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Wednesday, May 05, 2021

DMK won TN polls, but only just. It must be smart about coalition partners

A coalition government along with Congress, VCK and the communist parties would be a watershed moment for the state’s politics.

Written by Kannan Sundaram |
Updated: May 4, 2021 9:11:02 am
DMK Party workers celebrate during the counting day of Tamil Nadu Assembly polls result at their party headquarters, in Chennai, Sunday, May 2, 2021. (PTI Photo)

The DMK has returned to power in Tamil Nadu after 10 years in opposition. The party’s main ideological adversary, the BJP, has been stopped in its tracks. While the cadre broke into spontaneous celebrations despite COVID-19 restrictions, party intellectuals were largely silent, breaking it only to hail Mamata Banerjee’s grand victory in West Bengal! Murmurs in DMK circles about the wisdom of handing over the election strategy to a north Indian Brahmin, Prashant Kishor, were audible early on. Kishor is now blamed for failing to lead the party to a 200-plus seat victory — the DMK alliance won only 158 out of a total of 234 states in the assembly.

For several decades now, the Tamil intellectual class has been partisan towards the DMK. Several independent commentators and centrists threw their weight behind the DMK this time largely because of their desire to keep the BJP out of Tamil Nadu. The media space, including the social media, barring the limited number of pro-BJP voices, has almost become an echo chamber, and somewhat out of step with the public mood.

In the assembly elections of 2006, 2011 and 2016, their predictions were in favour of the DMK. Despite the rout of the ruling AIADMK in the 2004 general elections, the DMK could form only a minority government in 2006, winning only 96 seats out of a total 234. In 2011, the DMK lost even the opposition party status winning only 10 per cent of the total seats. In 2016, it was predicted that the party would form the government. However, it lost the polls.

Since the late 1990s, the BJP has almost always been in an electoral alliance with both the DMK or AIADMK. On its own, the party has found it tough to save its deposit. It was in alliance with the DMK (2001) that the BJP first won four seats in Tamil Nadu assembly. After a two-decade hiatus, the BJP has entered the assembly with the support of the AIADMK, but the seat tally is the same despite its near-total dominance of national politics.

However, the BJP has provided interesting twists in TN politics. Murugan is to Tamil Nadu what Kali is to West Bengal. A few years ago, a Periyarist group called the Karuppar Kootam (black crowd) launched a campaign against Murugan. Tamil Nadu was familiar with such acts by rationalists and the devout take it in their stride. But with the rise of Hindutva and the ripples it has produced even in Tamil Nadu, the response was different. Besides, Murugan was seen as a Tamil God. So, the response was swift and furious. The DMK disassociated itself from the group. The members of the group were arrested and imprisoned, freedom of expression be damned. The BJP seized this opportunity to brand DMK yet again as an anti-Hindu party. Instead of taking this insinuation head-on from its professed rationalist ideological position, the DMK caved in. On the campaign trail, DMK leaders posed with a Vel, the divine spear that Lord Murugan holds. When K Veeramani, the leader of the Dravidar Kazhakam, the organisation of Periyar, hit the campaign trail, some DMK candidates, keen not to be seen as associating with an organisation perceived as anti-Hindu, were conspicuous by their absence. The BJP, too, discovered that they could not garner votes in Tamil Nadu in Modi’s name. As the campaign progressed, Modi’s images on posters and graffiti were replaced by those of Jayalalithaa and MGR.

The outgoing chief minister, Edappadi K Palaniswami, has many reasons to be happy even in his defeat. In this election, he seemed more keen on holding the party together than winning the polls. He did not try to build up a large alliance: In fact, he let demanding allies such as the DMDK and Puthiya Thamizhakam walk out of the alliance and refused to tie up with the AMMK — the breakaway Sasikala faction of the AIADMK — despite pressure from the BJP. The AMMK was wiped out in the polls. OPS (O Panneerselvam), his rival who often worked at cross purposes in the party, now stands on a weak wicket. Palaniswami has now emerged as the leader of the AIADMK.

As was widely predicted, the AIADMK’s decision to align with the BJP cost the party. It was not an alliance the party wished to engage in for electoral gains — after the rout in 2004, Jayalalithaa had ruled out any alliance with the BJP. The AIADMK was very much aware that the alliance would hurt its prospects. It was a forced marriage with the central government breathing down its neck as the struggle to hold the party together post Jayalalithaa was in progress. The alliance with the PMK, an anti-Dalit party, did not work — for both the AIADMK and PMK. It bodes well for Tamil Nadu politics that the PMK has been limited to five seats.

Within the DMK front, there has been an unexpected development. For the first time, the allies can boast of a better strike rate than the DMK and even bigger victory margins. In 2004, the DMK joined the UPA and cornered big ministries in the Manmohan Singh government. It was repeated in 2009. However, when the DMK formed a minority government with Congress support in Tamil Nadu in 2006, it refused to share power. This time, the Congress has won 18 of the 25 seats it contested, and another ally, the VCK, has won four of the six seats it contested.

A coalition government of the DMK, Congress, VCK and the communist parties would be a watershed moment for Tamil Nadu politics. If

the DMK refuses to invite them to join the government, they may prefer to sit in the opposition benches. The DMK, which has a small majority of seven seats (and eight others who won on a DMK symbol), has to make an intelligent choice.

This article first appeared in the print edition on May 4, 2021 under the title ‘Rising sun, bleary dawn’. The writer is editor of Kalachuvadu, a Tamil magazine

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