A matter of arithmetic

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST

The following articles offer an exclusive, in-depth analysis of the May 10 Assembly elections, based on a special post-poll survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi. One of the leading social science research institutions in the country, the CSDS pioneered survey research on the social and cultural basis of politics in South Asia. Frontline and the CSDS came together in 1994 to bring the findings of cutting-edge social science research on electoral politics to a non-technical readership and the association continued through most of the Assembly and parliamentary elections held since then. The special post-poll survey in the four States was commissioned by Frontline in partnership with New Delhi Television (NDTV). The articles are written by YOGENDRA YADAV, Fellow at the CSDS and Director of its programme Lokniti, with help from the CSDS team.

The correct explanation for the pro-Jayalalitha 'wave' in Tamil Nadu seems to lie in the alliance arithmetic. When the AIADMK took into its alliance more and more parties with proven vote-share, the DMK went on losing such allies.

IN psephological jargon they call it a "critical election". After a series of battles on a given electoral landscape, there comes an election that changes the very landscape. The stable structure of political competition and the standard patterns of alignment of social groups with political parties undergo a change. The rules of the game also change.

On the face of it, the latest round of Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu hardly fits the description of a critical election. To outside observers, it must have appeared as yet another of those massive yet enigmatic electoral waves that Tamil Nadu is famous for. When the final results came, the score read 195-37 - 195 seats for the alliance led by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and 37 for the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and its allies. Compared to the waves in the Assembly elections of 1991 and 1996 that brought down the losing side's seats to single-digit numbers, the latest one should be characterised as mild. Parties getting a two-thirds or three-fourths majority is not new in Tamil Nadu. Contesting merely 141 of the 234 seats in the Assembly, the AIADMK secured a majority on its own. But that too is not surprising. Except after the 1952 elections, Tamil Nadu has never had a 'hung Assembly'. Its electorate has been giving a clear mandate to one party or the other. Most of the pre-election opinion polls and the exit poll failed to detect the wave this time.

At first glance, the wave bore all the signs of an anti-incumbency vote. The DMK-led front was comprehensively beaten in all the regions and districts except Chennai where both Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and his son M.K. Stalin contested and won. It was only in its traditional strongholds in northern Tamil Nadu that the DMK-led alliance could score some face-saving victories; 22 of its 37 seats were won from this region. From all other regions it won less than 10 seats. The AIADMK won all but one seat in the west, a region where it is traditionally strong. The AIADMK and its allies have done well in the Cauvery delta too. For the DMK-led alliance it was a near wipe-out in this region; it won a couple of seats each in Thanjavur, Nagapattinam and Tiruchirappalli districts.

In the south, the AIADMK alliance made a clean sweep of Theni, Ramanathpuram and Thoothukkudi districts, and conceded only one seat in each of the other districts of this region. The Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) played a crucial role in ensuring the defeat of the DMK-led alliance in this region, especially in Virudhunagar, Thoothukkudi, Tirunelveli and Kanniyakumari districts. Although the MDMK drew a blank, with its vote-share of 4.7 per cent it can play a decisive role in future elections. In 45 constituencies, the number of votes secured by MDMK candidates exceeded the victory margins.

The AIADMK's grand alliance secured exactly 50 per cent of the votes polled. The DMK and its allies trailed behind by a little over 11 percentage points while the AIADMK-led alliance's vote-share did not fall below 43 per cent in any of the districts, the floor level for its rivals was 32 per cent. But this may be sufficient for the DMK to bounce back in the next elections.

SO what is new? Why should one even consider whether it was a critical election? The reason is that while the form of electoral politics continues to be the same in Tamil Nadu, its substance has undergone a major change. While the outcome this time fell into a familiar pattern, the processes behind it underwent a metamorphosis. Verdict 2001 was not the result of an anti-incumbency wave of the kind witnessed in 1991 or 1996. Nor was it the result of a popularity wave of the kind former Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran was able to create. In order to understand the meaning of this verdict, one needs to understand the complexities of Tamil Nadu's voters. This verdict may well mark a turning point in the history of the State's electoral politics.

