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Messages from the States

Print edition : Mar 21, 1998 T+T-

Total seats 39DMK 5TMC 3CPI 1AIADMK 18BJP 3MDMK 3PMK 4JP 1TRC 1

"IT was not a wave but a silent undercurrent." This observation by a Tamil Maanila Congress leader perhaps best sums up the results in Tamil Nadu. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-TMC-Communist Party of India (CPI) alliance, which had won all the 39 Lok Sabha seats (DMK 17, TMC 20 and CPI 2) in the 1996 elections, could gather only nine this time, with the DMK winning five seats, the TMC three and the CPI one.

The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)-led front won 30 seats. The AIADMK itself won 18 of the 22 seats it contested, its allies 12 seats - the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) three, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) three, and the Pattali Makkal Katchi four (out of five seats each contested), and the Janata Party and the Tamilaga Rajiv Congress (TRC) one seat each. This is the first time that the BJP, the MDMK, the PMK, the Janata Party and the TRC are sending their members to the Lok Sabha from Tamil Nadu.

Four representatives of the DMK and the TMC in the United Front Government Ministry at the Centre were defeated: T.G. Venkatraman (DMK) and M. Arunachalam, S.R. Balasubramonyan and R. Dhanushkodi Athithan (all TMC). The three other Union Ministers who contested the elections, Murasoli Maran and T.R. Baalu (both DMK) and P. Chidambaram (TMC), have, however, been re-elected. The ruling DMK also managed to retain the Coonoor and Aruppukottai seats in the State Assembly byelections.

Five factors lay behind the unexpectedly impressive performance of the AIADMK-led combine. They were: the bomb blasts in Coimbatore which killed 56 persons and injured about 250 on February 14, two days before the first phase of polling (Frontline, March 20); the stability card played dexterously by the AIADMK-led alliance, which suggested that the BJP alone could provide a stable government at the Centre; the way AIADMK general secretary and former Chief Minister Jayalalitha put together an alliance with almost all the anti-DMK parties, as against the rigid and overbearing attitude of the DMK and the TMC, which rebuffed friendly parties such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Janata Dal; the caste polarisation in the southern districts which resulted in the DMK losing a big chunk of the Thevar and Dalit votes; and the anti-establishment mood engendered by bus fare increases, problems in the working of the an inefficient public distribution system and so on.

In the assessment of DMK president and Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, there were two factors behind the outcome: "People were mesmerised by the slogan of stability. The other was the shock administered by the bomb explosions." TMC president G.K. Moopanar said: "Stability became a question mark before the electorate, and the blasts had their own impact." Moopanar cited the anti-establishment mood among the voters. Local issues were mainly responsible for this anti-establishment mood, he added. Jayalalitha, however, argued that it was not a sudden change that brought victory for her party and its allies but "a gradual change".

It is possible that an anti-establishment feeling among the electorate and the stability card of the AIADMK-led alliance worked against the DMK-TMC-CPI combine. The "turning point" was, however, provided by the blasts in Coimbatore. According to a TMC leader, the explosions at once had an impact on the psyche of the electorate, which had already perceived the DMK to be soft towards Muslim militant groups such as Al-Umma and the Jihad Committee (which have now been banned). A series of bomb explosions had convulsed Tamil Nadu in November-December 1997, just two months before the elections. Blasts shook the Cheran Express, the Pandyan Express and the Alleppey Express trains on December 6, 1997, the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition. The police said that the Islamic Defence Force of Kerala, a shadowy outfit, was behind these explosions, which killed nine persons. On January 10, 1998, a blast occurred under the Anna flyover in the heart of Chennai, and the Islamic Defence Force claimed responsibility for this. This was followed by a powerful blast in a rice mill at Saliyamangalam, near Thanjavur, on February 8. The police seized a big cache of explosives and detonators from the mill. Police investigation revealed that Abdul Khader, son of the mill owner, Abdul Hameed, was connected to Muslim fundamentalist organisations. Then came the seizure of hundreds of detonators from Vepery and Tambaram in Chennai, from two Muslims connected with militant organisations.

The AIADMK unleashed a propaganda campaign alleging that the DMK Government was dragging its feet in acting against Muslim terrorist organisations. BJP president L.K. Advani argued that he was the target of the Coimbatore explosions. The AIADMK, the BJP, the PMK, the MDMK, the Janata Party and the TRC demanded the resignation of Karunanidhi. With the first phase of elections just two days away, fear seized the electorate. Polling in Coimbatore was postponed from February 22 to February 28.

