Assembly elections: Tamil Nadu

Sunrise in Dravidian land: DMK storms back to power in Tamil Nadu

Print edition : May 21, 2021

DMK president M.K. Stalin during a rally in Chennai’s Sowcarpet locality, on April 4. Photo: Jothi Ramalingam B.

Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami during a campaign in Salem district on April 3. Photo: PTI

Thol. Thirumavalavan, VCK president. Photo: VEDHAN M.

Aloor Sha Navas, the VCK candidate who won from the Nagapattinam general constituency. Photo: A. Muralitharan

S.S. Balaji of the VCK who won from the Thiruporur general constituency. Photo: Twitter

Makkal Needhi Maiam leader Kamal Haasan, who lost to BJP leader Vanathi Srinivasan (right) in Coimbatore (South) constituency. Photo: Kumaraguru N.

Vanathi Srinivasan of the BJP, who defeated Kamal Haasan in the Coimbatore (South) constituency. Photo: Periasamy M.

Seeman, founder of Naam Tamilar Katchi. Photo: VEDHAN M.

The DMK storms back to power in Tamil Nadu after a gap of 10 years by registering a comfortable victory, while the AIADMK succeeds in preventing a whitewash in a waveless election that reinforces the hegemony of Dravidian parties in the State.

Capitalising on the popular resentment against the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (AIADMK) decision to toe the line of the overbearing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during much of its tenure after the demise of Jayalalithaa and finally align with it for the Assembly election and the general anti-incumbency sentiment, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-led Secular Progressive Alliance (SPA) registered an emphatic victory in Tamil Nadu. The victory was also the result of an impressive campaign led by M.K. Stalin, son of DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi, a well-thought-out election manifesto, and an alliance that was committed to secularism and federalism.

The alliance comprised the DMK, the Congress, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)], the CPI, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and smaller parties. The AIADMK fought the election in alliance with the BJP, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and a few smaller parties.

Exit polls and several opinion polls predicted a near-sweep for the SPA but the alliance won fewer seats than predicted.

When the snail-paced counting was completed in all constituencies on May 3, the SPA had won 159 of the 234 seats in the House. The voters also gave a clear majority for the DMK, which bagged 133 seats, 16 seats above the halfway mark of 117.

The AIADMK combine won 75 seats, with the BJP managing to win four of the 20 it contested in—the same number it had won in 2001. Since 2001, the BJP had not had a representative in the Assembly. The PMK, which contested in 23 seats, and created a lot of noise in the run-up to the election after it forced the AIADMK government to provide exclusive reservation for the Vanniyar community within the existing Most Backward Classes quota, managed to win only five seats. The drama surrounding the 10.5 per cent reservation for Vanniyars appears to have consolidated the non-Vanniyar and Scheduled Caste votes in favour of the DMK, adding to its numbers in the northern belt where the PMK has a strong presence among the Vanniyar community.

In the northern districts of Chengalpattu, Kancheepuram, Villupuram, Cuddalore, Tiruvannamalai, Tirupathur, Vellore and Ranipet, the DMK won 34 seats while the AIADMK won only 11. In the Chennai region, comprising Chennai and Tiruvallur districts, which has a sizeable population of Vanniyars, the AIADMK alliance drew a blank and the DMK won all 26 seats—16 in Chennai and 10 in Tiruvallur.

In the 2006 Assembly election, the last one that the AIADMK lost, the party had won only 69 seats even with the charismatic Jayalalithaa at the helm. This time around, the AIADMK won 66 seats, garnering a 33.29 per cent vote share, and lost at least a dozen seats to the DMK by wafer-thin margins. The AIADMK has clearly managed to hold its own in the post-Jayalalithaa era, but the association with the BJP—which was widely perceived to be working against Tamils politically and culturally and not delivering on any of the major promises it made to Tamil Nadu—played a major role in in pulling the party down.

In all, the DMK alliance retained as many as 78 of the seats that it won in 2016, while the AIADMK alliance managed to retain only 55. On top of that, the DMK combine managed to wrest 81 more seats from the ruling alliance.

