Politics and Protest: Who Will Win in Tamil Nadu?

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Rahul N (rahul.ncslg@gmail.com) teaches at the Institute of Management in Government, Thiruvananthapuram.
19 April 2019

Is it possible for the DMK to come to power in Tamil Nadu in light of the recent splintering witnessed by the AIADMK? 

The 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu resulted in a resounding victory for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) which secured 38 out of 40 seats, while the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) failed to win even one. The DMK received only 23% of the vote share while the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) alliance bagged around 18% (Ramajayam 2014). The AIADMK victory was credited to the goodwill generated by Jayalalithaa's welfare measures. The DMK was still coping with the consequences of the power transfer from Karunanidhi to Stalin. The ghosts of corruption and aggrandisement continue to haunt the party. It could form an alliance with only two parties—Thirumavalavan’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and Krishnasamy’s Puthiya Thamaizhagam—both of which are Dalit parties. The NDA had managed to cut the prospects of the DMK by roping in Vijayakanth’s party, Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK)which was then the principal opposition party, along with Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and Anbumani Ramadoss’ Vanniyar caste-based party, Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). The Congress, which had contested alone, received more than 4% of the votes in the election, but it did not win a seat.

In the 2016 assembly elections, the AIADMK continued its victory streak, but with a reduced majority—winning 134 seats out of 235. The DMK–Congress combine received around 40% of the votes, while the AIADMK received 41% (ECI 2016). The AIADMK repeated its record of being the only party to be re-elected in the state.[1] Though it failed to win power, the DMK did make a comeback by winning 98 seats. The DMK’s failure to win the election was primarily attributed to the disproportionate number of seats allocated to Congress and its inability to form a broader alliance. It is notable that while the DMK won half of the seats it contested, the Congress won only 16%, that is, 8 seats out of 41. The PMK exhibited a remarkable performance by grabbing 5.6% of the votes, mostly from its northern and western belt, to the disadvantage of the DMK. The PMK formed the third-largest party in 2016, with 72 seats out of the 232 it contested. The People’s Welfare Alliance, which was constituted of smaller parties including the Left, the VCK, the MDMK and the DMDK, bagged totally around 6% votes. Despite anti-liquor protests, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) post-poll survey revealed that it was the overwhelming support that the AIADMK’s welfare measures enjoyed among women that tilted the balance decisively towards the party.

The Situation as it Stands Now

The scenario has changed since the last elections and the fall of AIADMK has been steeper. Post Jayalalithaa’s death, the AIADMK has been reduced to a party of warring factions, misgoverned continuously and capitulating to the centre, which is a non-Dravidian trait. Beginning with Jallikattu, the state has seen a series of public protests recently, over various issues like NEET, the Sterlite pollution, mismanagement of relief and rehabilitation during the Ockhi and Gaja cyclones, the GAIL pipeline in the delta region, the 8-lane Salem Highway, etc (Muralidharan 2017; Rajasekaran 2019a). Moreover, the problems of increasing sexual violence against women and children and alcoholism have only worsened (Muralidharan 2019; News Minute 2017). The women voters who voted for the welfare measures and the patron figure of Jayalalithaa have no reason to vote for the AIADMK this time. And more importantly, the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), the faction that split from the AIADMK under the leadership of T T V Dhinakaran, is expected to cut AIADMK to size for an eventual takeover (Jayakumar 2019). At present, the AIADMK, which managed to win the last election on its own, has now patched up a last-minute alliance with the BJP, DMDK, TMC, PMK, Puthiya Tamizhagam (PT) and Inthiya Jananyaga Katchi (IJK).

On the opposing side, the DMK has found its leader in Stalin, and has formed a broad alliance with the Congress, the Left, VCK, IUML, MDMK and KMDK. Since this is the first election after the deaths of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, the obvious frustration of the people with a rudder-less government is bound to help a coherently organised opposition.

Regional Possibilities

The political geography of Tamil Nadu can be divided into five regions, namely the western belt (7 seats), the upper northern belt (6 seats), the north-central belt (9 seats), the central-east delta (7 seats) and the southern region (10 seats). The Gounder-caste dominated west and the Thevar-caste dominated south are considered AIADMK strongholds along with the upper-north region, with the exception of Chennai. The DMK has traditionally held central Tamil Nadu, Chennai and the Kaveri delta region as its major stronghold, along with the constituencies of Chennai Urban in the north and the Christian-concentrated Kanyakumari in the south. Despite maintaining organisational superiority in their respective regions, the larger electorate had provided sweeping victories for both parties in the past, demonstrating the heft of the floating voters in Tamil Nadu.

