The late Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa contested from the RK Nagar (Chennai) constituency for the first time in the 2015 by-elections. She chose it again the following year to win the assembly elections.
RK Nagar was chosen just twice, in a career spanning three decades, seven assembly elections and six by-elections. And yet, it has become Jayalalithaa's home turf in public perception, even though Srirangam was the Iyengar-Brahmin' (which is what she was, by birth) constituency, from where she won to become the CM in 2011.
To Buy Into the By-Election Results, or Not to Buy...
By-elections are a reality check for politicians in Tamil Nadu, which trip up political careers, or birth demi-Gods.
Freshly acquitted of any wrongdoing in the disproportionate assets case, Jayalalithaa won by a margin of over 1,50,000 votes in the 2015 by-elections. This might seem like a bonafide celluloid miracle wrought by a party that was born and raised by filmdom, and run by 'Amma', who was once 'Anni' (wife of the big brother/leader). But the flip-side is that, historically speaking, the incumbent ruling party has always had an advantage in by-elections in Tamil Nadu. In fact, the BJP's rise in West Bengal (2014) and in Tripura (2015) were brighter portends of things to come.
But the stakes are real in RK Nagar this time.
The ADMK’s two leaves have – metaphorically speaking – split, into the Sasikala faction and the O Panneerselvam faction. There is the DMK, led by Stalin, and the MGR Amma Deepa Peravai, led by Deepa Jayakumar (Jayalalithaa’s estranged niece). All four parties now seek to fill the legendary and occasionally notorious shoe-rack of Jayalalithaa.
Let's now spin the bottle.
Sasikala, Edapadi and the Freebie Tradition
Sasikala's ADMK, with Edappadi Palanisamy as the chief minister, is by far the most stable party. As the ruling party, they will have access to resources and the machinery to whip up a good campaign. Despite the crackdown by the Election Commission, the tradition of handing out freebies in the garb of welfare schemes is still rampant. What was started by the ADMK in the Sathanpatti by-elections (2003) to woo Christian votes, was perfected by the DMK in Thirumangalam (2009). Sasikala's faction and the DMK have the money-power to repeat this tradition. The OPS and Deepa camps lose this round.
The candidate chosen by the party is TTV Dhinakaran, Sasikala’s nephew. Should the Sasikala faction win, it will have earned the much-needed street-cred. The lack of trust is all thanks to the public angst against Sasikala, who is still seen as a conspirator in Jayalalithaa’s demise.
Birds of a Feather, Leaves of a Tree
Even today, the majority of the votes in Tamil Nadu elections are for the party symbol, not the local candidate. Octogenarians, otherwise incapacitated and unable to walk, will be carried to the polling booths, where they will ask the booth officer to place their finger on the 'twin leaves' or the 'rising sun'.
'Don't you want to know who is the candidate?'
'Who cares? My vote is for the <insert symbol name>.'
The ‘twin leaves’ and the ‘rising sun’ have been drilled into mass psyche through blockbuster movies and evergreen songs across decades.
This is bound to be a bone of contention during the upcoming by-elections.
DMK's Moment Under the Sun?
In 1989, after MGR's death, the ADMK split into the Janaki faction and the Jayalalithaa faction. In the ensuing elections, the DMK won hands down, since the votes were split between the two factions and their allies.
Both ADMK factions (Jayalalithaa Vs Janaki) in 1989 laid claim to the 'two leaves' symbol.
Both ADMK factions (Sasikala Vs OPS) in 2017 lay claim to the 'two leaves' symbol.
In 1989, the Election Commission intervened and gave the ‘twin dove’ to Janaki’s faction, and a ‘rooster’ to Jayalalithaa’s. Should this happen this time round, it will be a major fillip to the DMK, since new symbols are bound to confuse the ‘ aam voter’.
NM Ganesh, is the chosen candidate for 2017. While he has been an unknown cog in the DMK machinery thus far, it must be noted that he was chosen after the ADMK announced TTV Dhinakaran – a political heavyweight – as their contender.
Sympathy or Idealism?
Except for the 40-minute meditation session and the big reveal that succeeded it, O Panneerselvam's presence has been lacklustre, albeit honest. In retrospect, his decision to sign the resignation (that Sasikala forced on him), his silence throughout Jayalalithaa's hospitalisation and a host of other inconsistencies weigh heavily in the minds of the public. The rebel faction is yet to announce a candidate.
If they win, it will be a definitive blow to the ruling party, and an embarrassment for Sasikala, who had opted out of contesting in RK Nagar, even before such a possibility was annulled by her incarceration.
Deepa Jayakumar's party is the least likely to win. Appearances do matter. But Deepa's politics is still only skin deep. Her sudden disappearances from the spotlight for vague reasons (Deepa Amma is sleeping), and the sheer lack of information about her party or its mandate are reasons enough to ignore her claim to the RK Nagar throne. If she is a legitimate heir to 'Amma', then the half-dozen Rajinikanth lookalikes too might as well star in the next Shankar extrava-bonanza.