The post-poll survey conducted by the CSDS and sponsored by NDTV and Frontline brought out some findings that challenge the established readings of this verdict. At the end of its five-year regime, there was no major sign of popular disapproval of the DMK government. The level of satisfaction with its performance compared favourably with that of the Left Front government in West Bengal and was much better than that of the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala. It was nowhere close to the rating for the Jayalalitha government in 1996. (Sixty per cent of the electorate was "not satisfied at all" with her regime and only 13 per cent were "very satisfied".) In fact, when respondents were asked to choose between the DMK government and its predecessor, 42 per cent of them preferred the Karunanidhi government, giving it a lead of five percentage points over the AIADMK regime. Nor was it a loser when it came to issues such as law and order and protection of the minorities. In the matter of preference for the Chief Minister's post, Jayalalitha finished a little behind Karunanidhi. Even if one assumes that this preference for the DMK government and Karunanidhi was owing to the slight overestimation of the DMK vote in this survey, there was no evidence of any widespread yearning for a regime that was similar to the one led by Jayalalitha during 1991-96.

Have the voters forgotten the issue of corruption, or have they forgiven Jayalalitha? The survey does not suggest so. As many as 61 per cent of the respondents said that she was "corrupt" or "very corrupt". This included 41 per cent of AIADMK loyalists. Of course, DMK supporters took an even less charitable view of Jayalalitha on the issue of corruption. But why did corruption not become an election issue? The reason is that there was no effective alternative. Karunanidhi was also regarded as "corrupt" or "very corrupt"' by 51 per cent of the respondents, including 34 per cent of DMK loyalists. The DMK government's image was worse on the issue of corruption. Corruption becomes a decisive election issue only when an obvious and effective alternative is available to the voters.

Karunanidhi attributed the AIADMK alliance's victory to a "sympathy wave" for Jayalalitha after her disqualification. This must be one of the few things that Jayalalitha agrees with him. She claimed that the electorate had given a verdict, among other things, on the rejection of her nomination. The survey findings put a question mark over the interpretations given by both the leaders. Only 24 per cent of the respondents felt that her disqualification was unjustified, while 35 per cent (49 per cent, if one includes the category of respondents who said "somewhat justified"') felt that it was justified. Only 7 per cent of the respondents said that this factor influenced their voting decision. In most cases, disqualification only affirmed the choices already made; in some cases the respondents voted against the AIADMK because of the disqualification. On this count, the net gain for the AIADMK-led alliance works out to a mere 1 per cent.

The real explanation for the wave in Tamil Nadu seems to lie in the alliance arithmetic. Jayalalitha won the election not because of her popularity but because of the unbeatable alliance she cobbled together. In fact she should take the credit for starting an era of coalition politics in Tamil Nadu by bringing parties such as the MDMK and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) into an alliance in 1998 (for the Lok Sabha elections) to avenge the humiliating defeat she suffered at the hands of the DMK-Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) alliance in the Assembly elections of 1996. The strategy worked. And Karunanidhi emulated it in the Lok Sabha elections of 1999 and scored a clear victory. Since then Jayalalitha has been gaining allies and the DMK losing them. This change largely explains the verdict of 2001.

In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the DMK-led alliance gained leads in 147 Assembly segments and won 47 per cent of the popular vote. But the DMK failed to keep this grand alliance together. Just before the elections, the PMK, a party of Vanniyars who are predominant in northern Tamil Nadu, switched over to the AIADMK-led alliance. The MDMK led by Vaiko and the Thamizhaga Rajiv Congress (TRC) led by Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthy were shown the door by Karunanidhi. Taking into account these parties' vote-share in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, their exit meant a loss of 15 percentage points for the DMK-led alliance. Only allies such as the Bharatiya Janata Party and the MGR-ADMK stayed with the DMK. Karunanidhi tried to make up for the losses by inducting into the alliance two Dalit formations, Puthiya Tamizhagam (P.T.), which has a strong presence in the south, and the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI), which is strong in the north. Even after the changes in the composition of the alliance, its net loss was about 11 percentage points.

