There is a common theme running on opinion pages on the Tamil Nadu assembly election. It is that the two Dravidian parties — J. Jaylalithaa’s AIADMK and M. Karunanidhi’s DMK — are on the decline. Some have even speculated that new parties, especially the DMDK-led alliance of six parties, the People’s Welfare Front (PWF), will emerge as the new power centre in the state that has been ruled by the two Dravidian parties for the last five decades. In their view, this could change the course of Tamil Nadu’s politics in more fundamental ways than we can imagine. While there may be some truth in these claims, neither is likely to happen, at least in this election.
These speculations seem to have been borne out by four developments in the state’s politics. First, most of the smaller parties in the past used to join pre-election alliances led by the two Dravidian parties — and now Vijayakanth’s party DMDK seemed to offer a non-DMK and non-AIADMK space. In the 2014 general election, the DMDK-led third front included the BJP, Vaiko’s MDMK and A. Ramadoss’s PMK. Second, the BJP and PMK have contested this election on their own. Then there have been some other smaller parties too in the fray. This had created an impression that Tamil Nadu was heading for a multi-cornered election.
Third, the state’s incumbent has never been voted back to power in the last three decades and there have been rather large vote swings against the incumbent alliance. Fourth, the Vijayakanth-led alliance (PWF), which includes the DMDK, MDMK, VCK, TMC, CPI and CPM, had constantly harped that if one just added the votes won by these six parties in past elections, the PWF would have, at the minimum, a base of around 18-20 per cent. Thus, the possibilities of multi-cornered contests along with the normal anti-incumbency vote had raised the PWF’s hopes. This, however, is likely to prove an erroneous calculation.
Figure 1 clearly establishes that the two Dravidian parties are nowhere near any decline. In fact, their combined vote and seat share in the last two elections have increased. The two parties also seem to be simultaneously pursuing the strategy of asserting their dominance vis-à-vis their allies. The AIADMK, by unilaterally releasing its list of candidates, both during the 2014 general election and the 2016 assembly polls, had closed the option for smaller parties to woo Jayalalithaa. Similarly, the DMK contested more Lok Sabha seats in 2014 than it did in 2004 and 2009. It also allocated fewer seats for its long-time ally, the Congress, in this assembly election. The Congress contested 63 seats in the 2011 assembly election; this time it was allocated only 41 seats.
Furthermore, the data presented in Table 2 shows that it is the smaller parties that have declined in the past three elections. The DMDK has been reduced to almost half of its earlier status and the story is very similar for the Left. While this reduced vote share could largely be a reflection of the number of seats the parties are contesting in each election, there is no denying that in the last few years, Vijayakanth’s charisma has waned greatly. The other star campaigner of the PWF, Vaiko, doesn’t carry the same clout he had in the 1990s when he broke away from the DMK to pursue a more radical Tamil nationalism.
In such a scenario, it would not be a surprise if the PWF finds it hard to retain its 18-20 per cent vote share, what the front considers its base vote. Simple additions rarely work in politics. In fact, the bigger trouble for the PWF is that if one of its constituents is strong in a particular region, the others have very limited presence there, thus limiting the possibility that the coming together of these six parties would make a big difference to either their vote shares or seat tallies. For example, the DMDK has a presence in northern Tamil Nadu but none of the PWF constituents other than the VCK can add votes for the PWF in the region.
Similarly, the idea that the entry of newer parties made the electoral contest multi-cornered is also flawed. Parties have come and gone in Tamil Nadu, but the nature of competition at the constituency level still remains bipolar — the top two parties in the constituency win approximately 80-90 per cent votes. Thus, the prospect of the PWF emerging as an alternative to the Dravidian parties across the state seems very unlikely.
The PWF, however, may play the role of spoiler by hurting the DMK’s chances. In 2014, wherever the DMDK performed well, it was at the DMK’s cost. There was a much sharper negative correlation between the DMDK’s vote share in a constituency and the DMK’s than with the AIADMK’s. Moreover, many of the PWF constituents likely contested with the DMK-led alliance for the same vote segments. G.K. Vasan’s TMC and the Congress have an overlapping base, the VCK would have contested for Dalit votes in the northern districts, and the MDMK would have challenged the DMK in the southern districts. The AIADMK is in a much stronger position in the Cauvery delta and western districts. These two regions, with very different social compositions compared to northern and southern Tamil Nadu, are less likely to offer a big gateway to the PWF or the DMK.
However, if the anti-incumbency trend continues, the DMK alliance has a fair chance of coming back to power. The charge of mismanagement during the 2015 floods in Chennai and adjoining districts is likely to boost Karunanidhi’s chances. As the analysis of the data presented in Table 2 suggests, the incumbent alliance always faces a large negative vote swing. When the AIADMK alliance lost in 2006, its vote share declined by 10 percentage points between two assembly elections. In the 2011 election, it gained 10 percentage points in comparison to 2006. As such huge vote swings are not unusual for Tamil Nadu, we will have to see if Jayalalithaa has managed to hold on to her vote base. If Tamil Nadu has revoked its own iron law of anti-incumbency, this may be the only change in Dravidian politics in this election.