The number of twists and turns that Tamil Nadu has witnessed in the run-up to the Assembly election is ironically dictated by an influential player without a significant base in the State. Each one of the major changes in its politics in a short span of time has the unmistakable stamp of the ruling party at the Centre, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The latest twist occurred on the evening of March 3 when V.K. Sasikala, former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s close aide, announced that she was “withdrawing” from politics so that “true followers” of Jayalaithaa could unite and defeat the “evil force”, namely the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). “I was never keen on occupying any office or position of authority…. I will continue to pray to Puratchi Thalaivi and God for the establishment of Amma’s golden regime [in Tamil Nadu],” she said in a two-page statement on plain paper with no party name or designation. Earlier, Sasikala had claimed that she was the general secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
With this announcement, her nephew and Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) founder, T.T.V. Dinakaran, who is a claimant to the Jayalalithaa legacy, appears to have been boxed in: if he does not enter into an understanding with the AIADMK, he will be accused of splitting the ‘Amma’ vote. He told mediapersons: “I tried to convince her [Sasikala] not to take a decision like this. She had made up her mind. She said this was the right decision.”
Dinakaran had hoped that Sasikala would fight alongside him and make a serious impact in the election scheduled for April 6. In the AIADMK’s view, Sasikala’s decision to stay away has increased its chances of winning a sizeable number of seats. The BJP welcomed the development. C.T. Ravi, BJP’s Tamil Nadu in-charge, said: “We welcome Sasikala’s decision. Jayalalithaa’s dream was a unified AIADMK. We hope T.T.V. Dinakaran too will fulfill this dream of Jayalalithaa.”
Fight for survival
The two Dravidian majors, the DMK and the AIADMK, are locked in a bitter fight for survival in the upcoming election. A defeat for the DMK will mean a serious setback for the party’s president M.K. Stalin, since the party has been out of power in the State for a decade. A defeat for the AIADMK may lead to an exodus of members to other parties. Worse, the party itself could possibly slip from the hands of the current leadership of Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam, to Dinakaran.
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The DMK’s allies are the Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), the Marulamarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi (MMK). At the time of filing this report, the DMK had finalised seat-sharing arrangements with most parties, barring the Congress.
The AIADMK has allied with the BJP, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), and a few smaller entities. It has completed seat-sharing talks with the PMK, while negotiations with the DMDK remained stuck.
Twists and turns
Since the death of Jayalalithaa on December 5, 2016, there were several attempts at capturing the party. The first claimant was Deepa, Jayalalithaa’s niece, who showed up a few days before her death. She was portrayed as someone who resembled Jayalalithaa and the ecosystem propping her up planted stories that she behaved exactly like Jayalalithaa. She lost relevance in a few months. This was followed by the February 2017 drama by Panneerselvam at the Amma Memorial, where he began his ‘dharma yuddham’ against the Sasikala clan, soon after he was made to resign as Chief Minister. The attempt failed but S. Gurumurthy, a Sangh Parivar ideologue, claimed that he had orchestrated the whole show. Panneerselvam sought an inquiry into the circumstances leading up to the death of Jayalalithaa in a hospital in Chennai on December 5, 2016, which he claimed was ‘mysterious’.
In the same month, Sasikala installed Edappadi Palaniswami, a former Minister, as Chief Minister before going to prison to serve her term in a disproportionate assets case in which Jayalalithaa was Accused 1. Palaniswami was seen as a political novice but he made his peace with Panneerselvam in a truce reportedly brokered by the BJP. Panneerselvam was made Deputy Chief Minister in August 2017 as part of this deal.
Also read: AIADMK in crisis ahead of 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections
A few months later, in December 2017, after the surprise victory of Dinakaran in the R.K. Nagar byelection (the seat had fallen vacant following Jayalalithaa’s demise), it was widely expected that the party would be in his hands.
After her release from a Bengaluru jail in February, Sasikala arrived in Chennai with a bang, after a 23-hour journey from Bengaluru to Chennai, meeting party supporters, only to announce in March that she was withdrawing from politics.
Two fronts and smaller players
Significantly, in the 2016 election, the DMK-Congress alliance had won nearly 100 seats even when Jayalalithaa was aliveand the AIADMK stood solidly behind her. The general perception then was that the DMK lost the game narrowly because of the presence of the Makkal Nala Koottani (MNK), a third front comprising the DMDK led by actor Vijayakanth, the MDMK, the VCK, the CPI and the CPI (M), in the fray. The MNK obtained 6.1 per cent of the votes but did not win a single seat.
