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Tamil Nadu: New Times Ahead

For the first time since 1952, a minority government has assumed power in Tamil Nadu following the state assembly elections. The DMK's victory was aided by its astute coalition logic and its manifesto that reached the poor and the marginalised. But there are challenges Karunanidhi must brace himself to meet: The Congress, is hungry for power and the AIADMK, which though vanquished, is not broken yet.



New Times Ahead

For the first time since 1952, a minority government has assumed power in Tamil Nadu following the state assembly elections. The DMK’s victory was aided by its astute coalition logic and its manifesto that reached the poor and the marginalised. But there are challenges Karunanidhi must brace himself to meet: The Congress, is hungry for power and the AIADMK, which though vanquished, is not broken yet.


he recently concluded election to the Tamil Nadu state assembly has, for the first time since the formation of the linguistic state of Madras in 1956, resulted in a minority government headed by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Though the DMK has formed the government with only 96 members in an assembly of 234 elected representatives, its electoral allies, the Indian National Congress, the Pattali Makal Katchi (PMK), the CPI (M) and the CPI, have given letters of support to the government. In fact, the PMK and the Left parties have announced at the beginning of the election campaign itself that they would support a DMK government from outside without seeking a share in power.

Ever since early parleys held by the DMK with other parties to form the Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA), its leadership has shown an astute understanding of the fact that the future of politics in Tamil Nadu belongs to coalitions. During the seat-sharing exercise, the DMK, which is known for tough bargaining over seats in the past, followed a flexible approach and offered considerable number of seats to its allies. The Congress was allotted 48 seats, the PMK, 31, the CPI (M), 13, and the CPI, 10, the DMK itself contested only 132 seats. It also showed a willingness to part with constituencies that are known to be its strongholds so as to please its allies. Further, the DMK president M Karunanidhi declared at least on three occasions during the election campaign that he was not averse to a coalition government in the state. All these gave the front a high degree of cohesion as evident from the well-coordinated election campaign that it carried out.

In fact, anyone who has followed carefully the outcomes of the state assembly election of 2001 and the Lok Sabha election of 2003 would have understood that the DMK’s was a strategy that had a greater possibility of delivering electoral victory. In the 2001 elections, the Congress, the PMK, and the Left parties allied with the AIADMK and the AIADMK-led front won the election handsomely. In the 2003 elections, all these parties switched sides and joined the DMK camp. And the DMK-led front won all the 39 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu. In the 2003 election, the DMK front was also aided by the groundswell against the AIADMK because of its policies such as crushing the government employees’ strike and passing the Anti-conversion Act.

The realisation that it needed allies to win the election dawned on the AIADMK a little too late. It used all the resources at its disposal as a ruling party, including the officials of the police’s intelligence wing, to rope in smaller parties. In a last minute volte-face and risking whatever is left of its political reputation, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) eventually joined the AIADMK front. It may be remembered that the AIADMK government had earlier imprisoned Vaiko, the founder leader of the MDMK, for almost two years under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and he had, in turn, depicted the AIADMK general secretary, J Jayalalithaa, as a fascist. Since the DMK front did not accommodate the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI), it also joined the AIADMK as an electoral ally. However, even after winning over these two parties, the AIADMK did not show adequate enthusiasm to integrate them fully into the front. For instance, Jayalalithaa chose not to address even a single political meeting along with the leaders of these parties.

Though the AIADMK front did not have many political parties on its side, it had a non-electoral ally in the form of the press. Barring a few exceptions, the mainstream media in the state, including the leading English and Tamil newspapers, took an openly partisan stance in favour of the AIADMK and functioned as if they were the propaganda machinery of the party. Tellingly, even after the exit polls predicted a clear victory for the DMK front, some of the newspapers deluded themselves and their readers by claiming that the AIADMK would score a victory because of larger voter turnout. The role of the press in the present election is reminiscent of the 1971 state assembly election during which it rallied against the DMK more or less in unison.

