In the midst of the Tamil Nadu election campaign, a Jayalalithaa loyalist dismissed the Congress-DMK campaign against the “invisible” and “inaccessible” chief minister. “Only educated people see her arrogance as a minus. Ordinary folk like it, they think of her as a bold person who is not scared of anyone. For them, it’s a plus point,” he said. In the end, Jayalalithaa’s inaccessibility was not even a footnote in the history-defying second successive victory of the AIADMK in the assembly elections. At the same time, no one reason stands out for Amma’s return. Instead, Jayalalithaa’s victory is a combination of many factors, some attributable to her, some to the DMK, and some to a multi-cornered fight that saw an array of regional parties position themselves as alternatives to the AIADMK and DMK.
Tamil Nadu has never seen such a close result between the two big Dravidian parties. In earlier assembly elections, a severe anti-incumbency would provide the opposition a headstart to make a clean sweep of it. This time there was no big wave of anger against the incumbent, but a mood, most pronounced in Chennai, where the AIADMK government’s mishandling of the floods last November-December was directly blamed on the chief minister. That showed in Jayalalithaa’s victory margin in her R.K Nagar constituency, which shrank to less than 40,000 votes from the 1.5 lakh in last year’s by-election in June.
The DMK’s 98 seats in these elections show that the anti-Jaya mood was not restricted to Chennai alone. The party’s inability to turn this into a tide of victory is sure to be attributed to Karunanidhi’s reluctance to name his son M.K. Stalin as a chief ministerial candidate. The unresolved family rivalries saw the 92-year-old patriarch’s older son, M.K. Alagiri, stay away from this election, which gave the AIADMK an upper hand in his Madurai strongholds.
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The party’s continuing alliance with the Congress has also proved expensive. In an interview to The Indian Express just ahead of the election Karunanidhi said the Congress was a “sufficient” alliance partner to defeat the “corrupt and non-performing AIADMK government”. In truth, the Congress in Tamil Nadu has still to live down its association with the last phase of the war in Sri Lanka that killed thousands of Tamils, with the UPA government at the Centre blamed for standing by as an onlooker. There is bound to be regret in the DMK at having had to part with 41 seats to the party.
The anti-incumbent mood also appears to have got fragmented across three main competing opposition groups, namely the DMK-Congress alliance; the PMK; and the six-party People’s Welfare Front. Even though these fronts were wiped out entirely, they could have played a spoiler in some constituencies, where defeat and victory was decided by a couple of hundred votes, or even less, especially the PMK, which took five per cent of the vote.
The DMK will also ponder how much its pledge to bring in prohibition drove undecided male voters to the AIADMK. Jayalalithaa’s promise to do the same was made to ensure that the party did not lose out on an issue that resonated among women voters, but it was phrased ambiguously enough to appeal to pro- and anti-prohibitionists, male and female. Her promise of a free cellphone and subsidised moped may have further helped to keep the women on her side. The AIADMK also benefited from bloc voting by two dominant backward castes, the Thevars in the south and the Gounders in western Tamil Nadu.
It has to be Jayalalithaa’s good fortune that in the popular mind, the DMK remains a “2G-corruption” tainted party but corruption charges against her or the AIADMK don’t stick as much. In many places, reminders about the ongoing disproportionate assets case against her were met with a shrug and a counter question: And the DMK is clean? Jayalalithaa’s rumoured ill-health also did not matter. For one thing, the immediate comparison was with the wheelchair-bound Karunanidhi. Diehard AIADMK supporters don’t believe anything could be wrong with her health, just as many of them still continue to vote for the AIADMK in the belief that MGR never died.
The other takeaway is the separateness of Tamil Nadu. All through the last 18 months, this was one state that remained unaffected by the divisive debates that roiled the rest of the country. The election was free of them too. Flag, country, beef, were all pleasingly absent from the campaign, even the BJP’s. After winning Assam, BJP president Amit Shah spoke of the party as now stretching from Kutch to Kamrup. But not Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Even though the BJP represents Kanyakumari in the Lok Sabha, its single parliamentary seat in Tamil Nadu, the party failed to open its account in the assembly elections.
Since the 1990s, the increasing stakes of regional parties at the Centre have been held up as a praiseworthy development for Indian federalism, as the power glue that holds India together. But Tamil Nadu’s ruling party has had no compact with the Centre since Jayalalithaa came to power in 2011. In 2014, the AIADMK sent 37 members to the Lok Sabha, but its sweep mattered little to the BJP, which won its own majority. Nor are the results of the assembly elections going to make a difference to the NDA in the Rajya Sabha. So here’s a question for the next five years: Is Tamil Nadu’s separateness putting it at risk of becoming irrelevant to the rest of the country?
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Win it like Amma’)
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