Down, not out

The failure to address organisational issues and cobble up a robust alliance stood between victory and the DMK.

Published : May 25, 2016 16:00 IST

M.K. Stalin interacts with beedi workers at Kazhinjur during the Namaku Naame campaign on November 4, 2015.

M.K. Stalin interacts with beedi workers at Kazhinjur during the Namaku Naame campaign on November 4, 2015.

A victor is under no pressure to learn anything. It is easy to deal with the trappings that come with a victory. The nearly victorious do not have that luxury, especially in politics, where a second place and the last place are the same.

Given these facts, it was not difficult to fathom why a deathly gloom hovered in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) camp despite the party recording a tremendous improvement in its tally in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, from 23 in 2011 to 89 in 2016, and a decent increase in vote share (from 22.39 per cent in 2011 to 31.6 per cent in 2016). In 176 seats where both the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the DMK contested, the DMK won 89 and the AIADMK 87.

But the reality at the end of counting day, May 19, was that the DMK was set to remain in the opposition for five more years—a dismal place to be for a second consecutive term. The last time it happened was during the reign of AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran in the 1980s. From 1987, the AIADMK and the DMK have alternatively held the reins at Fort St. George, the seat of the Tamil Nadu government.

Not this time. If the history of resting the incumbent government was any indication, 2016 was the DMK’s turn to be The Show. And the DMK had everything going for it too: Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was forced to step down after she was convicted by a special court in the disproportionate assets case in 2014 (she was re-elected subsequently after the High Court cleared her of any wrongdoing almost 10 months later), the government was non-performing in almost all sectors, unemployment was rising, the floods in six districts saw a total lack of government action in the first few days, and Jayalalithaa’s campaign itself was lacklustre. In other words, the DMK had almost everything going for it.

Even an analysis of electoral data showed that the AIADMK was heading for a rather poor show. Data from the 2011 Assembly election, when compared with the 2014 Lok Sabha election, showed that the total votes secured by the AIADMK had gone down in 155 Assembly constituencies/segments, and had increased only in just over half that number (79; the total number of constituencies in Tamil Nadu is 234). Because of Jayalalithaa’s conviction in September 2014, there was no course correction.

Organisationally too, the AIADMK did not seem to have taken the obvious steps any party would take ahead of elections. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, five senior Ministers, O. Paneerselvam, Natham Viswanathan, Edappadi Palanichamy, R. Vythilingam and P. Mohan, were in charge of 10 districts each, where they coordinated all party efforts. By 2016 most of these leaders were not in the party leadership’s good books, and all efforts were directed from the Poes Garden residence of party general secretary Jayalalithaa.

In all elections, a set of about 30 to 40 “election officials” ( poruppalargal ) are appointed and an official announcement is made in the party organ, Dr. Namadhu MGR . This time around there was no such announcement, said a party leader, who did not want to be named. Also, there was a central theme for the 2014 election: peace, prosperity, growth ( amaidhi , valam , valarchi ). This time there was no consistent message that was put out. The party’s 37 Lok Sabha members, who were doing some coordination on directions from senior leader M. Thambidurai, were not sure what their role was. During the entire campaign, the approach was top-down: at no point was any local expertise or input sought, the leader added. No one in the party took any initiative or approached an issue proactively but waited for directions from the top leadership. The lack of direction and leadership made it seem as if the AIADMK campaign was merely going through the motions.

Added to this was the widely held belief that neither Dravidian party can win an election without the help of the smaller parties. The AIADMK virtually had none of note, while the DMK fared slightly better on this score, having the Congress, the Puthiya Tamilagam and two Muslim parties with it.

DMK, an organised party In contrast, the DMK seemed a much better organised party despite betraying a lack of confidence in the initial stages. A few months ahead of the election, the DMK was desperate to rope in the third largest party in Tamil Nadu, actor Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK).

First it sealed an alliance with the Congress in February, later allotting it 41 seats. Soon after the DMDK announced its intent to join the People’s Welfare Front (PWF), an alliance of smaller parties in the State, the DMK, yet again, showed signs of nervousness: it sealed seat-sharing deals with two Muslim parties, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi (MMK), and allotted them an unprecedented five seats each. Another Muslim party, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), which has a considerable youth following, was invited for talks but not given any seats. The SDPI left the alliance. A few weeks later, K. Krishnasamy’s Puthiya Tamilagam joined the alliance and was given four seats. A splinter group of the DMDK, which wanted Vijayakanth to join the DMK alliance, was also given three seats. In the event, the Congress won eight of its 41. The MMK, the Puthiya Tamilagam, and the rebel DMDK were all wiped out, while the IUML managed to win one seat.

Even before the election, former Union Minister and Congress leader P. Chidambaram expressed his unhappiness over the seats allotted to the party, in the media. Top leaders in the DMK told this correspondent that the Congress was given most seats from its wish list and that no one from the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee pushed for particular seats, such as Aravakuruchi, where the Congress party’s P. Jothimani was a strong favourite(the election to this seat has been deferred because of charges of bribing of voters).