Only one candidate won with a margin of over 1 lakh votes—former DMK Minister I. Periyasamy, who won the Athoor seat with a margin of over 1.35 lakh votes. Eight candidates, including Durai Murugan, the DMK general secretary, won with a margin of less than 1,000 votes, and as many as 24 candidates, including DMK president M.K. Stalin, his son Udayanidhi Stalin, former DMK Ministers K. Ponmudi, E.V. Velu and Thangam Thennarasu, and AIADMK leader Edappadi K. Palaniswami, won with a margin of over 50,000 votes. In 2016, a closely fought election, as many as 16 candidates won with wafer-thin margins of less than 1,000 votes.
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Within the SPA, 133 of the 188 candidates who contested on the DMK’s rising sun symbol won, garnering 37.7 per cent vote share. The Congress, surprisingly, won 18 of 25 seats it contested. Congress MP Karti P. Chidambaram referred to this in a tweet on May 3 that said: “18/25=72% strike rate.” (In the Assembly elections of 2001 and 2006, the Congress’ strike rate was above 50 per cent. In fact, the Congress won 34 of the 48 seats it contested in 2006, which was its best performance since 1991.)

Karti Chidambaram was driving home the point that no other large political party had managed a better strike rate than the Congress in 2021. The Congress had been allotted 25 seats after long and hard bargaining with the DMK. However, despite a good strike rate, the party managed only an unimpressive 4.27 per cent vote share.

DMK’s performance

On its own, the DMK contested 173 seats and made impressive gains in all regions barring the western belt. Its vote percentage of 37.7 per cent was more than 10 percentage points higher than what it garnered in 2006 (26.5 per cent), but lower than the 42.1 per cent it got when it swept the election in 1996.

However, the comprehensive nature of its victory was neither reflected in the seats nor in the vote share. The fact remains that the DMK succeeded in swaying both the urban and the rural voter. In the 80 constituencies that are considered urban or semi-urban in the State, the DMK alliance won an impressive 63 seats. In the 154 constituencies considered rural, it won as many as 96. The AIADMK alliance won 58 in rural areas.

Led by Stalin in the absence of the party’s tall leader Karunanidhi, the party made impressive gains in the northern and southern districts and the delta and Chennai regions to go past the halfway mark. In the southern districts of Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli, Tenkasi, Thoothukudi, Ramanathapuram, Theni, Virudhunagar, Sivaganga and Dindigul, the DMK won 31 seats and its ally, the Congress, won nine. The AIADMK, which considers part of the southern region as its traditional bastion, won only 15 while its ally, the BJP, won two.

In the delta districts of Tiruchi, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam, Pudukkottai, Karur, Perambalur, and Ariyalur, the DMK made an almost complete sweep, winning 31 seats. Its allies picked up six seats. The AIADMK won a mere four.
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Despite a massive sex scandal in the western belt town of Pollachi, and the subsequent attempts by the AIADMK government to cover it up, the DMK could not make much headway in the western belt, which is the stronghold of the Gounder community to which Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami belongs: it won a mere 13 seats while its ally, the Congress, picked up two, and the CPI managed to win one seat. The remaining 41 seats were won by the AIADMK and its allies. In fact, the DMK won just one seat in the Chief Minister’s home district of Salem and drew a blank in two districts—Dharmapuri and Coimbatore. It was only in Namakkal district where the DMK outperformed the AIADMK combine by winning four seats, while the AIADMK won two.

DMK’s allies

The performance of both the Left parties was lacklustre. Both the CPI and the CPI (M) managed to win only two of the six seats allotted to each of them. The CPI’s vote share in 2021 fell to 1.09 per cent while that of the CPI (M) was less than 1 per cent (0.85 per cent).

Vaiko’s MDMK, which contested on the DMK’s rising sun symbol in six seats, won four of them. The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), another DMK alliance partner, which contested three seats on its ladder symbol, drew a blank. Minor allies of the DMK, the candidates of which contested on the DMK’s symbol, made up the rest of the count.

Within the DMK alliance, the star performers in the 2021 Assembly election were the Congress and the VCK, a party representing Dalit interests.

The Congress won four out of the five seats where it directly faced the BJP, namely Colachel, Vilavancode, Udhagamandalam and Karaikudi, which are in different regions of the State. The Congress also won all the three seats it contested in Kanyakumari, the most communally polarised district in the State. The DMK also contested three seats in the district but won only the Padmanabhapuram constituency.

In the lone Lok Sabha by-election in Kanyakumari, the Congress trounced the BJP by a wide margin of over 1 lakh votes, despite the BJP marshalling all resources and deploying several heavyweights in support of its senior leader and former Miniser Pon. Radhakrishnan—from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to senior Ministers Amit Shah, Nirmala Sitharaman, Nitin Gadkari, and Rajnath Singh—in a high-decibel campaign in the constituency. The Congress candidate was V. Vijaya Kumar alias Vijay Vasanth, who contested the seat after the demise of the sitting MP and his father, H. Vasanthakumar.
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The only constituency where the Congress lost to the BJP was Coimbatore (South) in western Tamil Nadu, where it came third. Vanathi Srinivasan, the BJP’s Mahila Morcha president, won the seat, defeating Makkal Needhi Maiam founder (MNM) Kamal Haasan.

