Assembly Elections: Tamil Nadu

Battle lines

Print edition : April 29, 2016

Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad (second, right) addressing the media with DMK treasurer M.K. Stalin after completing a seat-sharing agreement in Chennai on April 4. State Congress president E.V.K.S. Elangovan and Rajya Sabha member Kanimozhi are also seen. Photo: PTI

Leaders of the PWF: (From right), Thol. Thirumavalavan (VCK), Vaiko (MDMK), G. Ramakrishnan (CPI(M)) and R. Mutharasan (CPI) addressing the media in Chennai on April 6. Photo: R. RAGU

AIADMK candidates on their way to visit Chief Minister and party chief Jayalalithaa at her residence in Chennai on April 6. Photo: R. Senthil Kumar/PTI

The election scene hots up in Tamil Nadu, with the AIADMK announcing its candidates for 227 of the 234 seats and the DMK springing a surprise by making the Congress its alliance partner.

Although Tamil Nadu voters will go to the polling booths only on May 16, the Assembly election scene began to hot up on April 4 with a series of dramatic developments. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, who is the general secretary of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), set the pace when she announced that her party would contest 227 of the 234 seats and that the remaining seven had been set apart for six minor allies. Signalling that she meant business, she named the party candidates for the 227 constituencies. Jayalalithaa will contest from R.K. Nagar, a working-class constituency in Chennai. What came as a big surprise was that she shut the door on the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), headed by G.K. Vasan, which had been aspiring to partner with the AIADMK in the Assembly elections. (Vasan revived the TMC, a party started by his father, G.K. Moopanar, in November 2014.) She also kept out of the AIADMK alliance the Tamizhaga Vazhvurimai Katchi, founded by T. Velmurugan, who broke away from the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a party with Vanniyars, a predominant but backward caste in the State, as its social base.

Jayalalithaa also named the party candidates for all the 30 Assembly seats in the neighbouring Union Territory of Puducherry, sending the clear message that the AIADMK would contest the elections there alone. For the first time, AIADMK candidates will contest in seven Assembly constituencies in Kerala.

A few hours before the AIADMK’s announcement, the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), with former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi as its president, stitched up a partnership with the Congress. The DMK conceded 41 seats to the Congress, more than meeting the latter’s demand that it be allotted one seat for each of the 39 Lok Sabha constituencies in the State. The DMK is likely to contest about 175 seats. It has allotted five seats each to the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi and three seats to three minor parties. On April 7, the DMK allotted four seats to Puthiya Tamizhagam, a Dalit party headed by Dr K. Krishnasamy.

It was the clinching of the DMK-Congress alliance that compelled Jayalalithaa to nominate her party’s candidates in what is seen as one-upmanship.

There is a design behind the DMK’S decision to concede 41 seats to the Congress. The party is confident that the election rallies of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son and vice president Rahul Gandhi in the State will make an impact on the alliance. The new-found bonhomie between the DMK and the Congress was evident when All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad, who signed the agreement for the Congress, said: “I have seen since the past few decades in Tamil Nadu that it has always been one term for the AIADMK and another for the DMK. Now, it is the turn of the DMK-led government, and I am sure we will be able to form the government. We will work sincerely to ensure that we are victorious.” Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC) president E.V.K.S. Elangovan played an important role in reviving the alliance. Their relations turned bitter after the two parties were defeated in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

On April 5, a revolt broke out in the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) when the old guard led by three party legislators, five district secretaries and two other leaders demanded to know from the party founder Vijayakanth why he did not enter into an alliance with the DMK when, they claimed, the overwhelming mood in the party was for an alliance with the latter. On March 30, V. Yuvaraj, DMDK secretary for north Chennai and a long-time lieutenant of Vijayakanth, joined the DMK. A few days later, S. Dinesh, DMDK Kanyakumari west district secretary, followed suit. Both were upset that Vijayakanth had brushed aside the opinion of party leaders and cadres and had thrown in his lot with the People’s Welfare Front (PWF) comprising the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a Dalit party.

In fact, the DMDK-PWF alliance was the first to burst out of the sprinters block on March 23 when their leaders announced that they had formed a “credible and viable” alternative to both the AIADMK and the DMK. It was decided that Vijayakanth would be “the captain” of the alliance and that the DMDK would contest 124 seats, with the PWF contesting the remaining 110. Vaiko, MDMK general secretary, is the alliance’s convener. The DMDK-PWF alliance decided to project Vijayakanth as the chief ministerial candidate. In a refreshing contrast to the stand that the DMK and the AIADMK have always taken, the front’s leaders announced that if the alliance was voted to power, it would form a coalition government ( Frontline, April 15, 2016).