Public opinion surveys done before the explosions showed that the BJP candidate in Coimbatore, C.P. Radhakrishnan, was ahead of the DMK candidate K.R. Subbian. Victory for the BJP became a foregone conclusion after the explosions, and Radhakrishnan won by about 1.4 lakh votes, the largest margin in the State. This was despite 18 DMK Ministers campaigning for Subbian and a "religious harmony" meeting addressed there by Karunanidhi, Moopanar, CPI(M) State secretary N. Sankaraiah, CPI State Council secretary R. Nallakannu and State Janata Dal president G.A. Vadivelu.

The blasts had an echo in the neighbouring constituencies of Nilgiris, Salem, Gobichettipalayam, Pollachi and Tiruchengode, where the AIADMK and its allies won. In the Nilgiris constituency, S.R. Balasubramonyan was defeated by Master Madhan of the BJP. Master Madhan polled many more votes than Balasubramonyan in the plains segments surrounding Coimbatore city, which fell under the Nilgiris constituency.

At the meetings that Advani, Jayalalitha, MDMK general secretary Vaiko, PMK founder Dr. S. Ramadoss, Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy and TRC president Vazhappadi K. Ramamurthy addressed, they harped on the slogan, "BJP for a stable government and Vajpayee as an able Prime Minister." Jayalalitha asked: "We are able to tell you beforehand that A.B. Vajpayee will be the Prime Minister if the BJP is voted to power. Can the United Front say who will be the Prime Minister if it is voted to power?" The AIADMK ridiculed the Congress also for its inability to project even Sonia Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate.

The third factor that ruined the prospects of the DMK and the TMC was their inability to carry the smaller parties with them. These were the CPI(M), the Janata Dal, the PMK, the rival AIADMK led by S. Tirunavukkarasu and Pudhiya Tamilagam (New Tamil Nadu), a party launched by Dalit leader Dr. K. Krishnasamy. The CPI(M), a member of the United Front, asked for two seats. Although the DMK was willing to concede the Coimbatore seat, the TMC rode roughshod over the CPI(M). A TMC leader said after the elections: "We made a big mistake in being adamant that we will not allot even one seat from our quota to the CPI(M)." The Janata Dal, another constituent of the United Front, asked for the Krishnagiri seat, but was rebuffed. The DMK spurned the overtures from the PMK, which had a sizable vote bank in the Vanniya belt, from the Pudhiya Tamilagam with its Dalit following in the southern districts, and from the rival AIADMK leader Tirunavukkarasu who held sway in the Pudukottai constituency.

On the contrary, Jayalalitha speedily struck alliances with whoever was opposed to the DMK, even with those who were bitterly critical of her and the BJP in the immediate past. These were the MDMK, the PMK, the Janata Party and the TRC. She also went about the seat-sharing arrangement with finesse.

The failure of the DMK to accommodate in its front the CPI(M), the PMK, the Janata Dal, the rival AIADMK and Pudhiya Tamilagam ensured its and the TMC's defeat in about 10 constituencies. These seats include Vellore, Wandiwash, Cuddalore, Chidambaram, Dharmapuri and Salem with their strong Vanniya concentration; Pudukottai where Tirunavukkarasu received more than 2.26 lakh votes; Tenkasi where Dr. Krishnasamy won 1.23 lakh votes and Madurai where CPI(M) candidate P. Mohan put up a spirited fight against Subramanian Swamy, polling more than 1.10 lakh votes.

CPI leader Nallakannu said: "If the CPI(M) and the Janata Dal had been allotted seats and the campaign was vigorous right from the beginning, more seats could have been won."

The caste clashes in the southern districts between the Thevars and the Dalits alienated both the communities from the DMK. For the DMK tried to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds in the clashes. That explained why Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram (TMC) won by only about 59,000 votes this time in Sivaganga compared to a margin of 2.8 lakh votes in 1996.

The record of corruption of the Jayalalitha Government did not figure as an issue this time unlike in 1996. DMK and TMC cadres believed that their parties would have a cakewalk. The "magic mantra" of film actor Rajnikant, who came out in support of the DMK-led alliance as he did in 1996, did not cast its spell on the electorate or his fans this time.

Chief Minister Karunanidhi did not agree that the electorate's verdict was against the State Government. He said the voters made a clear distinction between the Lok Sabha elections and the Assembly byelections in Aruppukottai and Coonoor. Nallakannu referred to these two victories and said: "In the present situation, the people's expectations are high. I appeal to the State Government to meet their aspirations."

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