Why Tamil Nadu no longer seems a walkover for DMK-Congress combine

Venkatesh Kannaiah
Nagercoil: Congress President Rahul Gandhi and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) President M K Stalin during the formal launch of United Progressive Alliance (UPA), a campaign in Tamil Nadu from the Kanyakumari parliamentary constituency, at Nagercoil, in Kanyakumari district, on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (PTI Photo)

The Tamil Nadu elections started off as a one-sided affair. The DMK-Congress alliance began as a sure winner, adding the CPI, CPI (M), Viduthalai Siruthai (VCK), Vaiko’s MDMK and others to their rainbow alliance. With the alliance partners given a fair share of seats, the victory should have been easy and certain.

Add to this rainbow alliance, the double anti-incumbency of Modi and Palaniswami, and it should have been a walkover. Moreover, in Tamil Nadu, there has been a sustained anti-Modi campaign in media and in the public sphere, and since the BJP was not able to counter the same, one thought that the die was cast. The ‘Balakot bump’ was too muted to be felt or heard.

Click for more election news

Interestingly, the anti-Modi campaign till the time of the elections had been led by DMK, Congress and it included large sections of the AIADMK, the PMK, Vijaykanth’s party (DMDK) and almost all the parties that are now part of the AIADMK-BJP alliance.

DMK president M K Stalin with Congress leaders Mukul Wasnik and K S Alagiri, in Chennai, Wednesday. (PTI)

Going to the polls without Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi, both the AIADMK and the DMK are handicapped, but the AIADMK is affected much more as for the party, Jayalalitha was the heart and soul of the campaign. DMK too feels Karunanidhi’s absence, but is strong and organised enough to launch a campaign without its leader. Anyway, Stalin had been a leader-in-waiting for a long period of time and hence the transition was easy and quick. For the AIADMK, Palaniswami and Panneerselvam are now the leaders, and their writ does not go uncontested.

It should all point to a clean sweep. But things have not really been as easy as imagined for the DMK- Congress alliance.

Palaniswami showed his political finesse by stitching up an alliance with the BJP, PMK, Vijaykant’s party – DMDK, Puthiya Tamilagam, a Dalit party, and supporting some well-heeled independents. This was not expected as PMK was a vocal critic of AIADMK and BJP. Though it looks a terribly disparate alliance on paper, Palaniswami has ironed these differences and made it into a reasonable fighting force.

Kamal Haasan of Makkal Needhi Maiyam who is a claimant to the ‘third alternative’ votes has been doing a good campaign.

The Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam, (AMMK) of Dinakaran, Sasikala’s nephew, which was supposed to split the AIADMK votes almost to the middle, is not finding substantial traction as expected. Except for a few constituencies, where they are giving a tough fight to both the DMK and AIADMK, it has not put up high profile candidates nor is it doing campaigning in an intense way across the state. It looks to be working on a few select constituencies. The damage to the AIADMK from AMMK might be much lesser than expected.

Both Kamal Haasan of Makkal Needhi Maiyam and Seeman of Naam Tamizhar Katchi (NTK) who are claimants to the ‘third alternative’ votes have been doing a good campaign. Both of them are targeting the young voters and are talking of an alternative kind of politics, and have also focused on environment and ecological issues, which mainstream parties avoid like a plague. Though short on resources and high profile candidates, they are making a small but sure-footed impact. They are expected to take away anti-establishment, pro-DMK votes from the DMK-Cong combine.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi and DMK chief M K Stalin at Nagercoil on Wednesday. (PTI)

While the DMK is the strongest of the alliance partners and Congress is also resourceful and capable, in some cases they are dependent on the DMK for manpower and cadres. While the major parties, the DMK and AIADMK can fight the polls across the state with equal strength, when seats are given to the allies, more factors come into play, and one is not sure if cadres of the respective alliance leaders are working wholeheartedly for the allies. This is an issue which plagues both the DMK and AIADMK fronts, but might give some leeway for the AIADMK front in certain seats.

Tamil Nadu elections have become cash-centric over the years, and whichever party has a well-oiled capability to deliver the resources on the ground, has an edge. Both the leading parties have subject matter expertise on the issue, but ruling parties can work things to their advantage.

Chennai: Congress President Rahul Gandhi is being presented a sword by DMK president MK Stalin at a public meeting after unveiling a life-size bronze statue of late Chief Minister and DMK President M Karunanidhi at YMCA ground, in Chennai. (PTI Photo)

The resistance for the DMK-Cong alliance is coming from the northern regions of Tamil Nadu where the PMK has a sure-fire Vanniyar caste base and where some polarisation along anti-Dalit lines can happen. In the western regions, where the AIADMK is traditionally strong, Chief Minister Palaniswami’s Gounder antecedents is of some help to the party.

Finally, the BJP and its allies have been able to inject a whisper campaign on Hindu issues in some constituencies. This is partly made possible by some remarks made by Dravida Kazhagam leader Veeramani (who was campaigning on behalf of the DMK candidates). One is not sure how it is going to turn out, though Tamil Nadu voters are not new to the DMK’s mild atheism in the public sphere, and devotion and temple attendance in the private sphere.

What started off as a sure win for DMK-Congress, is fast becoming a tough fight, in quite a few constituencies. Pollsters who were talking earlier of a clean sweep are now hedging their bets. But it is still an advantage for DMK-Congress.