugam, the party has lacked popular faces from the western belt. Campaigning in Edappadi, DMK’s Salem West district secretary TM Selvaganapathi admits the Vanniyar-dominated constituency will be a hard one to bag. “We are a lot more confident of winning Mettur and Sankari. The only surprise element now is money—and in every grama sabha, we tell the people to look beyond the direct and indirect bribes the government is giving them, either in the form of the Pongal bonanza of Rs 2,500 or as cash for vote.” DMK has charged that the state government has wasted precious resources on Smart City and other badly-executed programmes, leaving its coffers empty. While Palaniswami is on a freebie spree, announcing a generous Pongal bounty—financed by borrowings, the Opposition has pointed out—and free internet for students for four months, competitive populism alone will not win him an election.
“I believe that we have reached a stage in Tamil Nadu where more than caste or freebies, it is the performance of a government that will guide voters. We will highlight the corruption rampant in this industrial corridor and the Salem-Chennai expressway that will displace farmers; and talk about investments and jobs that have not materialised,” Elangovan says. Among DMK’s more realistic promises is an increase in the number of workdays under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act from 100 to 150, with payment of wages on the same day. DMK also understands a priori the need to tune its ideological timber to appeal to women and young voters. It is creating a large number of posts for women within the party organisation and expanding its digital presence across platforms. The involvement of local AIADMK functionaries in the sexual assaults in Pollachi against nearly 50 young women has posited room for a narrative on women’s safety—one that Opposition MP Kanimozhi Karunanidhi has championed with urgency.
While AIADMK has further consolidated its pre-existing support base among the Gounders of the Kongu belt, by ‘usurping’ power from Sasikala and Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, both Thevars, the Palaniswami government may have alienated the powerful OBC community that was once a dependable vote bank for AIADMK. The pall of lost opportunity has descended on Panneerselvam, who is now the paler of the two leaves of AIADMK. He has launched his own campaign, which so far has crossed paths with the chief minister’s just once. Despite their differences, together the two leaders stand for the idea of the new AIADMK. It is a stereoscopic one that could continue to grow in scope and perspective—but only if it can pull off a victory in the 2021 Assembly elections. A party that until a few years ago blindly followed the holy writ of Jayalalithaa has become decentralised under Palaniswami and Panneerselvam. “The Congress under Kamaraj operated in this fashion and encouraged regional satraps to run the show in their own districts. This idea has come of age in present-day AIADMK.
Leaders like CV Shanmugam, SP Velumani, Pollachi Jayaraman and KC Veeramani have been given free rein to operate in their regions and are held responsible for the party’s performance there,” says Maalan Narayanan.
“Between EPS and OPS, they have delivered a working government that was better than the Jayalalithaa administration in the final years of her life,” says political observer Raveendran Doraiswamy. In an election where the farmer has become a totem for justice—AIADMK has presumably balanced the scales by backing the Central Government’s farm reform bills months after declaring the Cauvery delta districts of Pudukottai, Thiruvarur, Thanjavur, Cuddalore and Nagapattinam as a protected agricultural zone—Palaniswami’s humble origins and subsequent rise within the AIADMK ranks should have made him an inspiring, if self-referential, figure. And yet, wherever he speaks, he gives the impression of being a lone rider eager to apportion the credit due to him. His campaign, ‘vetri nadai podum Tamilakam’ (Tamil Nadu on a victory march), often lapses into a personal list of achievements, too giddy to be bothered by inconvenient truths or to acknowledge the scaffolding of the establishment that backs him.
The reason the two Dravidian parties have ruled Tamil Nadu by turns is because they are both structured like language, the smallest of their units conveying meanings that, when they join with other units, make up infinite truths. And in the meticulously observed prose of Tamil thought leaders, they inspire intense beliefs, rational and otherwise, in the people who run the show and write the sentences. This election belongs not to Stalin or Palaniswami or to the ideologues labouring under misapprehensions about what it means to be Dravidian, but to these swirling units of democracy. The sentences will write themselves.