Tamil Nadu

Anti-Modi wave

Print edition : June 07, 2019

DMK president M.K. Stalin with (from left) Udhayanidhi Stalin, Kanimozhi, Dayanidhi Maran, T.R. Baalu, Tiruchi Siva and A. Raja at the memorial of his father, former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, in Chennai on May 25. Photo: R. Senthil Kumar/PTI

Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami with Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam and BJP president Tamilisai Soundararajan. Photo: M. VEDHAN

VCK leader Thol. Thirumavalavan. Photo: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

MNM founder Kamal Haasan talking to the media in Chennai. Photo: Bijoy Ghosh

AMMK deputy general secretary T.T.V. Dinakaran. Photo: M. Samraj

The all-embracing anti-Modi sentiment in the State and astute seat adjustments by the DMK enable the alliance led by the party to make almost a clean sweep in the Lok Sabha election.

In December 2017, when the byelection to the R.K. Nagar (an Assembly constituency in Chennai that fell vacant after Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s death) was finally held after mass bribing of voters forced the Election Commission to rescind the exercise in April that year, it was not clear which way Tamil Nadu would vote in the general election. But the Tamil Nadu voter had decided. The voter sought out T.T.V. Dinakaran, leader of Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), a breakaway group of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the most vehement and consistent critic of the Narendra Modi government and voted for him. In that byelection, the first election to be held after the death of Jayalalithaa, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) lost its deposit.

Later, Dinakaran changed tack and tried to cosy up to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by offering it support in the presidential election. That was the opportunity DMK president M.K. Stalin was looking for: he enthusiastically jumped into the anti-Modi space, occupied it, owned it, and reaped the benefits from his unwavering stance. To make sure that the people of Tamil Nadu got the message, Stalin went a mile ahead and called Modi names, such as “sadist Modi” and “autocrat” and tweeted against Modi with enthusiasm, and each time Modi visited Tamil Nadu, the hashtag #GoBackModi would trend on Twitter. This would not have been possible without the contribution of the DMK’s efficient information technology wing.

There were reasons for the anti-Modi wave. The first issue which fuelled anger against the AIADMK government in the State and the BJP government at the Centre was the ban on jallikattu, a traditional sport of a community in south Tamil Nadu. Jallikattu is not a pan-Tamil Nadu sport, but the first mass protest showed that the people were waiting for an issue to record their disapproval on a number of issues after the demise of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. Though the ban was imposed by the earlier United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government that was in power until 2014, when it was implemented in late 2016 there were spontaneous agitations across the State.

The anger only grew from then on. The subsequent actions of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, such as the imposition of NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test) on Tamil Nadu students, the insistence on the eight-lane project from Chennai to Salem, and the bulldozing of the hydrocarbon project, pushed the voters of Tamil Nadu in one direction—they were set to vote against Modi. NEET found a rallying point after the suicide of Anita, a student who scored very high in her class 12 exams but did not do well enough to qualify under the new entrance examination system. Most of Tamil Nadu’s southern and eastern coasts were affected badly by two cyclones in recent years, Ockhi and Gaja. Because of the scale of the devastation, many leaders assumed that the Prime Minister would fly down to meet the affected people. He did not. This added to the anger of the voters, who saw Modi fly down 10 times in a space of 40 days ahead of the announcement of the elections to inaugurate one project or another.

The people of Tamil Nadu had decided: it did not matter who or what the alternative was. Modi had to go. This was the critical difference between the people of Tamil Nadu and the rest of India. They had answered the question that many BJP sympathisers were asking across India—“If not Modi, then who?” The people of Tamil Nadu felt that this question could wait until Modi was out of power.

Tamil Nadu voters hand over clear verdicts in each election. These are often at variance with the waves sweeping India. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, they answered AIADMK supremo Jayalithaa’s question “Modiya? Ladya?” (meaning the choice was between Modi or the lady, Jayalalithaa) very clearly and gave the AIADMK victory in 37 of the 39 seats in the State. In 2019, they repeated their clear verdict, this time for Stalin, who consistently highlighted the failings of Modi in his campaigns.

In fact, the DMK had a one-point agenda: work on the anti-Modi sentiment in Tamil Nadu and reap the benefits. It stitched together a coalition that had the anti-Modi agenda as its singular focus. This exercise was not easy, and the DMK conceded more ground than it should have, primarily because it wanted to ensure that there was no friction in the alliance.

