Tamil Nadu election alliances

Marriage of convenience

Print edition : March 15, 2019

Union Minister and BJP leader Piyush Goyal with the AIADMK’s top leaders, Edappadi K. Palaniswami (left) and O. Panneerselvam, after the seat-sharing agreement, in Chennai on February 19. Photo: R. Ragu

At the DMK headquarters in Chennai on February 21, party president M.K.Stalin (second from left) with Congress general secretaries Mukul Wasnik (extreme left) and K.C. Venugopal (extreme right) and State Congress president K.S. Alagiri after signing the seat-sharing agreement. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Edappadi K. Palaniswami and O. Panneerselvam holding the alliance agreement with Pattali Makkal Katchi founder S. Ramadoss (centre) and his son and former Union Minister Anbumani Ramadoss (right), in Chennai on February 19. Photo: Bijoy Ghosh

Piyush Goyal meeting DMDK president Vijayakanth at the latter’s house in Chennai on February 19. Photo: By Special Arrangement

With much at stake for both parties, rivals All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam form practical alliances ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.

THE 2019 Lok Sabha elections might be a few months away, but the battle in Tamil Nadu has already commenced with two major alliances taking shape. The two big Dravidian parties, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), completed the tough process of negotiating with a national party each for an alliance in the third week of February ahead of what is seen as a crucial election for both parties. For the AIADMK, it is a question of survival of the State government; for the DMK, it is a question of survival of the party as a united entity.

The DMK suffered back-to-back defeats in the Assembly elections—in 2011 and 2016—and lost all the seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In effect, ever since M.K. Stalin took charge as party president, the DMK has promised a lot but delivered little. From 1996 to 2011, the DMK was in power either in the State or at the Centre. It has since spent seven years in the wilderness, a fact that the party’s rank and file are unwilling to come to terms with. Hence, 2019 is a mammoth test of Stalin’s ability to run the party effectively. Stalin himself is confident that a combination of anti-incumbency sentiment, bad governance, and the DMK’s grand alliance will sweep the DMK–Congress combine to win the majority, if not all, of the 40 parliamentary seats, 39 in the State and one in Puducherry.

The AIADMK government has its focus not on the Lok Sabha election but on the byelections to the 21 Assembly constituencies that will possibly be held simultaneously. (Eighteen MLAs were disqualified after shifting loyalties to T.T.V. Dhinakaran, who floated the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam; two seats fell vacant following the death of sitting members; and another MLA was disqualified after being sentenced to imprisonment in a criminal case.) Twenty of the 21 constituencies were won by the AIADMK in the 2016 elections, the last in which Jayalalithaa helmed the party. If the AIADMK loses all the constituencies to the DMK, then the DMK and its ally, the Congress, will have 118 members in the 234-member Assembly, which constitutes a simple majority in the House.

The AIADMK is well aware of this and also of the fact that it is not strong on the ground. In the 2017 byelection to the R.K. Nagar constituency, a seat that was held by Jayalalithaa, despite the AIADMK employing every trick in the book, it could only come a poor second to the charismatic T.T.V. Dinakaran. Dinakaran has been relentless in his campaign across Tamil Nadu and is bent on proving that he is a force to reckon with. He is likely to cut into the AIADMK vote base—even if the AIADMK and the BJP are putting in roadblock after roadblock to his progress.

Political alliances are stitched out of practical and sometimes desperate needs rather than ideological affinities. In Tamil Nadu, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) scored a major victory in aligning with the AIADMK, which had refused to ally with any national party for a decade. This is because of the desperation on both sides.

For the BJP, it is a question of making up the numbers to cross the 272 mark in the Lok Sabha because the larger picture looks bleak for the party: the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance will cut significantly into its 2014 tally of 68 (out of 80) in Uttar Pradesh; its defeats in the Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand in 2018 do not bode well for the general election; it is likely that the party will not win a single seat in the north-eastern region after its tough talk on the citizenship Bill without taking into consideration the sentiments of the people; and south India, with 131 seats, is not an area where the BJP has traditionally done well—in its best year, 2014, the party won 19 seats in all—15 in Karnataka, two in Andhra Pradesh and one each in Tamil Nadu and Telangana.

