A clear takeaway from the Tamil Nadu assembly election is that there is no challenge to the Dravidian parties in the state. Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa defied history to retain office. The DMK lost a closely contested election, but has ensured it remains the only serious rival to the AIADMK in the state. An exception to the trend has been the Congress which won eight seats in alliance with the DMK. Another ally of the DMK, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), won a solitary seat. One outcome of the Congress’s success is that the BJP failed to make headway in the southern districts of the state, where it had hoped to do well.
Since the DMK won office in Tamil Nadu half a century ago, the state has voted for one Dravidian party or other. M. Karunanidhi became the chief minister first in 1969, and then won again in 1971. MGR, an iconic filmstar, floated the AIADMK after parting ways with Karunanidhi and won three successive elections in 1977, 1980 and 1984. The incumbent CM has followed in the steps of MGR, retaining office though with a much smaller majority.
Jayalalithaa dared to go it alone though there were enough governance issues to trouble her. Anti-liquor struggles, honour killings, power shortage, and the agrarian crisis could have damaged her prospects. But keeping with the experience of the 2014 Lok Sabha election, she chose to fight the assembly election on her own. Her alliance partners in the 2011 election – the DMDK, the MDMK, the CPM, and the CPI – had formed a separate front. The six-party alliance, which included the Tamil Maanila Congress of G.K.Vasan and the Dalit outfit, the VCK, targeted the DMK for its past “family rule”, but went soft on the AIADMK. The People’s Welfare Front (PWF) divided the opposition vote and clearly helped the AIADMK.
Two other factors also helped the AIADMK. One, its regional strongholds – the Kongu region comprising the western districts and the Madurai belt – voted big for the AIADMK. Two, the two dominant OBC castes of these regions, the Thevars and the Gounders, supported the party. That these castes consolidated in favour of the AIADMK is significant since the party had not entertained many caste outfits this time. The only two groups that found favour with the AIADMK were Mukkulathor Puli Padai, a Thevar-outfit led by Karunas, a movie comedian, and Kongu Nadu Elaingar Peravai, a Gounder caste group from western Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, the Vanniyar caste votes got fragmented and the PMK, which in the past used to consolidate the community votes, failed to win even a single seat.
Another important facet of this election was that parties tried to project chief ministerial candidates, which triggered a debate about leadership. Anbumani Ramadoss, the CM nominee of the PMK, appealed to the youth with an aspirational agenda and director-actor Seeman projected himself as a Tamil nationalist. And, the PWF had actor Vijayakant of DMDK as its nominee for the CM’s post. The PWF was formed at the eleventh hour and failed to click. The alliance, which pitched itself as an alternative to Dravidian politics, failed as its chief coordinator, Vaiko, backtracked from contesting elections.
The DMK tried to mount an ideological challenge to the AIADMK by building a strategic alliance that included the Puthiya Thamizhagam, a Dalit outfit with a base in the south, and two Muslim parties, IUML and Manithaneya Makkal Kartchi. The alliance pitched its secular credentials and social justice legacy to win the votes of the
Dalits and religious minorities. What, perhaps, worked against the DMK was that it became the target of all the parties though it was the AIADMK that held office. The
party’s past sins, including corruption, and the alliance with the Congress, singled out for failing the Sri Lankan Tamils, were held against the DMK. M.K. Stalin ran a spirited campaign but clearly, that wasn’t enough. A focussed cadre and a leadership that had total control over the party helped the AIADMK crush all opposition.
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