By P.K Abdul Rahiman
Tamil Nadu has bucked the national trend yet again with the alliance led by DMK leading in 36 out of the 38 Lok Sabha seats that went to polls. Election was cancelled in the Vellore constituency after massive cash haul in the run up to the elections. Contesting on its own in 2014 general elections, AIADMK had routed DMK with a sweeping majority of 37 seats out of 39. Despite stitching up a mega alliance in this election, AIADMK has been reduced to 1 seat, while its allies, PMK and BJP have lost their sitting seats in Dharmapuri and Kanyakumari respectively.
In the by-elections to 22 Assembly segments of which the results were declared today, the DMK has won 13 seats while its rival AIADMK won 9 seats. This verdict will allow the Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami to hold on to power for now and to keep the party in order. The DMK needed to win 21 of the 22 seats to storm to power, which could have significantly impacted the future of the state politics.
This victory is quite significant for the DMK which has been out of power in the state since 2011 and had a humiliating defeat in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014. With this spectacular victory, M. K Stalin, who took over the mantle of the party after the demise of his father and the DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi, has proved to his critics that he is capable of taking the party to such an impressive electoral gain.
As for AIADMK, the absence of its charismatic leader late J. Jayalalithaa has cost dear. The chaos in AIADMK after her death, which led to defections of its MLAs, and formation of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhakam (AMMK) by Dhinakaran has weakened the party considerably. Added to this was the popular perception that after the demise of its supremo J. Jayalalithaa, the AIADMK government and the party have become subservient to the BJP at the cost of the interests of Tamil Nadu on many issues including NEET. The BJP and the Modi government were perceived to remote controlling the state politics through proxy and that caused a credibility deficit for the AIADMK and its government. This was a big contrast to the image of a strong leader like J. Jayalalithaa.
For a party which won 37 of 39 seats on its own in 2014, to concede 20 seats to form a mega alliance with BJP, PMK, DMDK and other smaller parties was in itself a statement on its inability to win the election on its own. AIADMK leaders Edappadi Palanisamy and O.Panneer Selvam were hoping to push the electoral debates away from the issues actively debated in the state. They raised issues of national security and thought they could bet on the image of Modi as a strong leader to win the election.
It is evident that there was no single narrative that determined the voter choices in Tamil Nadu. The jingoistic nationalist rhetoric that seems to have worked in other parts of the country hasn t had any currency in Tamil Nadu. On the contrary, a clear anti-Modi sentiment has been evident in the state much before the electioneering process started. It could be assumed that the alliance with BJP has cost AIADMK significantly as many traditional voters, particularly the minority communities, abandoning the party.
The caste arithmetic that AIADMK hoped to help it win hands down through the alliance it stitched together with PMK, which is predominantly a party of the Vanniyar caste, and DMDK also hasn t gone down well at the grassroots. These parties have been at loggerheads until very recently wherein the PMK had repeatedly called the present AIADMK leadership as corrupt and anti-people. A sudden shift from this narrative to forging an alliance with its arch rivals seem to have failed exceptionally in ensuring the vote transfer. The failure of PMK to retain its sitting seat also points to the erosion of the caste base the party hitherto enjoyed.
Contrary to the image of a political culture rooted in the hero-worship, Tamil Nadu has been nurturing a counter political narrative at the grassroots. Despite the state using its machineries to suppress dissent and protests, the civil society and the political community has been very vibrant. It is estimated that the state had seen over 200 important protests in last three years against the state and central governments. Further, water crisis, farm distress, NEET, Sterlite protest that caused death of 13 protesters in the police firing at Thoothukudi, infrastructure projects that came into conflict with livelihood issues of farmers such as the proposed Salem-Chennai highway project, and hydrocarbon extraction project, protests against caste violence, and the Pollachi sex scandal have been significant issues that influenced the electoral choice of the people. While the AIADMK had expressed its concern over the impact of the infrastructure projects on the farmers, its joining hands with the BJP, whose government at the centre is pushing to implement these projects, brought to question the genuineness of the AIADMK in addressing these existential concerns of the people.
A majority win for DMK in the by-elections leading to unseating the AIADMK government or making it more susceptible to instability, or a better performance by AMMK would have caused further disintegration of AIADMK with Dhinakaran fighting to inherit the AIADMK legacy after the demise of J. Jayalalithaa. But with the failure of AMMK to make any substantial gain, Dhinakaran will have to struggle to keep his flock together. This is likely to help Edappadi Palanisamy consolidate his position in the party for now.
Another interesting surprise of this election is that the left parties, which lost in their erstwhile bastions, have won 4 seats in Tamil Nadu as part of the DMK led alliance. This means that of the 5 members of the left parties in the parliament 4 will be from Tamil Nadu. This should force the left to introspect on the electoral strategies that suits the changed political context of the country.
The smaller parties such as Nam Thamilar Katchi and Makkal Needhi Maiam of the actor turned politician Kamal Haasan, which are fighting to make their space in the state politics have not been able to demonstrate their relevance in this elections significantly.
In the absence of the stalwarts of Dravidian politics such as M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa, the Dravidian majors will have to re-imagine political strategies that would necessitate a coalition politics of the kind that the DMK stitched together in this election. The Congress also has a lesson to learn from the Tamil Nadu experience, where they could win hands down being part of a formidable secular alliance in crafting their national electoral strategies, rather than being slaves of their overconfidence.
(P. K Abdul Rahiman teaches at the University of Madras, Chennai.)