A HUGE crowd had gathered under a harsh sun on the vast grounds at Peelamedu in Coimbatore for Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s election meeting on April 1. Electricity outages, lasting 12 to 14 hours a day, had been plaguing the premier industrial and textile city and its neighbouring hosiery town of Tirupur for the past several years, leading to a sharp drop in production and to labour lay-offs. Rumours about a flight of industries from Coimbatore to Chamrajanagar in neighbouring Karnataka had been gaining ground. It was against this backdrop that Jayalalithaa’s election meeting took place.
“I am keenly monitoring electricity distribution. Nobody need, therefore, worry about the power situation. Tamil Nadu will soon be free of power cuts,” the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) supremo said. She claimed that her government was paying “great attention” to electricity generation, which, she said, was essential for industrial growth. The “gigantic efforts” of her government had led to an additional generation of 2,500 megawatts, and another 500 MW was being bought from other States, she said. Another 3,300 MW would be purchased on a long-term basis.
Halfway through her speech, Jayalalithaa made the most important pitch of her campaign. For Tamil Nadu to become the number one State in India, the only option was “a change of government” at the Centre, she said. “You should strengthen my hands to bring about the change of government. Will you do it? Will you?” she asked the crowd in a theatrical manner. “When a government at the Centre is formed with the AIADMK as a partner, numerous benefits will accrue to you and the people of this country. So I request you to do your democratic duty properly. Will you do it?” she asked once again. There was a feeble response.
Less than a kilometre away from her meeting venue, at a place called Thanneerpandal, a sullen mood prevailed in about 40 small industries that manufacture components for the textile, automobile and pumpset industries.
“The situation was all right for the past three days because there has been no power cut,” said N. Balasubramanian, a worker of a unit that makes pipes for submersible pumpset motors. “We were doing half-shifts for the past few years. We have debts up to our necks,” he said. His colleague, also named N. Balasubramanian, remembered the traumatic months when they would work only for two hours a day instead of the eight-hour shift and receive salaries for two hours of work. K. Manighandan, a 23-year-old engineering graduate and the director of one of the industries, said, “Many industries sold their machines and folded up. They could not repay their loans to the banks.”
The loneliness of the AIADMK in Jayalalithaa’s electoral campaigns is evident. If there is a forest of colourful flags and enthusiastic cadres belonging to different political parties at the rallies of the rival fronts, headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), it is only AIADMK flags that fly at her rallies. The party has only a minor ally, the All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi (AISMK) headed by the actor and legislator Sarath Kumar. In March, the AIADMK abandoned, without giving any reason, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI), with whom she had aligned in the 2009 Lok Sabha and 2011 Assembly elections. What is intriguing about Jayalalithaa’s campaign is that she targets only the DMK and the Congress, giving the BJP a wide berth.
The AIADMK is contesting all the 40 Lok Sabha seats—39 in Tamil Nadu and one in the neighbouring Union Territory of Puducherry. Even the loyalty of Sarath Kumar has not been rewarded.
Jayalalithaa’s campaign style is stark and serious. There is no humour. She flies to big towns by aircraft and hops from towns to meeting venues by helicopter. No more addressing the electorate gathered on roads from her custom-built vans. It is this helicopter-hopping of Jayalalithaa that M.K. Stalin, DMK treasurer, holds up to ridicule. It is a standard, prepared text that she reads out at meeting after meeting. The only variations are the local issues she raises. In Coimbatore, she raised the problems of power cuts, the Avinashi-Athikadavu water supply scheme and the flight of industries to Karnataka. In Tirupur and Erode, it was the fate of the dyeing units and her efforts to stop Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) from laying pipelines through farmland. In Thanjavur, she spoke about the permission given by the DMK government to extract methane gas from fertile agricultural fields and how she put the project on hold.
At every venue, the AIADMK candidate stands on one side of the dais with folded hands as the Chief Minister reads out from her prepared text, which takes up to 45 minutes. A welcome change from her previous election rallies is that senior Ministers and leaders of the AIADMK’s allies are given chairs to sit on.