In 2014, the AIADMK, under a rejuvenated Jayalalithaa, won 37 seats in Tamil Nadu, while the DMK drew a blank. But a split within the AIADMK after the death of Jayalalithaa, the lack of a strong leadership, different voices in which the party is talking with the BJP and the BJP taking advantage of the AIADMK’s inability to project a united front, and the wafer-thin technical majority with which it runs the Tamil Nadu government—all have contributed to the perception that the AIADMK, with the dual leadership of Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam, is a much weaker and pliable entity than the party under Jayalalithaa. It is also a fact that two Ministers in the Tamil Nadu Cabinet, Thangamani and Velumani, who have a hotline with BJP president Amit Shah, are as powerful and connected in New Delhi as the Chief Minister or the Deputy Chief Minister. The two Ministers have replaced the seasoned and tested V. Maithreyan, a three-time AIADMK MP, as the point of contact for the BJP in New Delhi and Chennai.

In contrast, the DMK under Stalin is better placed in Tamil Nadu because the party is intact and its main allies are with it. Stalin’s brother, M.K. Azhagiri, who was initially vocal in his opposition of Stalin, has piped down, and it appears that some kind of a truce is in place between the warring brothers. It helped the allies that Stalin has been extremely vocal in his condemnation of the acts of omission and commission of the Narendra Modi government. Though the BJP sent out feelers time and again, the DMK rebuffed its advances, even in the 2014 elections. Hence, the AIADMK is important to the BJP.

DMDK disappointed

The BJP has barely 3 per cent votes in Tamil Nadu as per the 2016 elections but managed to secure five seats from the AIADMK alliance. The actor Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), which performed only marginally worse than the BJP, is not even being considered for negotiations. This is because the DMDK initially demanded 14 seats, the same as it contested last time. The DMDK was one of the staunch supporters of the BJP in 2014, but when it came to the question of seat-sharing the BJP left the DMDK in the lurch, negotiated with the AIADMK for its seats, and then asked its trusted allies from 2014—the DMDK, A.C. Shanmugham and Puthiya Tamilagam’s Dr Krishnasamy—to talk to the AIADMK.

When Union Minister Piyush Goyal called on Vijayakanth at his residence, the actor’s brother-in-law, Sudheesh, who runs the party now, demanded that the DMDK be given at least 10 seats. This number got reduced to seven the next day, and the DMDK made it clear that it would not go down any further. The AIADMK was willing to part with three seats, but the DMDK wanted parity with the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). The BJP, which should have played deal-maker and peace-maker, is conspicuous by its absence.

Sensing an opportunity to muddy the waters, the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee’s former president S. Thirunavukkarasar called on Vijayakanth at his residence on February 21. Emerging from the meeting, Thirunavukkarasar said that he had come to make enquiries about the health of the DMDK leader. Agreeing with a suggestion that when two politicians meet they do not just talk about the weather, Thirunavukkarasar let it be known that he exhorted Vijayakanth to take a “considered decision” on the alliance, sending a panicky AIADMK camp into a huddle. The question before the AIADMK was simple: Is it fine to ignore the nearly 2.5 per cent votes that the DMDK polled in the 2016 elections, and, if so, what will be its effect on the byelections to the 21 Assembly constituencies? Until the time of going to the press, the AIADMK huddle had not ended.

Already, there were murmurs of dissent within the AIADMK because as many as 15 of the 37 MPs who had won in 2014, it appeared, would not be able to contest again. One AIADMK MP made it clear that he would not remain with the party if he was denied the ticket. He added that there were many who shared his view. It was not as if all of them would join other parties. “Some would just withdraw from politics because this is getting a little too much,” he added.