On the other hand, it was a story of gains and gains for the AIADMK. It inducted the PMK into the alliance and reached an understanding with the TMC led by G.K. Moopanar, besides retaining all its existing allies. This amounted to a net gain of 15 percentage points since the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. In other words, Jayalalitha had effectively managed to reverse the defeat in the last Lok Sabha elections by forging a new alliance. In a sense, she had won the election even before the campaign began. All she had to ensure was that the AIADMK and its allies retained their respective bases. And this they did.

The electoral outcome is a testimony to how alliance arithmetic works. The AIADMK is the biggest gainer. It contested only 60 per cent of the seats and will control 56 per cent of the seats in the Assembly. Jayalalitha reached this amazing success ratio of 94 per cent by cornering all the winnable seats for her party, much to the annoyance of her partners. But in the final analysis, everyone seems to have gained. Even the Congress(I), which lost 50 per cent of the seats it contested, is better off than it was in 1996. The AIADMK secured 63 per cent of the votes polled by the alliance. The votes it won in its constituencies were about two percentage points higher than the average vote polled by the alliance in the State. Its allies polled between two and five percentage points lower than the State average. But there is no instance of an ally not benefiting from the AIADMK's votes.

The DMK contested 183 seats and secured 80 per cent of the votes polled by its alliance in the State. Its vote-share in its constituencies is the same as the State average of the alliance. The P.T. fared miserably, with its leader Dr. K. Krishnaswamy losing both the seats he contested. One of them was Ottapidaram, which he won in 1996 defying the DMK wave.

MORE than the results, it is the survey findings that reveal the chemistry of poll alliances. The percentage of votes polled by any party in an alliance does not give a clue about its real strength. In order to understand the real preferences of the voters, the respondents were asked which party they would have voted for if all parties were in the fray in their constituencies without any alliance. The survey shows that the smaller parties in both the alliances have gained from the generosity of the DMK and the AIADMK. If they had gone it alone, the DMK and the AIADMK would have got more votes. More important, the survey shows that the DMK commands a greater vote-share than the AIADMK. The Congress(I) and the TMC command 7 per cent of the votes but they won a little over 9 per cent in the elections. In the case of the PMK, however, it actually commands the 6 per cent that it got in the elections.

The survey also reveals the dynamics of vote transfer. The AIADMK's capacity to transfer its votes to its alliance was marginally better than that of the DMK. The DMK tends to lose some of its committed voters to others. The PMK demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to transfer votes: 93 per cent of its votes were transferred to the AIADMK alliance. The BJP and the Congress(I) were poor in transferring their votes to their respective regional allies.

As for the social pattern of voting, the AIADMK retained its traditional base among Thevars and other OBCs. The PMK successfully swung Vanniyars votes in favour of the AIADMK. For the first time, the DMK took a lead among Dalits, thanks to its alliance with the P.T. and the DPI. The DMK's hope of winning over the Konars (Yadavs) by forging an alliance with the Makkal Tamil Desam (MTD) was belied. The alliance with the BJP has finally started telling on the DMK's influence among Muslims; a significant chunk of Muslim votes shifted to the AIADMK this time.

The class and gender voting patterns were along the lines established during MGR's period: the poor and women tend to favour the AIADMK. But there was a big surprise in the voting pattern of urban and rural voters. Perhaps for the first time, the AIADMK took a lead over the DMK among urban voters too.

The elections have brought into focus a process that has been going on in the State for well over a decade. The Dravidian parties are slowly losing their capacity for cross-sectional mobilisation. They can no longer meet the various sub-regional and sectional aspirations that have found political articulation in the form of small parties. Every election in Tamil Nadu witnesses the entry of new sub-regional and sectional players. The initial response of the mainstream parties was to keep these parties outside the contest for power. The Lok Sabha election in 1998 changed that attitude. It was during the latest round of Assembly elections that the inevitability of forging alliances with smaller parties came to be accepted for the first time. The AIADMK's decision to keep the small parties out of the government will keep on hold the full unfolding of coalition politics. It is not clear how long it will take for the smaller parties to find their way into the government as well. But one thing is quite clear: Tamil Nadu politics will never be the same again.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment