India: Elections reaffirm TN as a Dravidian fort


IMAGE: Congress President Rahul Gandhi is presented a sword by DMK president MK Stalin at a public meeting in Chennai, on December 16, 2018. Photograph: R Senthil Kumar/PTI Photo

N Sathiya Moorthy  25 May 2019 

With DMK’s M K Stalin coming into his own, and the rival AIADMK too leaving no space for third parties, Tamil Nadu will remain a Dravidian stronghold for a long time, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

If election 2019 is anything to go by, Tamil Nadu will continue to be a ‘Dravidian’ politico-electoral citadel for a long time after the exit of the ‘twin towers’ in DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi and the even more charismatic AIADMK rival in late chief minister Jayalalithaa.

This does not mean that other national, regional and sub-regional parties do not have any place or space, but their role will continue to be limited and supportive, not assertive and substantive, as was visualised by the ruling BJP at the Centre for a time, and the likes of PMK, MDMK, DMDK and a host of others at the other end of the state’s political spectrum.

In the days, weeks and months after Jayalalithaa’s hospitalisation and death 70 days later, the ruling BJP at the Centre was at best unsure of its politico-electoral strategy for Tamil Nadu.

Unlike what election 2019 may have meant for the party’s future at the national-level since, at the time, the BJP national leadership did display an element of nervousness as far as the state party affairs went.

Nothing explains the BJP’s tentative approach to TN affairs than its unwillingness and/or inability to replace failed state unit chief, Tamizhisai Soundararajan, who lost the 2016 assembly elections, too.

Tamizhisai or no other party leader from the state, however, could be blamed for the BJP’s twin electoral disasters of 2014 and 2016 in TN, now followed by election 2019.

The responsibility for the three-time failures should rest with the national party strategists, who now would seem to have given up on TN — and for two reasons.

One, the BJP does not need TN seats any more for running a stable government at the Centre as the electoral results have now proved. Two, after trying to shape the future of state politics, that too in the absence of the DMK’s Karunanidhi and AIADMK’s Jayalalithaa, it has simply given up — like the national Congress rival through the previous 50 long years.

The current BJP strategy, if at all, seems to be settle for one or the other of the ‘Big Two’ Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu, and play second fiddle, in the face of ‘national compulsions’ of the one-time Congress kind.

If after the 2014 ‘Modi wave’, the BJP had the advantage of a stable government at the Centre without the support of the Dravidian parties for full five years, the party has now got five more years to strike roots, but it is not to be — or, so it seems.

All of it means that the AIADMK may have more space to grow and strike deeper roots in the state than in the tentative aftermath of the post-Jaya period, though not for the DMK at Karunanidhi’s death.

Even before Karunanidhi’s death, his second son M K Stalin had emerged as his political heir, vis a vis his own half-hearted elder brother and former Union minister M K Azhagiri.

In the process, Stalin also silently and even more effectively sidestepped and sidelined nephew and controversial former Union minister Dayanidhi Maran.

If the post-Karunanidhi phase saw Azhagiri’s much-hyped prayer meeting at the father’s memorial at capital Chennai’s Marina become a damp squib, election 2019 saw Maran eating out of Stalin’s hand. 

In between, Stalin’s half-sister Kanimozhi bought peace with him possibly after realising that Azhagiri was not a full-time politicians as he had once shown up to be, and could not be relied upon to take the party forward.

At the commencement of her own political career in the aftermath of the Dinakaran newspaper attack case in Madurai and the forced exit of Maran, Jr from the UPA government of which the DMK was a part, Kanimozhi was seen as an unwilling and non-serious politician.

Not so anymore. If nothing else, the 2-G case has made her a serious politician. If until now, Kanimozhi was the leader of the DMK’s small parliamentary group in the Upper House, now she has been elected deputy leader in the Lower House with former Union Minister and party veteran T R Baalu named for the group leader’s job. Kanimozhi’s RS term incidentally ends in July along with those of five others from the state, and the DMK and AIADMK can win three each, as things stand.

At the same time, campaign for election 2019 also saw Stalin’s actor-son Udhayanidhi Stalin hitting the campaign trail, full time and big time. The DMK-led combine’s sweeping LS poll victory may now tempt Stalin and also the party to give Udhayanidhi greater organisational responsibilities than Karunanidhi was willing in their time.

Karunanidhi, it was said, was clear that he could promote Stalin or Azhagiri, Kanimozhi or Maran, only inside the party and also up to a point — no more. But for them to become chief minister or any other, they would have to strike a chord with the cadres and even more, the masses.

The short and medium term would thus see how Stalin balances his own power equations with Kanimozhi and Maran, and those from outside the family, and how and how far he inducts son Udhayanidhi into party affairs, that too ahead of the crucial assembly polls, which are not likely to be sooner than when due in May 2021.

Thrice rejected, and much more lucky, should be the theme of Stalin’s ‘victory song’ —  so should it be the ruling AIADMK’s dirge tune, if any, even if only in the immediate context.

Stalin had sought an appointment with PM Modi thrice in four months or so in the first half of 2017, and thrice his request was rejected.

As the Leader of the Opposition in  the state assembly with the single largest legislature group in decades, he wanted to highlight Tamil Nadu’s multiple problems and issues with the PM, but the latter was said to be too busy for such a meeting.

At the time, the social media was full of pictures of lesser mortals from the state, ruling AIADMK leaders in deputy chief minister O Panneerselvam (OPS) and RS member Maithreyan, yesteryear actors like Gowthami and Gayathri Raghuram, and a host of lower-level state BJP leaders meeting with the PM in Delhi.

But as the AIADMK has since learnt, association with the BJP at the Centre may have been a major factor for the complete wipe-out of the state’s ruling party in the  LS polls 2019.

Stalin and the DMK learnt it the hard way when PM Modi called on Karunanidhi at the latter’s Gopalapuram home in Chennai city out of the blue, but leading to the party nominee losing his security deposit in the suburban, cosmopolitan R K Nagar assembly by-election.

As chief minister, Karunanidhi lost election 2001 to the state assembly after the DMK joined the Vajpayee-led NDA government in 1999. Jaya burnt her fingers in the 2004 LS polls, hence her ‘Modi-ya, Lady-ya?’ call in the LS polls 10 years later, in 2014.

Stalin did one better by declaring Congress president Rahul Gandhi as the DMK’s favoured prime ministerial candidate, little bothered about how other regional parties might react to such a pre-condition of sorts.

Yet, there is no real guarantee that Stalin and the DMK could come back to power in the state, not possibly at least until after the 2021 assembly polls. The AIADMK’s victory in nine of the 22 assembly bypolls, held along with the nationwide LS polls, has given the party government and Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami some breathing space and time.

Given however the travesty of time and political allegiances in the absence of an election-winning charismatic leader like Jayalalithaa, the AIADMK and EPS may have to lean even more on the BJP Centre and PM Modi than already, if only to check against mass migration from the AIADMK legislature party, if only for either the DMK or others to form an alternative government.

Much as ‘outsiders’ may think that Stalin and DMK might have lost despite winning the LS polls big time, this strange situation may have actually helped him stabilise the leadership, without having to create other ‘power centres’ at ‘distant Delhi’, where he, like his late father Karunanidhi, continues to feel as an ‘outsider’.

To depend on the likes of Maran Jr, to communicate with the national leadership of the alliance leader at the Centre would have been too much for Stalin to handle just now. To expect Kanimozhi, too, to stay off trouble in his backyard, again would be a misnomer for Stalin to deal with.

This way, Stalin may have had the cake and be eating it too — in purely political terms, as electorally, he would become somebody if and only if, when and only when, he himself becomes the state chief minister. When it was not destined to happen with the by-elections in 22 assembly constituencies, he might have preferred it this way.

It is likewise for the divided yet twin leadership of the ruling AIADMK. CM Palanisami and deputy OPS, otherwise at daggers drawn behind their back, would not have to contend with third forces of the Union ministers kind from the party emerging just now — and giving them sleepless nights, jointly and severally.

Chief among their tormentors would have been outgoing LS deputy speaker M Thambidurai, who has lost badly to Congress greenhorn of sorts in Jothimani, who had gone out without a whimper in 2014.

EPS-OPS’s collective problem now would be what if PM Modi offers the party a ministerial position or two at the Centre, and they would have to nominate someone or the other from their existing RS pool.

If yes, they would face possible competition from another faceless leader as they were not very long ago. If not, again, with the likes of MDMK’s Vaiko going to RS, as part of the DMK’s LS poll commitment, they would not have a voice to hit back — other than the OPS’s faction’s Maithreyan, who is a suspect in the eyes of EPS.

Just now, however, the AIADMK would have to tackle their post-poll reversals, and set the house in order, well before the assembly polls of 2021. 

The lone LS seat and five of the nine assembly bypoll victories of the party owe to OPS’s southern belt, while EPS’s even more stronger western turf has proved to be a non-starter for the Vellalar Gounder CM from the region where the AIADMK was strong almost since inception vis-a-vis the DMK parent rival.

Yet, OPS has nothing much more to offer, especially if the losing Congress or AMMK rival from his son Ravindranath Kumar’s Theni LS seat were to challenge the results in the courts, in the coming weeks.

It is also becoming increasingly clear that much of the substantial share of votes that went to breakaway AMMK of rebel leader T T V Dhinakaran and those polled by actor-politicians Kamal Hassan with his MNM and Seeman’s NTK were all traditionally anti-DMK votes, which would not go to the AIADMK, post-Jaya.

That these voters did not pick up the BJP even in constituencies where the party was contesting as an ally of the AIADMK, and to the PMK, where the latter was contesting for the NDA, also shows that either it would be AIADMK votes, or would go the near-NOTA way, to less consequential parties of even less consequential leaders.

Yet, the question arises. Will prospective actor-politician Rajinikanth be tempted to take to direct electoral politics ahead of the assembly polls, as promised many a time since Jaya’s death especially? If so, will he oblige the BJP by joining hands, even if not joining the party?

Clearly, the MNM and NTK votes, and possibly the AMMK vote-share, also reflect an element of ‘minorities vote-share’ that did not go to the AIADMK because of the ‘BJP alliance’.

It could have also included a share of the traditional ‘minorities voters’ who may have been put off by Stalin’s deliberate non-mention of their cause and concerns during his long drawn-out campaign rallies, other than in pockets where their presence or dominance was strong — and not elsewhere.

This, as also the ready voter-acceptance of Stalin’s new poll-time declaration that the DMK was not against Hindus and Hinduism even under Dravidian ideologue-father Karunanidhi, should set the likes of Rajinikanth thinking more than already — which is possibly why, he has been staying out of it all thus far, despite repeated pious declarations to the contrary.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.

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