VCK’s historic wins

The VCK not only decided to contest on its own pot symbol but also fielded candidates in non-reserved seats. Two of its candidates in non-reserved seats, Aloor Sha Navas (Nagapattinam) and S.S. Balaji (Tiruporur), registered historic wins. It was the first time that a Dalit party contesting on its own symbol in non-reserved seats had managed to win them. Overall, the VCK contested in six seats and won an impressive four.

After trends became clear on May 2, VCK chief Thol. Thirumavalavan said: “This is a historic achievement.” “The VCK’s victory has destroyed the politics of hate,” he tweeted in Tamil, referring to the BJP. “Those who tried to isolate and separate us as a Dalit party have been defeated,” he added. The reserved seats that the VCK won were Cheyyur (M. Babu) and Kattumannarkoil (Sinthanai Selvan).

More importantly, the PMK, which banks on the support of the Vanniyars, who are considered the VCK’s main rival in the northern districts, won only one seat more than the VCK, despite contesting in 23 constituencies. This is a major shot in the arm for the VCK brand of inclusive politics in northern Tamil Nadu. The PMK sought to sharpen the caste divide but the fact that this did not resonate with the people was evident from the pattern of voting in the northern belt, where the AIADMK did not benefit massively from the PMK being on its side. The MDMK managed to win four seats, with its candidates contesting on the DMK symbol. The MDMK and the VCK will be sending members to the House after a gap of 15 years. The 2006 election was the only time the nearly three decades-old MDMK sent representatives to the Assembly. The voices of the CPI and the CPI (M) will be heard in the Assembly after a gap of five years.

The AIADMK’s performance defied all predictions of a total wipeout, indicating the amount of support that exists for the party on the ground. Its performance is even more interesting because it lost heavily in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, winning just one of the 39 constituencies in the State. In 2019, it lost in nearly 215 Assembly segments. The fightback was scripted by the solid base the AIADMK has created among the Gounders of western Tamil Nadu. Going by the results, it also appears that the Mukkulathors and the Vanniyars have not abandoned the AIADMK en masse, as predicted by several observers.

AIADMK’s performance

The AIADMK’s performance in the western districts was impressive. In Coimbatore and Dharmapuri districts, it registered a complete sweep. The Chief Minister won for a third time from Edappadi constituency. Although most party seniors retained their seats, as many as 10 sitting Ministers lost, including D. Jayakumar, who contested from Royapuram. He first won the seat in 1991 and had lost it only once since then (in 1996, when even Jayalalithaa lost from Bargur). The other prominent Ministers who lost were C.Ve. Shanmugham, K.C. Veeramani, ‘Ma Foi’ Pandiarajan, and K.T. Rajenthra Bhalaji.
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To a large extent, the AIADMK was hamstrung by its alliance with the BJP. In the run-up to the elections, Palaniswami was reluctant to join hands with the BJP, and had indicated this to the BJP leadership in many ways. In 2020 he curtailed the Vinayaka Chaturthi processions citing the COVID pandemic and refused permission for the BJP’s attempts to communalise Tamil Nadu through a vel yathirai or spear procession (the spear being the weapon of Lord Muruga).

But the BJP was insistent on an alliance. It dictated the terms of the alliance—a fact that was not lost on the people of the State when the BJP announced the list of constituencies it was contesting—and called the shots in almost all spheres of decision-making. It was the AIADMK’s decision to concede sureshot seats to the BJP that led to the saffron party’s victory in Coimbatore (South), Nagercoil and Tirunelveli.

The BJP story

The 2021 election has once again proved that the BJP’s desperate attempts to gain a toehold in Tamil Nadu cannot succeed. Although the party managed to win four seats, its vote share dipped to 2.62 per cent.

Asked about the BJP’s victory, K.T. Raghavan, the party’s State general secretary, said: “The BJP has won four seats and it will be in the Assembly. This is what the voters have decided and this is a fact that all those opposed to the BJP will have to accept.” He added that the party won for the first time in the State in 1998. He said:“We have had MLAs, MPs, Central Ministers and elected representatives at all levels in Tamil Nadu. This is not new for us.”