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the PMK founded by Dr S. Ramadoss are going it alone and have projected themselves as an alternative to both the DMK and the AIADMK, the two parties that have alternately ruled the State from 1967. While the BJP will contest 180 seats, its minor allies will be in the fray in 54 seats.

The PMK has projected Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, son of Ramadoss, as its chief ministerial candidate. “It is a fight between Anbumani and Amma [Jayalalithaa] in these elections. The hero of these elections is Anbumani and the heroine is the PMK manifesto,” declared Ramadoss. He accused the AIADMK and the DMK of opening liquor shops in every street of the State, converting education into a saleable commodity, making medical treatment expensive and beyond the reach of the poor, and rendering agriculture so unprofitable that suicides and irredeemable loans were the only “gifts” farmers received. “In this situation, how can the DMK be an alternative to the AIADMK? Only the PMK can be an alternative to both,” the PMK founder said. Both Ramadoss and Anbumani have sworn to introduce prohibition in the State if the PMK is voted to power.

BJP-AIADMK feud

Meanwhile, an unexpected feud broke out between the BJP and the AIADMK, with Union Ministers Piyush Goyal, Prakash Javadekar, Pon. Radhakrishnan and party leader Muralidhar Rao firing fusillades at Jayalalithaa’s “inaccessibility” and her government’s reluctance to introduce reforms in the electricity sector.

At a conference in New Delhi on March 25, Minister of State for Power Piyush Goyal alleged that Tamil Nadu had become “a State within a State” and that he was not able to meet Jayalalithaa or her Minister to discuss power sector reforms. He was able to speak to Jayalalithaa only once in 22 months. She sent a team to meet him, “but to date they have not signed up” for the power reforms, he said. Goyal added: “I made several attempts to contact the leaders in the Jayalalithaa government. I have access to 28 States in the country. But for the 29th State when I want to talk to someone, I can’t. I call up and talk to the Power Minister of the State, and he says he will get back to me after he speaks with Amma.” Goyal said Tamil Nadu “is a part of the country where I can’t even reach the Chief Minister.... In Parliament, they [the AIADMK Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha members] can’t open their mouth... unless they have a script which has been sanitised and vetted in Chennai.”

On February 28, Javadekar, Minister of State for Environment and Forests and Climate Change, alleged that the Tamil Nadu government was appropriating to itself the credit for the distribution of flood relief when it was the Centre that dispensed the money to the State during the floods that ravaged most parts of the State in November and December 2015. The flood relief amount of Rs.5,000 crore, deposited in the bank accounts of more than 14 lakh families, was the Centre’s money on which some were “putting their stamps”, Javadekar said. Prime Minister Narendra Modi released Rs.2,000 crore when he visited the State after the calamity. That the BJP’s central leadership decided to excoriate the AIADMK government and that the Union Ministers’ allegations were not one-off events became clear when Javadekar unleashed a far more powerful broadside against the AIADMK government on March 31 in Chennai. He said the BJP-led government at the Centre had launched the Ujwal Discom Assurance Yojana (UDAY) to prevent theft of electricity, stem the loss in transmission and step up generation. UDAY is excepted to ensure uninterrupted power supply for 24 hours a day and result in a saving of Rs.1,80,000 crore to the Centre. Eighteen States have already begun implementing the programme. But, he said, Tamil Nadu had not agreed to implement UDAY and it had made the State power utility lose Rs.12,000 crore in 2015. Lower interest rates and other benefits would have led to TANGEDCO coming out of the red. Javadekar said: “The Tamil Nadu government is not interested in helping honest electricity consumers but only the dishonest who use unauthorised connections to steal electricity.”

Despite the serious nature of these allegations, Jayalalithaa maintained a studied silence. Karunanidhi promptly stepped in to fish in troubled waters. “What is the reply from Chief Minister Jayalalithaa when the Union Power Minister says that he is unable to meet her or Electricity Minister Natham R. Viswanathan?” Karunanidhi asked. There was no reaction from Jayalalithaa again, but State Finance Minister O. Panneerselvam sprang to her defence by saying that not only Modi but his Cabinet colleagues Arun Jaitley, M. Venkaiah Naidu and Ashok Gajapathy Raju were able to have audience with her.