The Western Belt

In 2016, the AIADMK proved that the industrial western belt is its indisputable bastion, winning 32 of the 42 assembly seats (Verma 2016). Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami is a Gounder from the region. The AIADMK has consolidated a coalition of the Gounders, who are the dominant caste in the region, and the Dalit Arunthathiyars, which has allowed the AIADMK to hold the kind of sway it has in this region. Except for the Coimbatore constituency from which the BJP is contesting, the AIADMK is contesting from all the other six seats. However, the situation looks tough for the AIADMK–BJP combine due to the recent economic decline. Both demonetisation and the goods and services tax have dealt severe blows to small and medium industries, while the larger industries are being wooed away by states like Andhra Pradesh (Madhavan 2019; Isaac 2018). Two Left candidates are contesting against the AIADMK at Tiruppur and Coimbatore. Though they have been reduced to mere shadows of their past, these left parties can still command votes in a prominent alliance. A former member of Parliament (MP) from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), P R Natarajan is contesting from Coimbatore against the BJP candidate C P Radhakrishnan, who became MP twice in the wake of 1998 Coimbatore bomb blasts. The combined strength of BJP and AIADMK in this seat poses a real challenge to Natarajan. One has to wait and see whether the AMMK, which has fielded former AIADMK district secretary as its candidate, disrupts AIADMK-BJP’s prospects. The recent exposé of a sexual exploitation racket run with the alleged connivance of AIADMK member of legislative assembly (MLA) Pollachi V Jayaraman, the deputy speaker of Tamil Nadu, might also add to the worries of AIADMK (Rajasekaran 2019b). On paper, the party has got the caste arithmetic right by roping in the Vanniyar PMK, while the DMK is banking on the massive loss of employment and the alliance with MDMK and KMDK, a Gounder caste party.  Whether the alliance will be enough to make use of the general anger against the government in the state and the centre remains to be seen.

The Upper-northern Belt

The AIADMK appears to have an edge in the northern region with its alliance with PMK, and the Mudaliyar-caste PNK. The DMK swept the region last time, in the backdrop of maladministration during the Chennai floods (Balasubramanian 2016). But being the most urbanised region in the state, the anti-incumbency sentiment in the Chennai metropolitan region could help the DMK. In Chennai, where DMK won 13 out of 19 assembly seats, it might win all the three constituencies though Chennai South could see a tough fight between Thamizhachi Thangapandian, daughter of former DMK minister Thangapandian and J Jayavardhan, sitting MP and son of AIADMK minister Jayakumar. Former central ministers T R Balu and Dayanidhi Maran are contesting from Sriperumbudur and Chennai Central respectively. Unfortunately, this is also an election where the DMK has gone full throttle with dynastic politics. While the son of late DMK leader Arcot Veerasamy, Dr Kalanidhi Veerasamy contests from Chennai North, DMK strongman Durai Murugan, who faced IT raids recently, will field his son D M Kadhir against A C Shanmugham, the leader of PNK in Vellore in the adjacent North Central region.

The North-Central Belt

In the case of north-central Tamil Nadu, the dominance is split between AIADMK and DMK with the former dominating the north, the Vanniyar heartland and the latter, central Tamil Nadu. In the last assembly elections, AIADMK and DMK won 28 and 25 seats respectively. With the PMK forming the third-largest party, which came third in many seats in 2016, the AIADMK aims to override the anti-incumbency. Being part of the Chennai–Coimbatore industrial corridor, the decline in employment and industry will certainly reverberate in the verdict (Sivapriyan 2019). Moreover, the region was at the epicentre of the recent agrarian and environmentalist protests against forced land acquisition and the proposed destruction of forests for the 8-lane Salem Expressway (Rao and Kaveri 2018). The recent Madras High Court decision to quash the land acquisition process has only added to the worries of the AIADMK (Imranullah 2019). Even PMK leader Ramadoss, one of the two NDA MPs elected in 2014, is facing a tough fight at Dharmapuri, the centre of Vanniyar caste violence. The rebellion by the family members of the late Kaduvetti Guru, a casteist henchman against PMK leadership could affect his chances. Riding over anti-incumbency, popular protests and alliance with VCK and Congress, the DMK front expects decent victory in the region. While the VCK chief Thol Thirumavalavan is contesting at Chidambaram in the adjacent delta region, his lieutenant Ravi Kumar will be contesting under DMK symbol in Viluppuram.

The Central-east Delta

Central-east Tamil Nadu, though originally a DMK stronghold with a considerable Left presence, had turned into a polarised region with AIADMK asserting its presence. Thiruvarur, the constituency from which Karunanidhi won in 2011 and 2016 falls under Thanjavur constituency. For the past two decades, the Kaveri delta had been a site of sorrow for the farmers, some taking their fight even to Delhi. The years 2017 and 2018 saw protests erupting over the GAIL pipelines being laid and hydrocarbons being extracted from a region where farmers have already been battling an extreme agrarian crisis (Poonkuzhali 2018). The recent memory of extreme mismanagement by the AIADMK and the BJP in the face of the Gaja cyclone is also expected to intensify the anger against them (Senthalir 2019). The Left has fielded a Communist Party of India candidate in Nagapattinam to capitalise on the agrarian distress. Mannargudi in Thanjavur also happens to be the home turf of T T V Dhinakaran and the AMMK may split AIADMK votes in the Thanjavur constituency helping DMK which has brought back expelled local chief S S Palanimanickam to contest. In Thiruchi, AMMK candidate Sarubala Thondaiman from the royal family could provide a fight for Congress veteran Su Thirunavukkarasar, which might sideline AIADMK. With the Mannargudi mafia hailing from the Thevar community, the AMMK could dent AIADMK’s chances in certain seats in the delta and southern region. In Karur, the seat of Lok Sabha deputy speaker Thambi Durai, where the AIADMK had swept the assembly elections, the Congress has fielded Jothi Mani. While Durai is facing anti-incumbency in the constituency, the DMK played a smart move by fielding an area strongman and former AIADMK MLA, Senthil Balaji. 