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Despite the unprecedented support of the media barons, the partial withdrawal of a number of unpopular policies implemented during the first half of the AIADMK rule, and the relentless and vicious attack by Vaiko that the DMK’s victory will not benefit Tamil Nadu but only Karunanidhi’s extended family, the Democratic Progressive Alliance registered an impressive win with 163 seats and 44.73 per cent of the votes. The AIADMK front won 69 seats with 40.06 per cent of the votes. Significantly, though the AIADMK contested as many as 188 seats, it could win no more than 61 seats. Contesting fewer number of seats compared to the AIADMK, the DMK won 96 seats. It is also important to note that the AIADMK won most of its seats on a slender margin as compared to the DMK. While the victory margin of 56 successful DMK candidates out of 96 (i e, 58 per cent) was over 10,000 votes, only 15 of the 61 successful AIADMK candidates (i e, 25 per cent) could gain such a margin.

Economic and Political Weekly June 3, 2006

In certain ways, the results of the 2006 elections have been in the making for the past two decades. The 1980s and the 1990s witnessed in Tamil Nadu the assertion of multiple interests in the political domain. Though reservation of seats in educational institutions and government jobs has a long history in the state, its benefits were unevenly distributed across various backward castes. It benefited some castes more than others leading to the formation of separate caste-based parties seeking special treatment. The successful agitation in the 1980s by the vanniyars which resulted in a separate 20 per cent quota for the most backward castes and denotified communities (within the backward caste quota) led to the formation of the PMK. Persecuted by the backward caste thevars, the “untouchable” devendra kula vellars in south Tamil Nadu sought refuge in Islam in the 1980s. The much-publicised Meenakshipuram conversions form the best known part of this story. But by the middle of the 1990s they had their own political outfit, Devendra Kula Vellala Federation, which emerged in 1999 as a full-fledged political party, the Puthiya Tamilagam (PT). In north Tamil Nadu, the Dalit Panthers of India, which had shunned electoral politics to begin with and stood against continued vanniyar caste violence against them, also blossomed into a political party in 1999. The communalisation of politics in north India and its reverberations in Tamil Nadu following the demolition of Babri Masjid led to a more militant mobilisation of Muslims in the state. The consolidation of Muslim youth in the state took form of Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam founded in 1995. Thus, during the 1980s and the 1990s, politics in Tamil Nadu underwent a major reconfiguration with multiple identities and interests jostling for recognition. In short, the old historic block of non-brahmins or Tamils, which subsumed and muted various sectional interests, has developed irreparable fissures during this period. The fact that only those alliances that accommodate these sectional interests can survive the electoral process in Tamil Nadu is more than evident from the outcomes of the state assembly elections of 2001 and 2006 and the Lok Sabha election of 2003.

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This point gets reinforced by the not-soimpressive performances of the PMK and the DPI in the 2006 assembly election. The PMK won only 18 of the 31 seats it had contested and managed only 5.65 per cent of the total votes. The DPI won two of the nine seats it had contested and accounted for 1.29 per cent of the votes. Frustrated by the inability to expand its support base beyond the vanniyar belt in the north Tamil Nadu, the PMK at one point sought the bifurcation of the state into north and south so that it was possible for a member of the vanniyar caste to become the chief minister in north Tamil Nadu. Subsequently, the PMK joined the DPI to form the Tamil Protection Movement. The movement appealed to the Tamils to change their names to “purer” Tamil names if their original names were derived from Sanskrit, attacked films which carried English words in their titles and indulged in mob censorship by raiding and damaging film halls which exhibited films that it considered objectionable. Obviously this was an attempt by both the PMK and the DPI to transcend their caste-based support base by invoking a sanitised and inclusive Tamil identity. This shift, more precisely a drift, in the politics of the PMK and the DPI has alienated the cadres who have already been mobilised on sectional caste-based interests. In other words, sections of the cadres of the PMK and DPI have adequate reason not to bet on these parties as protectors of their interests. Significantly, it is clear from the election results that the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), a party floated by film actor Vijayakanth in September 2005, has made considerable inroads into the vote bank of the PMK and the DPI.

