Promises to keep

Print edition : June 02, 2006

CHIEF MINISTER M. KARUNANIDHI signing a file at the Nehru Indoor Stadium in Chennai soon after he was sworn in on May 13. This file was one of three that he signed in fulfilment of the promises made by the DMK in its manifesto. At right is Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee. - BIJOY GHOSH

The DMK's manifesto and alliance arithmetic enable M. Karunanidhi to take charge as Chief Minister for the fifth time in Tamil Nadu.

ELECTION manifestos are usually derided as ritual documents full of promises that are not fulfilled. However, if the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is in the saddle in Tamil Nadu today, a large part of the credit should go to its manifesto. The DMK's promises of subsidised rice through ration shops, free television sets, waiver of farmers' cooperative loans, free electricity to weavers and two acres of land for every landless peasant family struck the right chord with the masses. At least that is what the results suggest, as the DMK-led Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA) recorded a huge win - 163 of the 234 seats - in the May 8 Assembly elections. The rival front headed by the rulling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) stood humbled with 69 seats.

After the victory, DMK president M. Karunanidhi readily endorsed Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram's earlier description of his party's manifesto as the "hero" of the elections. He lost no time in keeping at least three of the promises. Soon after his 31-member Ministry was sworn in at the Nehru Indoor Stadium in Chennai on May 13 and Governor Surjit Singh Barnala had left the venue, Karunanidhi signed three files to thunderous applause from the people.

The first was for the distribution of 20 kg of rice a month at Rs.2 a kg through ration shops from June 3, his 83rd birthday. The second was for the waiver of cooperative loans that farmers had taken until March 31, 2006. This step would cost the exchequer Rs.6,866 crores, but lakhs of farmers would benefit from it, Karunanidhi said. The third fulfilled another promise, that of giving two eggs a week, instead of one at present, to schoolchildren under the nutritious noon meal scheme. It would take effect from July 15, the birthday of the late Congress leader and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K. Kamaraj. The day would henceforth be celebrated as Education Day, Karunanidhi added. Subsequently, on May 17, Karunanidhi announced that the distribution of colour television sets to poor households that do not own one would begin from September 15 and 17, the birthdays respectively of C.N. Annadurai and E.V. Ramasamy `Periyar', leader of the self-respect movement in Tamil Nadu.

The setting on May 13, which Karunanidhi himself chose, seemed perfect for the start of his fifth term as Chief Minister in a legislative career that began in 1957. Since then he has been elected to the Assembly 11 times and has not been defeated so far. This time Karunanidhi is heading a minority government as his partners in the DPA - the Congress, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the All India Forward Bloc (Vallarasu faction) - decided to support the government from outside.

Sitting in the Opposition benches will be the AIADMK and its allies, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI), the IUML (Tamil Nadu), the Indian National League (INL), a faction of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), the AIFB (Santhanam faction) and the Janata Dal (Secular). Also in the Opposition will be actor-turned-politician Vijayakant, the lone winner among the 234 candidates of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), the party he founded. But he proved a point in this election: that the voters are not averse to an alternative to the DMK and the AIADMK. He was a star attraction wherever he went and his candidates notched up votes ranging from a few thousands in many constituencies to 48,522 in Tambaram. Incidentally, another actor, Karthik, who headed a faction of the AIFB, came a cropper in all the 75 seats that his party contested.

The election campaign, which lasted 40 days, was a lively affair with issues colliding in the marketplace. Sparks flew as AIADMK general secretary and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and P. Chidambaram of the Congress riposted and counter-riposted on tsunami relief, flood relief, the industrial stagnation in Tamil Nadu and women's self-help groups. Often, the electorate enjoyed the cut and thrust of Chidambaram's arguments, which knocked the bottom out of Jayalalithaa's claims.

Karunanidhi attacked the non-performance of the Jayalalithaa government in several spheres. When she described the elections as "probably, the last battle with our traditional rivals", Karunanidhi turned it against her, arguing, "Yes, it is the final war between two schools of philosophies, of dictatorship and democracy." Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi chipped in to bolster the DPA campaign.