The BJP tried its brand of intimidation in this election too. In Dharapuram, where the State BJP president L. Murugan was contesting against N. Kayalvizhi of the DMK, at the end of counting, the DMK had 89,834 votes (88,310 EVM votes and 1,515 postal votes) and the BJP had 88,381 votes (87,752 EVM votes and 629 postal votes). The DMK was about to win by a margin of 1,453 votes.

However, the BJP made a representation to the Returning Officer demanding that 456 rejected postal ballots be counted and that the votes registered in a malfunctioning EVM also be taken into account.

A source said that the Returning Officer, Pavankumar G. Giriyappanavar, informed the BJP that as per Election Commission of India (ECI) guidelines, the VVPAT slips of the malfunctioning EVM need not be counted if the margin of victory was more than the number of votes in the machine (393 votes in this case). Also, according to the officer, rejected postal ballots need not be reconsidered as per ECI guidelines as the margin of victory was more than the total number of rejected postal votes.
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The Returning Officer rejected the BJP’s representation and informed the general observer, in accordance with ECI guidelines. But the BJP cadres refused to accept the explanation. For more than a few hours, tension prevailed in Dharapuram town as ECI officials stood firm in their decision and Murugan did not climb down. However, after the Tamil Nadu Chief Election Officer also declined to entertain the BJP’s complaint, Murugan was left with no option but to accept the official’s decision.

Later, the Returning Officer ordered the counting of the voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) machine for the malfunctioned EVM in a separate 26th round. Following the counting of the 393 votes in the EVM, Kayalvizhi still maintained the lead over Murugan. After the remaining postal votes were counted, Kayalvizhi had garnered 89,986 votes while Murugan secured 88,593 votes in total, following which she was formally declared the winner.

One of the major takeaways from this election is that smaller parties can at best be spoilers, but they cannot hope to send representatives to the House in the absence of a strong coalition. Once again, Tamil Nadu voters have elected only those who were part of the alliances led by the two major Dravidian parties. There is no third force in the State politics strong enough to take on either of these formations and win.

For instance, Kamal Haasan was the only MNM candidate with a possible chance of winning. In the case of Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), it was only T.T.V. Dhinakaran who had a realistic chance of entering the House. But his over-reliance on the votes of a particular community (Mukkulathor) seems to have cost him dearly. Dhinakaran, who was an MLA in the previous Assembly, could not repeat the feat. The MNM got a vote share of 2.62 per cent while the AMMK received 2.35 per cent of the votes.

Although Seeman’s Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK), which has been trying to project itself as a Tamil nationalist force, garnered an impressive 6.58 per cent of the votes, and can claim to be the third force in the State, no one from that party won.

Seeman polled 48,000 votes in Thiruvottriyur and came third in the race. NTK fielded women in half of the 234 constituencies. The party has been contesting on its own ever since it entered the electoral fray. Its brand of Tamil nationalist politics appeals to a section of the youths, but without substantial expansion of this political space, Seeman will remain a marginal player.

Although the AMMK polled only 10.6 lakh votes, compared with 21 lakh in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it stood in the way of an AIADMK alliance win in at least 20 seats, including traditional AIADMK strongholds such as Andipatti, Sattur, Rajapalayam and Tenkasi.

One party which has been wiped off the State is actor-turned-politician Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam (DMDK). It was thrown out of the AIADMK alliance and contested in 60 seats as part of the AMMK alliance. Its vote share fell to an abysmal 0.43 per cent in 2021.

The DMDK vote share has been declining continuously in the past few elections. In 2011, the party had managed a 7.88 per cent vote share; in 2016, this fell to 2.4 per cent. Its best show was in 2006, soon after the party was formed by Vijayakanth, when it raked in an 8.45 per cent vote share. The actor’s ill-health and the mishandling of the party by his wife Premalatha and her brother, L. Sudheesh, are seen as factors responsible for the party’s decline.
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Palaniswami’s trusted aide, K.P. Munusamy, handled the negotiations with the DMDK. The unpleasant ending for the DMDK might have helped Munusamy and Palaniswami in their election bids, according to a senior AIADMK leader. He said that the PMK did not want the DMDK in its fold because it saw the DMDK as a threat. Also, the DMDK was demanding parity with PMK on the number of seats. Hence, it used the AIADMK leader who was dependent on the PMK to win his seat to drive the party out of the alliance, he added.

With the election results, it is clear that Tamil Nadu will still have the two Dravidian parties calling the shots. This is the best result that the State could have hoped for.