Between 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls, a big change has happened in Tamil Nadu. Two towering figures of the state’s recent political history — M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK are no more. Both the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) acutely miss the vote-catching capabilities of these leaders.
Second, as many as 22 by-elections to the State Assembly are taking place alongside the Lok Sabha polls. Their outcome will decide the majority enjoyed by AIADMK Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami.
Consequently, smaller parties, as well as the Congress and BJP, have become key players in the Lok Sabha elections.
Also, the emergence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a powerful player on the national scene over the last five years has had its impact in the state.
For a long time in Tamil Nadu, major regional players have never taken the BJP so seriously as in the 2019 polls. So much so, that Modi is the talking point in the campaign.
An eight-party alliance led by the (AIADMK), which includes the BJP, is seeking a second term for Modi as the best bet for an assured, empathetic Centre towards the problems of Tamil Nadu.
On the other hand, the DMK-led alliance, which includes the Congress, Left parties, Dalit outfit VCK, MDMK, IUML and KDMK, is squarely blaming Modi and his NDA government for the ills plaguing the state. They have blamed Modi for everything from farmer crisis in the state to the ill-effects of the ruling AIADMK under Chief Minister E K Palaniswami — after the death of its supremo Jayalalithaa in December 2016.
The DMK and its partners believe that an “unpopular state government, anti-incumbency against the BJP and Modi, absence of Jayalalithaa and the inevitable split of AIADMK votes by rebel TTV Dhinakaran” is tailor-made for the DMK-front to win maximum number of Lok Sabha seats and upset the AIADMK in the by-polls to the 22 assembly seats, which will decide the future of the CM.
The AIADMK realises it faces a definite threat to its traditional vote base from Dhinakaran, who heads a splinter group. Actor Kamal Haasan’s fledgling party is also in the fray.
Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami is not shy of saying openly that his party needs Modi as their leader. “We put a mega alliance to project Modi. When he wins, Tamil Nadu will get good projects and better financial assistance. The state will see growth.”
In fact, Modi has come to be seen as the single most factor around whom major regional players are preparing grand strategies either for survival by opposing the BJP or joining hands with it for their growth.
The last time the BJP won a meaningful number of seats (four) was in 1999, when it was in alliance with the DMK and Vaiko’s MDMK. Since then, the party has won only one seat in Kanyakumari, in 2014.
The DMK, which was part of Atal Bihar Vajpayee-led NDA government between 1999 and 2004, is bitterly opposed to Modi.
MK Stalin, who is trying to be the worthy successor of late Karunanidhi, is the first Dravidian leader to declare that his party is actually working to make Rahul Gandhi the next Prime Minister! So much for a Dravidian party that came into existence to oppose the Congress in the 1950s!
The BJP did pull off a surprise when it worked behind the scene for the alliance in Tamil Nadu with the AIADMK as its leader in the state. Till then, it was considered an outcast for other parties.
But, plagued by internal dissensions, the ruling AIADMK, which was weakened after Jayalalithaa’s demise in 2016, managed to rope in the PMK, DMDK, the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), the Puthiya Tamizhagam (PT), and the Puthiya Needhi Katchi (PNK) — because they were convinced that Modi’s leadership of the NDA was in better position to form the next government in Delhi.
The BJP did not mind competing only in five seats of the 39 seats — below the AIADMK and the PMK — since it is aware of its own strength, or the lack of it, among the masses in Tamil Nadu.
In 2014, the DMK, a partner in the UPA regimes of 2004 and 2009, walked out of the government in 2013, blaming the Congress for the dilution of a UN Human Rights Council resolution against Sri Lanka.
The AIADMK, despite very good ties between Modi (as the BJP’s then-prime ministerial candidate) and Jayalalithaa, chose to go alone. With the BJP winning a majority in the Lok Sabha, it required no help from Tamil Nadu to form the government.
This time, the AIADMK is pinning its hopes on its traditional vote base, Thevars in the South and Gounders in the West. It tied up with the PMK to improve its prospects in the northern districts. The PMK looks towards the Vanniyar community for its tally, while the PNK to the Mudaliars.
The DMDK, founded by actor Vijaykanth, has got four seats. But it is not in the best of its form, particularly after Vijaykanth’s illness. The other ally is the Tamil Maanila Congress headed by GK Vasan, son of late veteran Congress leader GK Moopanar. He revived the TMC after quitting the Congress.
As for the issues, the DMK-Congress alliance has sought to project Modi and BJP as “anti-Tamil” and “anti-Tamil Nadu” for “imposing” NEET and inadequate relief for the Cyclone Gaja-affected areas.
They have also enlarged their poll plank to blame the NDA for controversies surrounding the extraction of Methane and Hydrocarbon in Cauvery delta region, Sterlite killings, and protests over the eight-way express lane between Chennai and Salem. The failures of the state government have been blamed on the BJP.
The big question is, therefore, whether these issues will work against the AIADMK-led alliance to deny it of a decent number of seats. Will Modi be blamed for local issues after the May 23 verdict?
-Shekhar Iyer, Senior Journalist