For instance, there were a few deals among the parties in the alliance that were not revealed by the DMK. For instance, while it is common knowledge that the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) was offered a Rajya Sabha seat, the alliance remained tight-lipped over another Rajya Sabha seat given to the Congress. The DMK has the strength to send two members to the Rajya Sabha, and it has sacrificed both to ensure better cohesion in the alliance. In all probability, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose tenure in the Rajya Sabha ends now, will be the Congress candidate. He called up Stalin soon after the landslide victory in Tamil Nadu and congratulated him.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that this strategy succeeded in the Lok Sabha election but fell short of being good enough in the byelections to the 22 Assembly constituencies in the State for which polling was held simultaneously. Whipping up an anti-Modi feeling for the byelections fetched the DMK only limited returns, though the AIADMK ran a rubber-stamp government, acquiescing in each whim of the Centre. Local issues, such as the Pollachi rape case, the Tuticorin firings and many more, were not brought into sharp focus in the campaign.

The 2019 Lok Sabha election and the byelections to the 22 Assembly seats proved beyond doubt that there was no space for a third force in the State, despite the void left by the two big leaders, Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. The DMK combine won all but one of the 38 seats in the State to which elections were held.

The DMK won 23, the Congress eight, the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), two each, and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) one each.

Though the VCK won two, one of its candidates contested under the DMK’s rising sun symbol. The VCK, though a registered party, is not a recognised State party. Hence, as per Election Commission guidelines, it can choose a symbol from the free symbols but the same symbol would not necessarily be available for it in the next election. So the party was forced to spend considerable energy and resources during each election to popularise its symbol.

For this reason, it is common practice in Tamil Nadu, and in many other States too, for a member of a political party to contest under the symbol of a recognised political party whose symbol people can easily identify. Currently, three MLAs in the Tamil Nadu Assembly who won on the AIADMK’s two leaves symbol run their own political parties.

In this Lok Sabha election, the MDMK’s candidate in Erode, the Indhiya Jananayaga Katchi’s (IJK) leader in Perambalur and the Kongunadu Makkal Desiya Katchi (KMDK) candidate who contested from Namakkal did so under the rising sun symbol of the DMK. But it is a dicey problem for the leader of a political party to contest under the symbol of another political party because he should first join the political party whose symbol he wants to use.

Thol. Thirumavalavan, the VCK party chief, decided that it was better that he took one of the many free symbols rather than “joining” DMK for the sake of contesting the election. He got the “earthern pot” symbol and decided that it was worth working on popularising that symbol. In the 2016 Assembly election, Thirumavalavan lost by fewer than 100 votes.

Vote shares

In the Lok Sabha election in the State, the DMK’s vote share was a whopping 32.8 per cent (1.39 crore votes), while the AIADMK’s was 18.5 per cent (just over 78 lakh), according to the Election Commission. The Congress managed a 12.8 per cent vote share to the BJP’s 3.7 per cent.

The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) managed to retain its vote base (5.42 per cent), while the AMMK, which showed potential, got less than the PMK (5.38 per cent). Seeman’s Naam Tamilar Katchi came next with 3.99 per cent, while actor Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiyam (MNM) received 3.94 per cent.

In the Assembly byelections, the DMK won 13 seats, managing to wrest 12 seats from the AIADMK, which won nine. The DMK polled over 19 lakh votes (45.1 per cent) and the AIADMK just over 16 lakh votes (about 38.2 per cent) while all the other remaining parties combined managed only 6.8 lakh votes (15.7 per cent). NOTA received just over 47,000 votes (about 1.1 per cent).

No space for a third force

Before the election, three political parties, two of them new entrants and raring to go for their first battle, were in the limelight: the MNM, the AMMK and the Naam Tamilar Katchi, which was attracting youths from across the State. Three other political parties, the PMK, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) and the MDMK, were fighting to stay relevant in the State. The two Dalit parties, the VKC and the Puthiya Tamilagam (PT), despite their lack of representation in the Assembly or Parliament, had managed to retain their respective vote base and appeared not to be too ambitious.

Kamal Haasan, who considered himself an alternative force in the State, made an unimpressive debut as he was nowhere near the percentage of votes managed by the two alliances led by the DMK and the AIADMK. But he put a brave face on it: “We are now considered an alternative,” he told the media on May 24. “There are two mammoth parties in the State. But we have stood out. We now exist in every constituency. So the decision to contest itself was good,” he said.

The AMMK was expected to get a major vote share and become the third political force in the State, cutting into the AIADMK’s constituency. But, barring three Assembly seats in the State, the AMMK did not manage to be the difference between victory and defeat for the AIADMK. The third political party, which has a narrow focus on Tamil nationalism and has remained stagnant for nearly a decade in the State, the Naam Tamilar Katchi, continues this status quo. But there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that many Tamil youths are attracted to the party’s ideals, which include glorification of Velupillai Prabakaran, the slain Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader.

The electoral decimation of two other political forces in the State—of the PMK, which both the DMK and the AIADMK wanted to ally themselves with before of the election, and that of actor Vijayakant’s DMDK—is the other story of the 2019 elections.