In her speeches, Jayalalithaa uses aggressive language, especially when she targets the DMK and the Congress. In Sivaganga, which has repeatedly elected Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram of the Congress, she unleashed a tirade against the Minister. (This time Chidambaram has vacated the seat for his son Karthi.) She alleged that Chidambaram had taken to “bravado in the face of defeat” and accused him of whittling down the State governments’ powers, reducing the Plan allocation to States and thrusting expenditures on them. His initiatives formed “an important reason for the collapse of the Indian economy”, she alleged. She exhorted voters to deal such a deadly blow to Chidambaram, for denying Tamil Nadu its rightful share of finances, and to the Congress and the DMK, who were allies for nine years, that “they should not be able to get up”.
Jayalalithaa criticised the Congress for its handling of the Sri Lankan Tamil issue and the repeated attacks on fishermen from Tamil Nadu by the Sri Lanka Navy, its stand on the Katchativu issue, price rise, and so on. “The Congress’ taraka mantra is corruption everywhere and in everything,” she said, giving examples of the 2G spectrum, coal block allocation, Westland helicopter, aircraft engine and Commonwealth Games scams.
It is a volley of verbal grapeshots that she fires at the DMK for its role in the 2G spectrum scam, its handling of the Sethusamudram project, the use of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited’s lines for private ends and land-grabbing. She lists her government’s achievements. What is intriguing is her ambitious declaration that only when a government is formed at the Centre with the AIADMK as a partner in it “will India dazzle and Tamil Nadu twinkle”. This is the second time that the AIADMK is seeking to partner a government at the Centre.
The AIADMK was part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in 1998-99 but it toppled the government in April 1999. It was a tortuous relationship between the BJP and the AIADMK, with the latter making several demands, including that the A.B. Vajpayee government dismiss the DMK government headed by M. Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu.
The first signs of the revival of the AIADMK’s ambition to be a partner in the government at the Centre were evident in 2013 when the party’s Ministers started projecting Jayalalithaa as the future Prime Minister. Hoardings came up calling her the “Mother of India”, “Historical Mother”, and so on. Some AIADMK leaders claimed that she deserved to be the Prime Minister because she was a polyglot.
The AIADMK’s general council, which met on December 19 near Chennai, vowed to make the AIADMK candidates victorious in all the 40 constituencies “to prepare the ground” for Jayalalithaa “to lead India”. For, the relevant resolution in Tamil argued the she harboured “nationalist views, incomparable patriotism, long political experience, an ability to speak several languages and a capacity to command people”. The resolution added that “only she can make India a great democratic country in the world, a superpower”.
Jayalalithaa told the general council members that at the next meeting in December 2014, the AIADMK should be “ensconced at the Centre and be India’s guiding force”. She likened the AIADMK to “Fort St George Express” train, which had reached Fort St George, the seat of the Tamil Nadu government, six times—three times under M.G. Ramachandran, the party’s founder, and three times under her. She used more train metaphors. “In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, this train will metamorphose into the Red Fort Express and reach New Delhi. This will happen. Nobody can stop it. The people of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry will wave the green flag. I am the engine driver who will drive the train,” she said, as AIADMK cadre applauded with joy.
Conversations with voters revealed that that they did not take the AIADMK’s “partner at the Centre” theory seriously.
It is anybody’s guess what Jayalalithaa’s strategy will be in the post-election scenario.
The AIADMK has been in and out of alliances headed by the BJP. In 1998, it partnered the Vajpayee government but withdrew support to it in April 1999. This gave the DMK an opening to align with the BJP in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections and be part of the NDA government from 1999 to 2004. The DMK abandoned the BJP-led alliance and joined hands with the Congress in 2004.
The AIADMK aligned with the BJP again in 2004 but lost all the 40 seats to the formidable alliance comprising the DMK, the Congress, the CPI(M), the CPI, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML).
In 2009, partners varied in the alliances. There were two big alliances, one led by the DMK, with the Congress, the Dalit Panthers and the IUML as allies, and the other headed by the AIADMK, with the CPI(M), the CPI, the PMK, and the MDMK as partners. The BJP aligned with the AISMK. The Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam went alone. The DMK won 17 seats, the Congress eight, the AIADMK nine, and the CPI(M), the CPI, the MDMK, the IUML and the Dalit Panthers one each.
It is a six-cornered contest this time. While the DMK, the BJP, the AIADMK, and the Left parties have formed separate alliances, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party are virtually contesting alone.