Windfall for the BJP

But the question why the AIADMK gave away five seats to a party with barely 3 per cent votes, the BJP, needs to be explained. Dinakaran, Stalin and most opposition leaders have outlined how the AIADMK government functions at the mercy of the BJP government at the Centre. Multiple Ministers, including the Chief Minister, face probes against them by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI); the government does not have a majority in the Assembly; and despite the fact that 20 of the 21 vacant Assembly seats have remained without representation much beyond the period mandated for filling these posts, the Election Commission has shown no hurry in holding these elections. In the event of a byelection, it is fairly certain that the party will not win even half of the 20 seats it had won earlier. Plus, the AIADMK government has shown extreme reluctance to hold local body elections—an indication that it it is not confident of winning these elections, despite the fact that a State Election Commissioner, appointed by the State government, will be conducting them.

The manner in which the “11 MLAs” case has been treated in the Supreme Court also gives rise to suspicions. The case was listed multiple times since January 17 this year, but it could not be taken up. The matter was mentioned by Kapil Sibal for listing on January 31, February 4 and February 11. One journalist who followed the case wondered why this was so and whether some other unrelated events were influencing the listing of the case. For most political observers, the case—where 11 MLAs, who won on the AIADMK ticket, voted against the AIADMK government on a confidence motion after a three-line whip was issued—was a straightforward one and which involved a routine interpretation of the law to disqualify the MLAs. The Speaker of the Assembly should have disqualified them under the provisions of the anti-defection law. But since he did not, this case was filed.

Even within the alliance, the AIADMK appears to have pulled a fast one on the BJP by finalising an arrangement with the PMK. Realising that the DMK too was talking to the PMK, the AIADMK decided to give in to all the demands made by the PMK. In recent times, the PMK has not received so many concessions from a major alliance partner. It managed to get seven Lok Sabha seats and one Rajya Sabha seat. The only thing the PMK conceded was that it would not contest the 21 Assembly seats that could also go to the polls around the same time. Thus, in the eight Assembly constituencies (of the 21) in north Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK is well placed to fight the DMK.

The PMK came in for some harsh criticism for its decision to join hands with the AIADMK because, ahead of the 2016 Assembly elections, the PMK had made it clear that it would never ally with either of the Dravidian parties. When asked about this, a PMK functionary said: “Even the BJP has been talking about a Tamil Nadu without the Dravidian parties. But they have formed an alliance with the AIADMK. This is common in electoral politics.” The PMK’s father and son duo, S. Ramadoss and Anbumani Ramadoss, will have to do a lot of explaining as they hit the campaign trail.

Congress–DMK pact

The Congress and the DMK finalised a seat-sharing pact on February 20, with the DMK giving away 10 seats to the Congress. There were murmurs of dissent within the DMK, with one functionary asking, mockingly, if the Congress had 10 candidates to field. A jubilant AIADMK functionary quipped, “That’s 10 seats for us,” meaning it was easier for them to defeat a Congress candidate than one of the DMK. The deal is for nine seats in Tamil Nadu and one in Puducherry.

The grass-roots-level strength of the Congress party is highly suspect in most pockets of Tamil Nadu, and by insisting on a higher number of seats the Congress is making the same mistake it made in 2016. In that Assembly election, the Congress contested 41 seats but managed to win only eight. The AIADMK found the constituencies that the Congress candidates contested easier to take on. This fact was acknowledged by the DMK later, but it is not sure if the Congress has learnt any lessons from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in 2016.

Film stars

The two other much-watched names in Tamil Nadu politics are that of the film actors Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. Of them, Rajinikanth has withdrawn from the 2019 race, making it clear that he was only interested in the Assembly elections and not the parliamentary elections. He has not overtly supported the BJP but has appealed to people to vote for the combine that gets Tamil Nadu its due share of water.

Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam is gearing up for the elections. Since he launched his party on February 21 last year, he took a break for shooting his movie, came back and has been holding village panchayat meetings across the State. He also has tried to take on the role of an environmental activist and is drawing large crowds. It is difficult to say if the crowds that turn up for his events are his newly converted voters or they are just there to have a glimpse of the mega star.

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