The PMK, which went it alone with the slogan “Maatram, Munnetram” (Change, Development) in the 2016 Assembly election and drew a blank, decided to get back into the AIADMK alliance hoping for a change of luck. It was roundly criticised for this U-turn because the major plank of the party in the 2016 Assembly elections was that it would never ally itself with any Dravidian party (see “Fight for relevance”, Frontline, April 26, 2019).

The PMK brushed aside the embarrassing videos and promises of its leaders that surfaced on social media and took to the field with determination to prove that it had a major space in the State’s politics. The party’s fortunes did not change, though it managed to be the fourth largest party in this election, polling 5.4 per cent of the votes.

The DMDK, a party in decline because of the failing health of Vijayakant and the many missteps of his wife and party leader Premalatha and his brother-in-law Sudheesh, drowned with the AIADMK alliance. It managed to get 2.2 per cent of the votes and was behind both the CPI (2.43 per cent) and the CPI(M), which got 2 .4 per cent of the votes.

In effect, Phenomenon Modi, which propelled the BJP again to power at the Centre in an astonishing manner, was the reason for the astounding defeat of the AIADMK alliance in Tamil Nadu. The lone survivor of this clean sweep was the son of Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam, O.P. Raveendranath, who won by over 76,000 votes. Raveendranath visited Varanasi with Panneerselvam and fell at Modi’s feet to seek his blessings for his victory before the election.

He was expected to have a tough fight on his hands because of the presence of the AIADMK’s former Theni district secretary, Thanga Tamil Selvan, in the fray as the AMMK’s candidate. Personal rivalry between Panneerselvam and Tamil Selvan set the stage for one of the more interesting contests in the State. Going by the votes Tamil Selvan polled, it appears that the people of the constituency were not impressed with his repeated outbursts and outrageous claims.

A former Minister and a familiar BJP face in Tamil Nadu, Pon. Radhakrishnan, lost his Kanyakumari seat to a sitting Congress MLA by over 2.5 lakh votes. He had won this seat in 2014, but that was because all the four major political parties in Kanyakumari, the Congress, the DMK, the AIADMK and the BJP, contested as separate entities. Kanyakumari votes on religious lines, and the Congress-DMK alliance made it easier for people to make the decision.

All the BJP candidates, who are also office-bearers in the State unit, lost. The BJP’s State president, Tamilisai Soundararajan, lost to the DMK’s Kanimozhi by a margin of over three lakh votes. The most controversial BJP leader in the State, H. Raja, lost to Karti Chidambaram, former Union Minister P. Chidambaram’s son, in Sivaganga, while C.P. Radhakrishnan, who was tipped to win in Coimbatore against the CPI(M)’s P.R. Natarajan, also lost by a wide margin. The decimation of the BJP was total. It was clear that the attempts at communal polarisation in these constituencies had not worked.

With the exception of Thirumavalavan (who won by 3,219 votes), all other DMK-alliance candidates won with significant margins. In fact, in Thirumavalavan’s Chidambaram constituency, the leads alternated back and forth, and there were heated exchanges between the agents of political parties as the counting progressed late into the night.

“Delighted!!” tweeted the film-maker Pa. Ranjith, who strives to make a political statement in almost all his movies. “Even with this word it is impossible to measure Brother Thiruma’s [Thirumavalavan’s] victory. It is also impossible to compare his victory with any other victory too,” he wrote. Thirumavalavan could have easily stood on a symbol with greater acceptance and recognition (a reference to the DMK’s rising sun symbol), and could have won much more easily, Ranjith contended. Thirumavalan’s carefully worded “Thank you” message took pains to point out that all communities had voted for him.

But this is only part of the truth. K. Krishnasamy, the Dalit party Puthiya Tamilagam’s chief, who contested in the AIADMK alliance, lost in Tenkasi. The victory margin of Thirumavalavan is the narrowest in this election. This is where the role of the intermediate castes becomes clear.

Reserved Constituencies

A new kind of politics is being played out in the reserved constituencies. Political parties have to field Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe candidates in these constituencies. Non-S.C. representatives of political parties say that there is a general feeling among leaders of intermediate castes that leaders of Dalit parties have to be defeated. It was fine to “allow” a person from the S.C. community to win as long as that person is not the leader of a party. The reasoning is that Dalit leaders would grow in stature with victories, and the State might witness a Dalit consolidation. This needs to be avoided, according to the second-rung leaders.

Even the DMK alliance partners could not believe the massive margins of their victories. Most of them won by over a lakh-plus votes, and some won by bigger margins: P. Velusamy (Dindigul) and T.R. Baalu (Sriperumbudur) by a margin of over five lakh votes; and Dr Kalanidhi Veerasamy (North Chennai), Jothimani. S (Karur), T. Paarivendhar (Perambalur) and Su. Thirunavakkarasar (Tiruchi) won by over four lakh votes.