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As much as the logic of coalition politics, the DMK’s election manifesto which promised welfare measures for the poor, played a crucial role in deciding the electoral outcomes. The DMK promised, among other things, 20 kgs of rice at the price of Rs 2 per kg for ration card-holders, waiver of agricultural loans and land to the landless. Thus, the DMK did not delude itself by the all-pervasive rhetoric that India is emerging as a global economic power. It concentrated instead on the vast majority of the people who have not yet and perhaps not in their lifetime will get a slice of the so-called economic miracle that India is witnessing. The manifesto caught the imagination of the voters and became a constant theme of conversation among them, in particular in the countryside.

Entrapped in the liberalisation ideology which accounted for most of the unpopular measures taken by the AIADMK government during the first half of its tenure, the only substantive promise that the AIADMK manifesto offered was five lakh jobs in the IT sector. And one of J Jayalalithaa’s constant refrains in her election speeches was that she would turn Tamil Nadu into a copy of Hong Kong. She initially ridiculed the welfare promises of the DMK, but subsequently panicked when surging crowds at the DMK election meetings cheered the speakers every time they referred to the manifesto. In the later part of the AIADMK campaign, Jayalalithaa tried to outmatch the DMK’s promised welfare measures by her own. It was too late and lacked conviction. After all, she was the one who ridiculed the DMK manifesto earlier as a document meant to con the Tamil voters. At the end, the Tamil Nadu electorate voted in favour of subsidised rice and against Tamil Nadu becoming a copy of Hong Kong.

When the DMK president M Karunanidhi entered the state secretariat as chief minister following the elections, thousands of secretariat employees, including a large number of women, showered flowers and shouted slogans welcoming him. It was a Saturday and a holiday. Their enthusiasm was described by an English newspaper as ‘When Fort St George Turned Anna Arivalayam’. While Fort St George is where the secretariat is located, Anna Arivalayam is the DMK party headquarters. Similarly, about 2,000 families of road workers celebrated his return to power by declaring that the date he assumed power would for them be as auspicious as the day of Tamil harvest festival of Pongal. Both, i e, government employees as well as the road workers, were victims of Jayalalithaa’s policy of “fiscal discipline”. While she dismissed 1.7 lakh government employees by a single order, the fate of 10,000 road workers was no different. The cheerful welcome they accorded to Karunanidhi has a message not only for J Jayalalithaa but also for free market messiahs of the UPA like P Chidambaram.


The minority DMK government faces two important challenges. First, it has to face the AIADMK opposition with 61 members. If the past record is any indication, the AIADMK as an opposition

Economic and Political Weekly June 3, 2006

party has never behaved responsibly in the assembly and has instead employed the worst possible steps to disrupt it. Not known for subtleties, Jayalalithaa has already characterised the ruling party MLAs as “barbarians”. This statement encapsulated the attitude of the AIADMK towards the ruling party. One has to wait and see how the AIADMK opposition is going to “civilise” the barbarians. Second, voted out of power for the past four decades, the faction-ridden and power-hungry Tamil Nadu Congress is already itching to share power. Even if the DMK accepts a coalition ministry, the Congress cannot satisfy its warring factions in the state. Indeed, during the candidate selection for the assembly election, the Congress followed a quota system to keep different factions happy. This is precisely the context in which one needs to make sense of Jayalalithaa’s recent statement to her cadres. In the statement, she notes, “The minority government that assumed office after the May 8 Assembly polls will not last long and it cannot deliver the goods. Be optimistic… The future belongs to our party alone…”. If in 1952 the minority Congress government in Madras Presidency headed by C Rajagopalachari gobbled up smaller parties to stabilise itself, in 2006 the AIADMK may try to destabilise the minority DMK government by engineering defections.



Economic and Political Weekly June 3, 2006

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