These point to elements working at cross purposes within the Congress itself.

It is also a mystery why the DMK gave away a sure-win seat like Mylapore (in Chennai), where it has a considerable support base, to the Congress; here, a former top cop, R. Natraj, won on the AIADMK ticket, his clean image being more than a match for former Deputy Mayor ‘Karate’ Thiyagarajan whose record in the Chennai Corporation is dubious. It is widely known that Thiyagarajan had Chidambaram’s blessings. One of the defining images of this election is that of M.K. Stalin and Thiyagarajan going around in an open jeep, smiling. The irony was not lost on the people: when Stalin was elected Mayor of Chennai for a second term in 2001, Thiyagarajan was his loudest, most virulent opponent. This is widely recorded in the media in great detail.

In effect, of the 58 seats the DMK gave to its allies, only nine were won. The allies let the DMK down. Also, despite the “contested vote share” of the DMK being 41.05 per cent in the 176 seats where it fielded candidates, and the AIADMK polling only 40.78 per cent of the votes in the constituencies it contested, the AIADMK won many more seats.

DMK’s revivalThe Hindu ’s Readers’ Editor and chronicler of the Dravidian movement, A.S. Panneerselvan, sees quite a few positives for the DMK, despite the defeat. “By reducing the number of alliance partners, the party has revived in a lot of places. Or else these numbers would not have come. In earlier elections, electoral adjustments had led to the party vacating its presence from a lot of places,” he said. The absence of subregional leaders within the party should be viewed in this context, he added.

The party stood in the way of the electoral prospects of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Kanyakumari and managed to retain its traditional bases in Chennai and the Cauvery delta region. “Barring the western belt, the party has recovered in a lot of places. After the debacle of 2014 [the Lok Sabha election], the party has proved that it is the credible alternative to the ruling AIADMK,” he added. At some point the DMK will have to have a long and hard look at its future. Electoral history from 2006 and 2011 has shown that alliances for short-term gains have only hurt the party. Also, there is the question whether the 2016 strategy of projecting the leader alone —taking a leaf out of the Narendra Modi campaign—is desirable. The BJP’s problem in 2014, DMK seniors pointed out, was that it had to expand its base from being a Hindu party to that of an inclusive, pan-Indian party. Because of its carefully curated pro-Hindu image, there was not much room for manoeuvrability. That is where the ‘Development Man’ came into the picture. A set of circumstances, including the facts that it was Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi who spearheaded the campaign for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and allies deserted the party, also came together to propel the BJP to victory.

The DMK’s circumstances are different. In 2014, Stalin was the sole star campaigner and the party did not win a single seat. In 2016, there were two others apart from Stalin who were campaigning extensively: his father and former Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, and his half-sister and the DMK’s parliamentary party leader, Kanimozhi. “Our party has seen many ups and downs. The DMK is a strong party with a massive cadre base,” Kanimozhi said. “From 23 [MLAs] to 89 [MLAs], it’s a great jump. It proves that we are the only credible alternative,” she added. Asked if the smaller parties will remain relevant after this election, she said: “I won’t say anyone’s relevance is over. But definitely, elections will be fought between the Dravidian parties.”

Negatives The DMK also had its share of negatives, despite running a well-oiled campaign. While Stalin was careful to travel on his own, Karunanidhi was accompanied by former Union Minister Dayanidhi Maran, who has been under a cloud ever since the Aircel-Maxis case came to light. In contrast, former Union Minister and 2G scam accused A. Raja, who is seen with Karunanidhi on most days when he is in Chennai, kept away from the DMK leader’s campaign and shunned the limelight, focussing on the districts he was entrusted with.

For some strange reason that defies logic, in Tamil Nadu the charge of corruption or massive wrongdoing does not stick on women, which is clearly demonstrated by the popularity of Jayalalithaa and the warm welcome that Kanimozhi received throughout her 29-day campaign. Also, although the AIADMK changed candidates multiple times, it did not cause any heartburn at the local level. The party-is-the-leader-and-the-leader-is-the-party philosophy was in play. Not so for the DMK. It is a party with regional satraps and local leaders who hold sway over small populations. When the DMK was forced to change candidates in some places, it did not go down well with one support base or another. The hill district of the Nilgiris was a classic example: the DMK men in the district belonging to the Badaga community were up in arms because Badagas were not given a single seat. This obvious failing was not set right, and the DMK candidate, B.M. Mubarak, lost by a mere 3,710 votes.

There is also a discussion within the DMK in hushed tones about the feel-good Namakku Naame campaign projecting a smartly attired Stalin over the party.

Asked if this campaign was better than sustained local-level agitations taking up people’s issues, some leaders, who did not wish to be named, said that no campaign, however brilliantly done, could supplant a political party’s agitation agenda. If it does, then it will only mean that the party has moved away from the people. It is easy to insist that both—meeting the people and agitations—have to be done simultaneously. Namakku Naame was the first time since the election that any senior leader was meeting people on a mass scale and listening to their grievances, and was hence important. But listening to someone crying on your shoulder is one thing, rolling up your sleeve and asking the government questions is quite another but equally important thing. Stalin listened to the people, his party also followed him in listening closely. But there was no attempt to get to the local government office and try to solve problems.