Natham Viswanathan came up with a belated reply on March 29, arguing that the State had not joined UDAY because the scheme was not people-friendly.

Rebellion in the DMDK

What relegated the spat between the BJP and the AIADMK to the background was the rebellion in the DMDK against the decision of Vijayakanth and his wife, Premalatha, who is the party’s women’s wing secretary, to hitch the DMDK to the PWF bandwagon. Those aspiring for the DMDK ticket told Vijayakanth during interviews that they were sure that a DMK-Congress-DMDK-IUML alliance could defeat the AIADMK. However, at a party rally in Kancheepuram on March 10, Vijayakanth announced that he would go it alone because his cadres wanted him to become the “king” and were not to be satisfied with him remaining “a kingmaker”. Yet, on March 23, he announced that the DMDK would combine with the PWF after the PWF constituents agreed to project him as the chief ministerial candidate.

The revolt on April 5 by a section of the old guard presaged a split in the party. Three Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), five district secretaries and two other leaders held a press conference and served an ultimatum on Vijayakanth to reconsider his decision to align himself with the PWF. The rebels were led by V.C. Chandhirakumar, MLA and party propaganda secretary, who had stood by Vijayakanth through several vicissitudes. The other two MLAs were S.R. Parthiban and C.H. Sekar. Chandhirakumar recalled that Vijayakanth had declared at public meetings and demonstrations that he was prepared to make any sacrifice to achieve his aim of unseating Jayalalithaa in the coming elections.

Vijayakanth acted decisively to quell the revolt. He expelled all the rebels from the party’s primary membership and appointed new office-bearers in place of the five district secretaries and the other two functionaries.

DMDK MLAs K. Nallathambi and Azhagapuram R. Mohanraj alleged that the DMK was behind the rebellion. Nallathambi said: “When Vaiko, Thirumavalavan and the Left parties have accepted Vijayakanth as the chief ministerial candidate, how can the DMDK men not accept it?” Mohanraj argued that the party cadres had endorsed, with applause at the Kancheepuram rally, that Vijayakanth should become the “king”. Those who had left the party were enamoured of power (they want to become legislators) and “the DMK is operating in the background”, Mohanraj said. V. Muthukumar, another DMDK legislator, was happy that the party was cleansed with the expulsion of the “traitors”.

Leaders of the PWF constituents weighed the damage the rebellion might cause to the combine and decided to help Vijayakanth out. “When a conspiracy is under way to break the DMDK, the PWF will not hesitate to stand by it [the DMDK],” they said. At a press conference on April 6, Vaiko alleged that the DMK was behind the revolt. “It is in the nature of Karunanidhi to split and break political parties. If Vijayakanth aligns with the DMK, he is a good man. Since he did not, his party is being split,” Vaiko said. He alleged that efforts were under way to lure the DMDK’s Tirunelveli district secretaries. “The DMK and the AIADMK are in the habit of splitting parties because they do not want any other party or alliance to come to power in the State. We will weather the crisis and emerge stronger,” said R. Mutharasan, State secretary of the CPI. CPI(M) leaders were sure that the DMK’s efforts to foment trouble in the DMDK would lead to “aversion” towards the DMK.

DMK leader M.K. Stalin termed the rebellion in the DMDK as its “internal affair” and charged that Vaiko was making needless allegations against the DMK.

Vasan’s woes

If Jayalalithaa had shut the door on the TMC, it was because she had no use for Vasan as an ally after Vijayakanth decided to go with the PWF, informed sources said. If Vijayakanth had decided to partner with the DMK, she would have welcomed Vasan into the alliance because a DMK-Congress-DMDK-IUML alliance would have been formidable, the sources said. What went wrong with the TMC strategy was that Vasan painted himself into a corner by excessively trusting Jayalalithaa.

What made Vasan put all the eggs in Jayalalithaa’s basket was that he was under the compulsion to get the TMC recognised as a State political party by the Election Commission. The criterion for recognising a party as a registered political party is that the party’s candidates should together poll at least 6 per cent of the total valid votes received by all the contesting candidates. This can be accomplished only if at least 25 TMC candidates get elected. So, as a first step, the TMC applied to the Election Commission and was allotted the poll symbol of “coconut tree farm”. Besides, Vasan was desperate to prove that his party commanded a bigger presence in the State than the State Congress headed by E.V.K.S. Elangovan. So, the TMC was keen that the AIADMK should allot about 30 seats to it. But the AIADMK said it would not spare more than eight seats. As backchannel talks got under way, the AIADMK said it would give the TMC a maximum of 12 seats.