The Southern Region

In the south, though the AIADMK is stronger, the DMK has an upper hand in Dindigul, the stronghold of DMK heavyweight I Periasamy, and in Kanyakumari where the DMK–Congress combine could unseat the BJP’s union minister Pon Radhakrishnan. In fact, in the last assembly elections, out of the 58 seats, DMK had won 26 and AIADMK won 32. In Kanyakumari, the impact of Ockhi cyclone along with the apprehensions of fishermen regarding the proposed port at Enayam have already mobilised people against the BJP–AIADMK front (Simhan 2019). Also, the Christian votes which were split between AIADMK and the DMK in the last elections are expected to shift to the Congress’ Vasantha Kumar, a popular Nadar businessman who lost to Radhakrishnan last time. In Sivagangai, corruption alleged Karthi Chidambaram is facing a tough fight against the vitriolic BJP figure H Raja who is dependent on the AIADMK machinery. In the Thevar caste belt, Theni is up for a trigonal contest between AIADMK, AMMK and the Congress. While AIADMK is fielding deputy chief minister O Panneerselvam’s son Raveendranath, while the Congress has fielded veteran E V K S Elangovan and the AMMK has fielded and the disqualified MLA Thanga Thamizhchelvan.

In Madurai, CPIM’s Su Venkatesan, a Sahitya Academy winner, who championed the cause of the Keezhadi excavations that brought to light the possibilities of the existence of ancient urban civilisation along Vaigai river, is expected to win (Shoba 2019). In 2017, the excavation officer of the Archaeological Survey of India, Amarnath Ramakrishnan was transferred from Keezhadi under the orders of the centre, leading to anti-BJP sentiments as the BJP was perceived to be afraid of Tamil Nadu’s historical legacy and Tamil pride. Rajya Sabha member and Karunanidhi’s daughter, Kanimozhi will face BJP leader Tamizhisai Soundararajan from Thuthukudi constituency. With the memories of the police firing killing 13 people protesting against the copper-smelting Sterlite Industries, owned by Vedanta, the result should favour Kanimozhi (Isaac 2019). With AMMK cutting into Thevar votes and Vaiko’s MDMK in an alliance, the prospects are not bad for DMK front in Virudhunagar, Ramanathapuram, Tirunelveli and Thenkasi too.

For the DMK, the problems are the disproportionate seats given to Congress and the capacity of the left candidates to win. However, as established parties, they do present credible candidates to tap anti-incumbency. Additionally, the DMK though organised now, still shares the blame for blatantly propagating family politics by fielding a number of scions (Economic Times 2019).

In the absence of a towering Tamil identity figure like Karunanidhi and an iron-fisted administrator like Jayalalithaa, this election is a test of several given attributes of the electorates of Tamil Nadu. The questions that arise are:  In the absence of Jayalalithaa, will the western and southern belts of the AIADMK remain intact? Will the sizeable Vanniyar caste votes stick to PMK despite its alliance with AIADMK? For the AIADMK, the challenges are far more serious as with the defeat, the tactically superior Dhinakaran is expected to make moves to take over AIADMK.

On the whole, social media and the urban public space is diffused with anti-AIADMK sentiments. Both the DMK and the Congress have also set the agenda with their manifestos. Rahul Gandhi’s recent interaction at a women’s college in Chennai has only added to the heft (India Today 2019). The larger electorate is poised to swing the election in favour of the DMK. The fact that the DMK is not absolved of its twin sins - corruption and dynastic politics—does provide fodder for smaller parties like the anti-Dravidian Tamil chauvinist Naam Tamizhar and Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Neethi Mayyam to make their presence felt. However, the electorate seems too embattled and desperate to experiment at this stage. The series of popular protests on several fronts—environmental, centre-state relations, educational, cultural, agricultural—and the declining employment situation has probably produced the most politically conscious young electorate in the country. This election is also a juncture to assess how much the secular and civic sensibilities that have evolved in these times will manifest electorally. The DMK has its task cut out while the space for alternative politics is wide open in the future.

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Rahul N (rahul.ncslg@gmail.com) teaches at the Institute of Management in Government, Thiruvananthapuram.
19 April 2019