While Namakku Naame, broadly, was not flawed, it raised multiple questions about the DMK itself. It signalled an approach that has come to stay with the party in the past two decades: that of the party revving its machinery closer to the election and going into silent mode soon after the election ends. In short, the DMK, which had its roots in social justice and fighting for the backward people from the time of its formation, had abdicated that role, and had instead tried to copy the AIADMK, which also goes into a studied silence after elections.

Unlike in neighbouring Kerala, where most Left Democratic Front (LDF) leaders travelled from one town to another and got arrested and released, there was simply no serious agitation in Tamil Nadu where the senior leadership of the DMK courted arrest. Even after the massive deaths in Chennai post-floods in December, the only mass event was a demonstration. The disconnect from the people had become real.

Namakku Naame’s fatal problem was that it belittled other leaders and the party in its overzealousness to project one leader. The year-long event, put together by a company that managed Stalin’s image makeover, was received with some shock by cadres. They were not to be seen wearing the party colours along the route of the event. It was sold as a connect with the people to the exclusion of the party.

The main resentment against this and the social media campaign, both of which ate up massive resources, was that it was managed by outsiders or family members who had no understanding of the party, its ethos, what it stands for and where it needs to head. The key contact in the Stalin camp was his son-in-law, Sabareesan, who made campaign decisions without having worked at any level in the party. A report published in The Hindu of September 8, 2014, said: “Sabareesan has Mr. Stalin’s ears and holds sway over his decision-making. A typical backroom boy, he follows Mr. Stalin like a shadow, pulls the strings and is in touch with bigwigs, much to the consternation of partymen.”

The effective social media campaign also projected Stalin as the party. The latest strategies of catching in cookies and communicating every single time a person in the Tamil Nadu geography opened a page, and direct communication methods via WhatsApp, were employed. One estimate from a senior person in the same space, which cannot be independently verified, put the social media budget of the DMK around Rs.90 crore.

No taboos in electoral politics Analysts in the Tamil Nadu bureaucracy, who cannot be named for obvious reasons, hold the view that if the primary goal of the DMK was to form the government, it should have done whatever it took to form a winning alliance. Nothing is taboo in electoral politics. They also contested the view that not aligning with the DMDK was the right decision. “The DMDK got reduced to 3 per cent because he [Vijayakanth] aligned with a bunch of losers…. But as part of the DMK alliance [in the place of the Congress], I am sure the DMDK would have brought 6-8 per cent votes and the AIADMK would have been defeated easily,” an official said.

A lot of blame is being laid at the door of Karunanidhi for not naming his son as the chief ministerial candidate. There is some merit to this argument: while the party cadre is aware of the capabilities of their president, the people see him as a 92-year-old wheelchair-bound man. When this question was posed to a few senior leaders, their reaction was almost always the same. They point to the Karunanidhi campaign and the massive crowds that came to see him. This, according to them, disproves two things. One, that the leader is infirm because he withstood a gruelling journey, and two, the popularity he enjoys.

While it is clear that the leadership has to take a major share of the blame, the second-rung leaders are also responsible for this debacle. All leaders in the DMK and the other parties and political analysts were aware of how close this election would end up being. As it turned out, the DMK lost as many as 21 seats by narrow margins of up to 3,000 votes—one by 49 votes, five by 500 votes or less, and three by about 1,000 votes. Despite knowing how close the election would be, the district secretaries and those in charge played favourites, misled the leadership and refused to field the candidate most likely to win. At least 15 examples of such wrongful placement of candidates made the rounds in the run-up to the election. All of them were defeated. There are also a few instances of district-level leaders working against candidates.

Local body elections But all is not lost. DMK insiders, though down, are firm that the party should now focus on the local body elections, which will be held in October this year. “Mistakes made in this election must be listed, owned up and corrected. In other words, the DMK should put together a strong alliance to win all the 12 corporations, at least 100 out of the 123 municipalities and 500 out of the 529 town panchayats. Similarly in the rural areas. Not much time is left,” a leader said. Kanimozhi said as a first step, the DMK would function in the Assembly as a responsible opposition and highlight the issues of the people.

Panneerselvan said the DMK would be able to function as a responsible opposition only if the Legislative Assembly Speaker is of some standing. “In the recent past, there have only been two Speakers who have allowed the House to function in a manner befitting a mature democracy—Rajaram and P.T.R. Palanivel Rajan.”

But victory or defeat, one thing is certain. There will be no change in the lifestyle of the DMK leadership: Z+ security for Karunanidhi, Land Rovers for Stalin and Hummers for his son and son-in-law.

A Subramanian Swamy sound bite accurately sums up the Tamil Nadu election: The DMK gifted it to the AIADMK.

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