The TMC was reluctant to accept this number. Worse still, Jayalalithaa demanded that the TMC candidates contest on the AIADMK symbol of “two leaves”. This was a red rag to the TMC. Vasan announced on March 29 that the Election Commission had allotted his party the symbol of “coconut tree farm”. (The AIADMK’s six allies will contest on the “two leaves” symbol.) This angered Jayalalithaa. On the morning of April 4, even as senior TMC leaders told this correspondent that “communication was on” between the AIADMK and the TMC, and that if the TMC was allotted 25 seats it would be a “respectable” number and if it was offered 18 seats it would be “an honourable number”, news came that the AIADMK had shut the door on the TMC.

Referendum on coalition government

Tamil Nadu will witness a complicated five-cornered contest with the AIADMK-led alliance, the DMK-Congress front, the DMDK-PWF alliance, the BJP and the PMK in the fray. The performance of the DMDK-PWF alliance will be watched keenly as it is the first time five parties have come together to promise a coalition government. The Assembly elections will be a referendum on whether the voters are prepared to endorse the idea of a coalition government in the State. The DMK and the AIADMK had always maintained that the State’s electorate favoured single-party rule as coalition governments spelt instability.

The credit for sowing the idea of a coalition government in the State should go to Thirumavalavan. His party, the VCK, organised a conference on June 9, 2015, in Chennai on “Forming Coalition Governments in Tamil Nadu”. Thirumavalavan met Vaiko, CPI(M) State secretary G. Ramakrishnan, Mutharasan and Vijayakanth, to gather support for his idea. After meeting Ramakrishnan, he told reporters: “For a long time in Tamil Nadu, political parties representing marginalised communities and the minorities and the Left parties are unable to share power. For 20 years now, coalition governments have become the norm at the Centre. A similar situation should be brought about in Tamil Nadu...” ( Frontline, June 26, 2015).

Thirumavalavan also pointed out the contradiction in Stalin’s approach by saying that while the DMK needed allies to capture power in the State, it would not allow them to share power with it. (Stalin had categorically stated that the DMK would not form a coalition government even if the DMK-Congress alliance was voted to power.) But the DMK is not averse to joining the Congress or the BJP-led governments at the Centre.

Although the DMDK-PWF alliance, the BJP and the PMK are fighting the elections separately, they share a common goal. They want to prevent the DMK and the AIADMK from capturing power. As Premalatha said at a public meeting in Tiruppur on April 2: “A myth has been created that there is no alternative either to the AIADMK or to the DMK. When the AIADMK is in power, the DMK is defeated in all byelections. When the DMK is the ruling party, the AIADMK loses in all byelections. This only means that both the AIADMK and the DMK can be defeated.”

The three-point agenda of the DMDK-PWF alliance is to bring back prohibition, root out corruption and provide an alternative to the DMK and the AIADMK. Vaiko said that if the alliance was voted to power, it would waive farm loans, block the entry of Walmart and foreign capital and encourage local industry. In an interview published in Theekkathir, the CPI(M) Tamil organ, on September 6, 2015, Ramakrishnan said the PWF was formed to fight the Congress, the BJP, the DMK and the AIADMK. About 90 per cent of the working class in the country belonged to the unorganised sector. Education, housing, hygiene, medical treatment and permanent employment for them had become a question mark, he said. “The policies pursued by the DMK, the AIADMK, the Congress and the BJP are responsible for this situation and they cannot find a solution to this problem. That is why the PWF has been formed, to provide an alternative to these parties,” Ramakrishnan said. He asserted that both the DMK and the AIADMK should be combated simultaneously as there was no difference in their policies and approach.

The PWF campaign has already moved into high gear. Its leaders released their common minimum programme on November 2, 2015, giving importance to combating corruption, introducing prohibition, and focussing on areas such as social justice, industries, workers’ rights and education. They completed five rounds of intense campaigning as on March 31. The fifth round began on March 28 at Nagercoil in southern Tamil Nadu and covered Kovilpatti, Palayamkottai, Sathur and Paramakudi. The BJP has coined the slogan, “Let the lotus bloom and the young generation grow.” It has promised the voters that it will boost electricity generation, agricultural output and industrial production in the State if it is voted to power.

Jayalalithaa will address 15 public meetings and end her campaign at Vellore on May 12.

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