At the end of the counting, it was clear that Tamil Nadu had elected more representatives of the Left parties (four), than the Left’s traditional bastions of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura put together. Not just the Left, even the Congress had a lot to thank the DMK for. If the DMK had not literally gifted 10 seats (nine in Tamil Nadu and one in Puducherry), the Congress tally in Parliament (and its vote share) would have been lower than its 2014 tally.

D. Ravikumar, a VCK office-bearer who contested on the DMK symbol, said: “Our work is important but tougher because whenever there is this kind of a majority, there is a tendency to circumvent constitutional provisions and act in a partisan manner. Our first job will be to prevent this and to ensure that we protect democracy. We will do this for all of India and not just for Tamil Nadu.”

On the issue of the possible neglect of Tamil Nadu because it did not elect even a single member of the ruling BJP, he said that he and his colleagues would fight to make sure that Tamil Nadu was not isolated or ignored as it was the case from 2014 to 2019, when there were 37 MPs elected on the AIADMK ticket. “We will fight for our rights, and will negotiate for all the needs of the State,” he told Frontline. Ravikumar is one of the five writers from the State who have been elected. The others are the DMK’s women’s wing chief Kanimozhi, the CPI(M)’s Su. Venkatesan, Jothimani from the Congress and Tamilachi Thangapandian of the DMK.

Assembly elections

In Tamil Nadu, election to 18 Assembly constituencies were necessitated by the Assembly Speaker’s action of disqualifying 18 AIADMK MLAs who had pledged their allegiance to T.T.V. Dinakaran and had submitted a letter to the Governor saying that they had lost confidence in the Chief Minister. Dinakran was trying to take over the AIADMK, and, for a while, it seemed that he would succeed.

A combination of factors, mainly engineered by two Sangh Parivar members, one of whom now holds a high constitutional office, is responsible for the state the AIADMK is in today. One of them has openly talked about his machinations while the other, who was seen often in Chennai’s Apollo Hospital when Jayalalithaa was undergoing treatment there, is yet to make a formal announcement. Unaware of these manoeuvres, as many as 22 MLAs jumped ship and joined the Dinakaran team. At the first sign of the Dinakaran plan not working, a few jumped ship.

Following the disqualification of the MLAs, they approached the Madras High Court, where a two-judge bench, after an inordinate delay, gave a split verdict. A third judge who went into the case refused to intervene in the Speaker’s actions. The Dinakaran MLAs decided not to go to the Supreme Court in appeal and demanded immediate elections. The Election Commission, which is increasingly being criticised for being soft on the BJP government, took its time to announce the elections. Four more Assembly constituencies were added because of the death of three MLAs and the disqualification of a Minister.

Unlike in the Lok Sabha election, there was no one defining narrative that the DMK put forth in the Assembly byelection. Stalin and other leaders did talk about the corruption in the Edappadi Palaniswami government, but the buck always stopped with Modi. The logic that Modi controlled everything in Tamil Nadu was lapped up by people, but not enough for the DMK to accomplish a sweep.

The DMK needed to win 21 of the 22 seats to force a change at the State level while the AIADMK needed to win 11 seats to be sure of crossing the halfway mark. On paper, the AIADMK has 113 MLAs, but six had decided to part ways for differing reasons.

With Modi’s victory at the Centre, all the six MLAs who were considering quitting the party for different reasons are having second thoughts. One of them, known to be close to the DMK, was seen praising the Chief Minister on television soon after the victory. In effect, the AIADMK needed only five MLAs to cross the halfway mark of 117 in a House of 234. That task has been accomplished with the election of nine members. The DMK’s 13 MLAs will push the strength of the DMK-Congress combine in the house to 109. (One Congress MLA, who won as an MP from Kanyakumari, has resigned.)

With Dinakaran unable to make much headway either in the Lok Sabha or in the Assembly election, it is clear that the Edappadi K. Palaniswami government will continue in Tamil Nadu. In fact, only in three constituencies, Tiruparangundran, Periyakulam and Andipatti, did the votes secured by the AMMK exceed the margin of victory of the DMK.

The AIADMK won in three constituencies by fewer than 10,000 votes while only in two it had margins of over 20,000 votes. In contrast, the DMK saw three massive victories—in Poonamallee (60,096 votes), Tiruvarur (64,571 votes) and Perambalur (68,023 votes). Three more of its candidates won with over 30,000 votes.

Despite the massive victory of the DMK, it will find the road ahead very steep and peppered with challenges. Assembly elections are due in Tamil Nadu in 2021, and it will be unsurprising if the BJP-AIADMK combine begins preparations from now onwards. There is also a new player in the game, Rajnikant, who has declared that his party will fight the election whenever it is held.

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