The star-campaigner for the AIADMK-led front was MDMK chief Vaiko. He attacked the DMK's promises as "unworkable" and said they were meant "to fool the people".

Although the DPA won, the happiness for the DMK was not without a tinge of disappointment. Said a DMK leader: "We are happy because we have returned to power. We are disappointed because our victory has fallen far short of our expectations."

Even Karunanidhi, who predicted about 200 seats for the DPA and a simple majority of 118 seats for the DMK, did not hide his disappointment. He said: "In the financial hurricane that buffeted us in these elections, our alliance-boat could sail only this far. But I express my gratitude to the voters and the cadres of the alliance partners who acted as the oars and sail of our boat to complete our voyage successfully." When he was elected leader of the DMK legislature party, he said it was "with mental agony and without joy" that he was accepting the responsibility. The DMK fell 22 seats short of a simple majority (seats position graphic on page 7).

Karunanidhi won for the third time from Chepauk in Chennai. His son and DMK deputy general secretary M.K. Stalin, who was made Local Administration Minister, retained his hold over the Thousand Lights constituency, also in Chennai.

In the AIADMK, Jayalalithaa retained her Andipatti seat in Theni district and her trusted lieutenant O. Pannerselvam was re-elected from neighbouring Periakulam constituency, both by comfortable margins. Eight of Jayalalithaa's Ministers were defeated. They include Industries Minister N. Nainar Nagendran from Tirunelveli, Health Minister N. Dalai Sundaram from Kanyakumari and Social Welfare Minister B. Valarmathi from Alandur.

Vijayakant was elected from Vriddhachalam, the heartland of the PMK led by Dr. S. Ramadoss. The BJP-led alliance drew a blank.

What gladdened DMK leaders was the excellent performance of the DPA in the southern districts, considered the heartland of the AIADMK. In Kanyakumari district, which has a sizable Christian population, the DPA won all the seven constituencies. Three AIADMK candidates here lost their deposits. The combination of the DMK, the Congress and the CPI(M) and their secular credentials apparently helped the DPA to win all the seats.

In neighbouring Tirunelveli district, the DPA won nine of the 11 seats. In a fiercely fought election in Tirunelveli constituency, N. Malai Raja of the DMK defeated Industries Minister N. Nainar Nagendran by 603 votes. In adjacent Palayamkottai constituency, T.P.M. Maideen Khan of the DMK defeated K. Mohamed Nizamudeen of the Indian National League by 41,299 votes out of the 1,48,900 votes polled. In Tuticorin district, it was a mixed result with the AIADMK winning four seats and the DPA three.

In Ramanathapuram district the DPA won all the five seats, with the Congress bagging three and the DMK two. In Sivaganga district, where the Congress is organisationally strong because of the good work done by Chidambaram, the DPA won four of the five seats. In Kancheepuram district in the north, the DPA made a clean sweep of all the nine seats.

What hurt the DMK leadership most was the poor performance of the party in Chennai and Coimbatore districts. In Chennai, considered a DMK citadel, the party lost seven of the 14 constituencies. "I accept that there has been a setback for the DMK in Chennai," Karunanidhi told reporters. In the Harbour constituency in Chennai, K. Anbazhagan, DMK general secretary and the second most powerful man in the party, scraped past Seema Basheer of the MDMK by just 410 votes. The DMK could not retain its stronghold, Triplicane, where Bader Sayeed of the AIADMK defeated its candidate Dr. M. Naganathan, who took voluntary retirement as Head of the Department of Economics of Madras University, by 2,776 votes.

In Mylapore, actor-politician Napoleon of the party lost to actor-politician S.V. Sekar of the AIADMK by 1,647 votes. The defeat of J. Anbazhagan in Theagaraya Nagar, too, came as a shock to the DMK leadership. Saidapet, another DMK stronghold, also fell to the AIADMK when G. Senthamizhan defeated C.R. Bhaskaran of the PMK. In Park Town, the party's senior leader A. Rehman Khan lost to K. Srinivasan of the AIADMK.

The AIADMK's good performance in Chennai was attributed to the Jayalalithaa government solving the perennial water crisis in the city by ferrying water from the Veeranam lake, giving Rs.2,000 as assistance to families affected by the 2005 floods, controlling rowdyism and building parks.