However, four of these parties in this front—the MDMK, the VCK, the CPI and the CPI(M)—entered the DMK-led alliance in 2019 for the Lok Sabha election. The alliance registered a landslide victory, winning 38 of the 39 seats, which translates to a win in 216 of the 234 Assembly seats. The alliance is intact now, although there have been reports of some differences over seat sharing.
In contrast, the AIADMK remains fractious, with differences simmering between the two top leaders Palaniswami and Panneerselvam being papered over by BJP-brokered unity. Adding to its troubles was the AMMK factor as Dinakaran is going ahead with electoral plans undeterred by Sasikala’s surprise decision to stay away from politics. The BJP’s hand is suspected to be behind this decision after its efforts to convince Palaniswami to take the AMMK along failed.
Also read: AIADMK in crisis ahead of 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections
Palaniswami’s new-found confidence apparently stems from his image makeover exercise through a publicity blitzkrieg, last-minute populist measures such as farm loan waiver, granting 7.5 per cent reservation to government school students clearing the NEET examination, deciding to acceding to the PMK’s demand for 10.5 per cent internal reservation in the Most Backward Caste (MBC) quota, and increasing the retirement age of government employees from 59 to 60.
The DMDK, which has become emaciated because of Vijayakanth’s health problems, has been in the AIADMK alliance but it is facing seat-sharing issues, which were snowballing at the time of going to the press.
Although the BJP lost the deposit in 180 of the 188 seats that it contested in the 2016 election, polling less than 3 per cent of the votes, it is playing a major role in the AIADMK alliance.
The PMK, which projected itself as an alternative to the Dravidian parties in the 2016 race and secured 5.36 per cent of the votes, is also with the AIADMK.
The BJP, which tried to prop up actor Rajinikanth as a game-changer in Tamil Nadu politics, has not given up its efforts to gain a foothold in the State.
It has been working at the ground level, converting smaller caste groupings into allies, and launching a campaign to portray the DMK as anti-Hindu.
In its outreach work, the BJP and the wider Sangh Parivar used all the available local deities for the purpose, even taking out a ‘vel yatra’ touching on Lord Murugan’s six abodes, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government, which wanted to send a message to the people that it was dealing with all political parties with a firm hand, added a comic touch by arresting BJP leaders every day and releasing them later. The leaders would come back the next day and carry out the ‘vel yatra’, only to be arrested and let off again. This bizarre drama continued for nearly a month.
Also read: The BJP’s ‘vel yatra’, seen as an attempt to gain popularity in Tamil Nadu, fizzles out with the government taking a firm stand against it
Although there is much at stake, the DMK camp is barely displaying any nervousness. Its leadership believes that the AIADMK’s record of governance in itself will be enough to propel the DMK to office. Party president M.K.
Stalin noted in a tweet on February 27: “Farmers, weavers…. all sections of people are affected by the policies of the BJP-AIADMK government. Look at job losses, job freeze, inflation, faulty GST implementation, NEET and NEP [New Education Policy] imposition…. Let us make Tamil Nadu raise its head again.” He has been addressing a series of ‘gram sabha’ meetings, which have attracted huge crowds. His sister and three-time MP, Kanimozhi, who was fielded as a star campaigner for the party, much ahead of the election announcement, is focussing on specific issues that have affected Tamil Nadu.
While the opposition has been attacking the government for its various foibles, the government claims it is asking the people to vote on the basis of its track record in governance.
Speaking to mediapersons on February 26, the Chief Minister said: “As many as 304 new industries set shop in Tamil Nadu and 10 lakh jobs have been created in the State. We made many investments during the pandemic time, which did not happen in other States.”
The announcement of an early election has stumped both the DMK and the AIADMK since there is limited time for campaigning. T.K.S. Elangovan, senior DMK leader and MP, said: “A new government needs to be formed only by May 15. We expected the elections only in the third week of April. The date of election is forcing us to quickly deal with a host of issues. All political parties are affected.”
Although Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry will vote on April 6, the people will have to wait for almost a month for the results.
As the two major alliances are involved in a high-stakes electoral battle, actor Kamal Haasan has been trying to project himself as the leader of a third front in the making. (His Makkal Needhi Maiam garnered 3.72 per cent of the votes in 2019.) So far, he has only managed to get the support of insignificant parties such as the Samathuva Makkal Katchi, led by actor Sarath Kumar, and the Indhiya Jananayaka Katchi, led by T.R. Paarivendhar, a Member of Parliament, who won the 2019 Lok Sabha election with the support of the DMK alliance.