State with five cornershttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/state-with-five-corners/

State with five corners

Jayalalithaa’s decision to go it alone suggests the BJP is yet to make a mark in Tamil Nadu

By: T.N. Gopalan

Forty seats at stake — 39 in Tamil Nadu and one in the Pondicherry enclave. Five different mainstream formations trying their luck. Who will emerge triumphant? It’s difficult to say with certainty, but at the moment it looks like the AIADMK will emerge on top. It’s been a long time since the state witnessed a multi-cornered contest. Since 1967, when C. Rajagopalachari cobbled together a coalition led by the DMK, the election scene has been dominated by alliances. Rarely does any major party go on its own. But now, AIADMK supremo J. Jayalalithaa has chosen to.

She can afford to, in a way. The party, founded by her mentor, actor-turned-politician MGR, continues to command a significant following. MGR himself remained undefeated except in the 1980 Lok Sabha polls, thanks to an Indira Gandhi wave. Reams have been written to explain the enduring popularity of the man. Conversely, the strong aversion he sought to sow against friend-turned-rival M. Karunanidhi has also stuck in the minds of large sections of the people. In meeting after meeting, he would dub the DMK chief a “poisonous force”. That obviously had takers and is transmitted across generations.

If Jayalalithaa keeps bouncing back despite repeated debacles and allegations of corruption, it is only because the omissions and commissions of the ageing Karunanidhi seem to reinforce MGR’s message. The last reign of the DMK was easily its worst — corruption, land grabs and crippling power shortages ensured a resounding defeat for the ruling party.

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There has been nothing extraordinary about Jayalalithaa’s regime since 2011, barring some improvement in the power scene — for reasons little to do with her governance — and doles like subsidised canteens. But by constantly harping on Tamil national sentiments and never letting people forget Karunanidhi’s farcical three-hour fast and gross failure to persuade the UPA regime to take a stronger stance against the Sri Lankan government, not to mention spectrum-like scams, she has him on the ropes. Hence the general perception that she could walk away with the highest number of seats.

Still, the question remains: Why did she not choose to align herself with the BJP? After all, it is her natural ally. Many likely to vote for the BJP would have been voting for her all these years. So, she stands to lose a chunk of middle-class votes by keeping the BJP out. One interpretation is that she doesn’t want to lose Muslim votes — forming up to 7 per cent of the electorate.

The BJP itself is no force at all in the state. Seen in these parts essentially as a party of Brahmins and of the Hindi-speaking, it has not managed to drop anchor. Between 1998 and 2004, when it was in power at the Centre, it had a few MPs, elected with the help of the Dravidian parties. But patronage politics don’t seem to have helped it much. It doesn’t have a single MLA now, though there is some representation in the local bodies. The deadly blasts in Coimbatore in 1998, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism since the ’90s, a series of murders of Hindu activists recently and the Christian consolidation in certain pockets may have helped the BJP to gain some credibility among some sections. That’s about all. But Modi could be making all the difference to its fortunes.

Many seem to think Modi does touch a chord, among the youth especially. The narrative seems to be, “forget 2002, he is a strong man, not corrupt and development-oriented”, but whether such positive assessments will translate into votes is a moot point, as its allies — the DMDK, led by another actor-turned-politician, Vijayakant; the PMK, a party of Vanniyars, a numerically strong intermediate caste; and the MDMK of Vaiko, who projects himself as the quintessential Tamil nationalist — are all marginal players.

The DMK itself, to be fair, can’t be written off altogether. It’s a beneficiary of the anti-Brahmin struggle of Periyar EVR and is seen as a repository of Tamil nationalism, however distorted. Together, these two factors, not to mention the indisputable oratorial and managerial skills of the patriarch, have ensured its longevity. The younger son Stalin, who calls the shots in the party, is no match for his father. Still, the party’s influence subsists over wide swathes, and he collects crowds, though his speeches are banal. It has a couple of Dalit and Muslim outfits too. But how many seats the DMK can win depends on how many the BJP alliance wrests, riding on the Modi wave.

The Left and the Congress bring up the rear. They were ditched by Amma after promises of an alliance. Now they are contesting 18 seats, but unlikely to make a mark anywhere, except of course in splitting the anti-BJP votes. The Congress itself is a non-starter. By looking the other way through the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war and having been buffeted by innumerable scams, the party has become so alienated that it remains to be seen how many of its candidates manage to retain their security deposit.

The writer is a senior journalist