The air was light and clearer but gusty hot winds blew as I landed at Chennai airport six days before the polling for Tamil Nadu’s 39 Lok Sabha seats. The southern-most state voted in the second phase on April 18. My last visit to the city was last year in the height of hot and humid August to cover the funeral of DMK patriarch and one of the great Tamil leaders M Karunanidhi, also referred – fondly – as Kalaignar, meaning artist in proto Tamil language.
While the coverage of funeral was a quick affair and I was back in New Delhi next day, only when I landed in Chennai this time to cover these Lok Sabha polls I realised the significance of that event.
After three decades, Tamil Nadu’s political pitch looked incomplete, if not parched without players. The state was going in elections but neither there was Kalaignar, nor the other great pivot of state politics – Amma or Jayalalithaa. Ms Jayalalithaa had passed away in the winters of 2016, leaving behind the party, whose strength as well as her legacy is on test in these 39 Lok Sabha seats and the by-polls on 22 assembly seats. The latter may well also impact if not the survival, least the stability of current state government, led by late Jayalalithaa’s two protégé – Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami and O. Panneerselvam, his deputy.
As I stepped out of the airport to get on with the pre-booked cab, I was to get the maiden idea of the contours of prevailing undercurrents in the state. My first interaction was with driver Shankar, the same one who had ferried me around the city on the day of Kalaignar’s funeral. Soon as I took my preferred seat next to the driver, Shankar said, “Chennai is very hot sir”.
I replied, “Yes, summers are really hot here… but lesser than last time I was here”. As he nodded in affirmation, I asked, “so what about elections?”
Shankar replied, “No Kalaignar, No Amma… can’t say…”
I asked, “but there is Palaniswami, Dhinakaran, Stalin and Modi…”
Shankar smiled without even looking at me and that was all about it.
His quip coupled with a wave of palm confirmed how simple and linear those two departed figures had their impact on the polls that it became easy to pick the nerve. But this time one actually had to dig deep or just rely on usual indicators like buzz at the party office, how forthcoming were leaders to talk, crowds at the rally, road shows to gather which party is ahead.
DMK along with Congress has stitched up a nine-party alliance of the UPA. On the other hand, AIADMK and BJP cobbled seven-party NDA. The latter had scored a clean sweep in 2014.
On to the mood now. The DMK office, the party which is now led by Kalaignar’s son Stalin, looked buzzing with an array of leaders and its two senior leaders always willing to oblige for a sound byte and even small version of interviews, called tic-tac these days. Its ally Congress too seems to be having some life in their otherwise moribund office, whose main audience hall displayed the portraits of erstwhile Tamil great leaders from C. Rajagopalachari to great K Kamraj to Moopnar. This office till late 60’s decided the fate of the state, but today it has cabins with individuals trying the contain the shrinking footprint in the state.
Meanwhile, one had to juggle with time and election rally schedule to catch up with the leadership of AIADMK. I was fortunate to catch up with the party leader directly involved in the poll activities. The leader had a good off-record conversation before getting going for a tic-tac. Claiming a self-promise of maximum chunk of seats, he conceded that challenge is bigger than last time when the DMK-Congress alliance was battling Modi wave at the national level and massive unpopularity in the confines of the state.
However, their most influential ally the BJP, contesting only on five seats, looked confident of one thing, rise in their vote share. Perhaps, the party are playing a long game and is still willing to be a part of an alliance rather than fighting alone. In three other southern states – Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana – the party is fighting alone, even though it is a serious player on all seats in just Karnataka.
Speaking to the bunch of students at the malls in the city or small kiosk selling coconut water and palm fruits, one senses a bit of dissatisfaction with the current state government. Even the analysts and local scribes added this in their detailed assessment. As per their estimates, the regional issues ruled the campaign narrative. The elections to 39 seats of Lok Sabha got further ‘regionalised’ due to by-polls in 22 Assembly seats.
The contest in this state seems purely between the feeling of how well the next generation of two Dravidian parties – the DMK and the AIADMK — will be able to carry forward the legacy of Kalaignar and Amma, respectively.
The national parties – Congress and the BJP – are a bit player here and more so they are in a direct contest only on two seats of Kanyakumari and Sivaganga, something which has staved off the national narrative in the campaign on other 37 seats and morphed it more local and regional.
On the day of polling, the city, as well as the state, starting with brisk polling as it has always done given the vote percentage in Tamil Nadu had always been better than the national average. This time too, it polled 73%, near about its 2014-mark of 74%.
The high voter turnout is keeping everyone guessing, as it usually does and more so when the two main sides are led by new charioteers holding a heavy baton of legacy and expectations.