Sources in the DMK said the party lost in Triplicane, Mylapore and Park Town because a large section of Muslims did not vote for it. Muslims in Triplicane were also upset that S.A.M. Hussain, who had won from Triplicane in 2001, was not given the ticket this time. A sizable section of Muslims in Harbour voted for Seema Basheer, giving Anbazhagan a fright.

In Coimbatore district, an industrial hub, the DPA won just four of the 14 seats. The AIADMK won nine seats and the MDMK one. It was a bitter defeat by just 14 votes for CPI(M) trade union leader A. Soundararajan in Singanallur at the hands of R. Chinnasamy of the INTUC faction.

According to the DMK sources, the party's performance was not on expected lines because the DMK candidates in many constituencies, especially in Chennai, took their victory for granted. "They were on a presumed-victory high," one of them said. He added that second- and third-rung leaders were aggrieved that the spoils of office always went to a select group. He also said that Vijayakant's party affected the DMK's chances in more than 40 constituencies.

For Congressmen, celebrations at the party having won 34 of the 48 seats it contested gave way to disappointment with the news that the Congress would not be part of the government. The party had not tasted power in the State since it bowed out of office in 1967 and this was an opportunity to end the 40-year wait. But their hopes were dashed when Congress president Sonia Gandhi decided that the DMK should form the government.

M. Veerappa Moily, the Congress observer for Tamil Nadu, told Karunanidhi on May 12 morning that the Congress would extend "unconditional support" from outside to a DMK government. A couple of hours later, the DMK legislators elected Karunanidhi the leader of the DMK legislature party and he submitted to the Governor a list of 30 MLAs who would be Ministers.

Congress legislators were aghast at the high command's action and Moily tried to assuage their feelings. He said that although sharing of power was not an issue before the elections, Congress legislators and workers aspired (in the wake of the results) that the party should take part in the government.

When Jayalalithaa began her campaign on March 31, the AIADMK was perceived to be ahead in the race. Two days earlier, Karunanidhi had released his party's manifesto, which promised something to every section of society: women, farmers, fishermen, weavers, construction workers, government staff, teachers, students, policemen and so on. In the initial phase of the campaign, Jayalalithaa harped on her "golden rule" and Vaiko attacked the DMK's "dynastic rule" and its poll promises. Jayalalithaa too attacked the promises as utopian.

A nervous Jayalalithaa committed a faux pas. She announced on April 17 at Andipatti that the AIADMK would provide 10 kg of rice free a month and the remainder of the quota of 20 kg would be sold at Rs.3.50 a kg. This promise cut no ice with the electorate, especially after she and Vaiko had ridiculed the DMK's promises.

Karunanidhi said: "Her announcement of 10 kg of free rice is our first victory." She made another promise of four grams of gold to make the "thali" (mangalasutra) for poor women who were getting married. This was aimed at neutralising the DMK's promise that poor pregnant women, who had passed tenth standard, would be granted Rs.15,000. Again, there were no takers for Jayalalithaa's offer of gold because her government had scrapped the previous DMK government's grant of money to pregnant poor women but later revived it. Jayalalithaa also promised free computers to pupils who pass the 12th standard. This was to neutralise the DMK's assurance of free education to youth in villages.

The other reasons for the AIADMK alliance's defeat included the loss of the AIADMK's traditional Dalit vote bank, Christians voting against the party, and the electoral arithmetic of the DPA. Jayalalilthaa did not address a single public meeting jointly with Vaiko and Dalit Panthers of India leader Thol. Tirumavalavan. She ploughed a lonely furrow in her van, addressing voters from inside thevehicle.

But it is the manifesto that made the difference. Said K. Varadarajan, member of the CPI(M)'s Polit Bureau: "A good feature of these elections is that discussions about people's problems came to the fore. Chidambaram spoke the truth when he said that the hero of these elections was the DMK's manifesto. It is healthy to have discussions supporting and contesting a manifesto. What is important to note is that if assurances are made to people who cannot afford to buy rice - Dalits, the most backward classes - and also if the promises relate to rice and land, the political situation in Tamil Nadu will change."

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