With just two weeks to go, election campaigning in Tamil Nadu is in full swing, combining both tradition and innovation. Traditional door-to-door canvassing involves a team of party workers, accompanied by musical instruments, visiting hamlets, villages and urban pockets. Wherever possible, the candidate also joins them. Autos, vans and cars fitted with the AIADMK flags play movie songs featuring their former chief ministers—actors MGR and Jayalalithaa—interspersed with the party’s promises and achievements. The DMK has its own band of songs set to music, on its founder Annadurai and his disciple M. Karunanidhi, both former chief ministers. These four occupy the most venerated positions in the Tamil political landscape. Other parties follow suit, but cannot match the spending power of the two main parties.
Many candidates have also taken to social media-driven photo and video opportunities. These range from planting in the paddy fields to making dosas at roadside food joints or weaving flower garlands on streets, or even washing clothes. Anything that will give them 10 seconds in the TV news or hundreds of shares and likes on social media will do.
Then, there are the rallies. Needless to say, the star campaigners are M.K. Stalin for the DMK and Chief Minister E. Palaniswami for the AIADMK. Kamal Haasan of the Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) is a big draw too. TTV Dhinakaran of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), a breakaway faction of the AIADMK, draws big crowds too in southern and central Tamil Nadu. The BJP has roped in Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh and J.P. Nadda for many of its rallies. Modi’s rally planned in Madurai on April 2 is expected to have EPS and other allies’ participation too. The DMK, for its part, is planning a mega rally in Salem, Palaniswami’s home base, wherein Rahul Gandhi and Stalin will participate along with leaders of the parties in alliance.
Mounting massive campaigns
More money is being spent on television advertisements and Internet than ever before. The DMK and the AIADMK have non-stop ads playing on every news TV channel as well as general entertainment ones. On several occasions, these are played one after the other, with some MNM ads also featuring Kamal Haasan. It is impossible to miss the YouTube ads and banners plastered on every content site and search result. The AIADMK attacks the DMK by calling it ‘thillumullukatchi’— derived from the Tamil abbreviation ‘thi.mu.ka’, which means ‘fraudulent party’. One of the DMK’s ads feature the BJP but the party name is beeped out.
Internet campaigns, both real and fake, are a special feature this time. It is not clear if the fake banners are the handiwork of the IT cells of various parties or done by enthusiastic supporters on their own, without any sanction from the party. The war, however, is between the DMK and the BJP. The fake banners purportedly present some outrageous claims as part of the party manifesto. A fake BJP banner, for instance, shows the party claiming that if their coalition wins, they will rename Tamil Nadu ‘Dakshina Pradesh’. A tit-for-tat fake DMK banner shows a TV screen grab of Stalin saying he does not want votes of people going to [Hindu] temples. Despite the obviousness of the fakes, the respective supporters retweet and share them with glee. Since this is not the US Presidential election, Twitter and Facebook probably do not care much. Nor can they do anything meaningful. This is a willing population, sharing fake messages and outraging over them.
The BJP has come up with a manifesto outlining all its strong positions, such as banning religious conversion and cow slaughter. Its promises also include support for CAA, NRC, farm laws, medical entrance exam NEET, removing Hindu temples from the clutches of government-controlled Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Board etc. Many of these will upset the AIADMK but the BJP is not bothered about that. It is demonstrating that it is focusing on long-term goals rather than short term electoral gains.
Key battles to watch out for
For the DMK, its two key candidates are the party’s CM pick and son of M. Karunanidhi, M.K. Stalin, who is contesting from Kolathur, and his son Udhayanidhi Stalin from Chepauk-Thiruvallikeni. Both have it fairly easy with pushover opponents. For the AIADMK, Chief Minister Palaniswami should win Edappadi easily while Deputy CM O. Panneerselvam has to battle it out in Bodinayakkanur, where the DMK has put up a very strong candidate. Many of the AIADMK ministers will have a tough time retaining their constituencies this time.
The AMMK’s TTV Dhinakaran is contesting from Kovilpatti, where he can upset the AIADMK’s Kadambur Raju, the state minister for information and publicity. The MNM’s Kamal Haasan is contesting from Coimbatore South, a constituency that is witnessing a serious fight with Vanathi Srinivasan, national president of the BJP Mahila Morcha, putting up a challenge. The BJP’s two other key candidates, its state president L. Murugan and vice-president K. Annamalai, are contesting from Dharapuram and Aravakurichi, respectively. These three are the BJP’s best bets this election, all from the western Tamil Nadu region, where the party has grown significantly in the last five years. This is also the region where its ally, the AIADMK, is the strongest.
What opinion polls don’t capture
Undaunted by the opinion polls, all of which predict a massive victory for the DMK-led front, the AIADMK and the BJP workers and leaders are toiling hard on the ground. They know that what makes the difference is mobilising the voters and getting them to the polling booth on the day of the voting. Opinion polls do not seem to have got one thing right—the votes to seat conversion for the smaller parties. Parties like Dhinakaran’s AMMK, Kamal Haasan’s MNM and Seeman’s Naam Tamilar Katchi have votes spread out across the state, but not concentrated enough to win seats. The only possible exception is Dhinakaran in Kovilpatti, but even there the margin of victory may be too close. Kamal Haasan’s victory is in no way guaranteed. Seeman may not even finish third in his Thiruvottriyur constituency.
Along with the intense campaigning, the daily Covid-19 cases are also rising alarmingly in Tamil Nadu—Chennai is reporting majority of the cases. No one in the campaign beat seems to care, except some leaders on stage who are seen wearing masks. Rest are blatantly violating norms. Social distancing is unheard of. Most likely, these political workers have not been vaccinated. Many of them will be hobnobbing with government employees who will have to manage the polling booths. One only hopes these frontline workers at least have been vaccinated.
This is the sixth in a series on Tamil Nadu elections by the author.
Badri Seshadri is a political analyst and the co-founder of New Horizon Media Pvt. Ltd., a publishing company based in Tamil Nadu. He also co-founded Cricinfo. Views are personal.