Tamil Nadu

Byelection shocks

Print edition : January 19, 2018

T.T.V. Dinakaran pays his respects to M.G. Ramachandran, the founder of the AIADMK, on the occasion of the latter’s 30th death anniversary on December 24, 2017, even as reports indicated that he was comfortably positioned to win the R.K. Nagar byelection. Photo: Bijoy Ghosh

Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami (right) and Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam at the AIADMK’s headquarters in Chennai on December 25. Photo: PTI

M.K. Stalin, DMK working president, with Marudhu Ganesh, the party candidate. Photo: M. Karunakaran

The R.K. Nagar byelection result exposes the chinks in the DMK and the people’s lack of confidence in the ruling AIADMK, and serves as a rude shock to the BJP. A massive political churning is on the cards in Tamil Nadu.

Rarely does an innocuous byelection end up changing the contours of politics in a State in such an unrecognisably drastic manner. The December 21 byelection to the seat once held by former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, Dr Radhakrishnan Nagar (R.K. Nagar), was not billed to create any ripples in Tamil Nadu politics: after all, there was no Chief Minister candidate in the fray, no other tall political leader seeking to return to the Legislative Assembly, and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government had a comfortable majority after the Assembly Speaker disqualified 18 MLAs.

But it ended up as an election that will be discussed for some time. It threw up a new leader in T.T.V. Dinakaran, exposed new chinks in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) armour, laid bare people’s lack of confidence in the ruling AIADMK, and served as a rude shock to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which fancied itself as the alternative party of choice in Tamil Nadu.

To begin with, by all accounts, the byelection was expected to be a walkover for the DMK. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK is seen as the single largest party because of the troubles within the AIADMK after the demise of its supremo Jayalalithaa on December 5, 2016. There was no other serious contender in the fray barring the tainted former deputy general secretary of the AIADMK, T.T.V. Dinakaran, who was being repeatedly hounded by various arms of the Central enforcement and regulatory agencies. The “new” AIADMK, led by Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami (EPS) and Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam (OPS), had fielded the party’s former presidium chairman, E. Madhusudhanan, a local resident.

Against all odds

Dinakaran, who was contesting as an independent candidate, had spent more than a month in Tihar jail after the Delhi Police arrested him on charges of trying to bribe the Election Commission (E.C.) to allocate the two leaves symbol for his faction of the AIADMK. He was part of V.K. Sasikala’s clan and hence people’s anger at her was directed at him too. Dinakaran had literally nothing going for him from the day he announced his candidature. He wanted to contest on the same symbol, hat, which he had chosen for the byelection in the constituency that was scheduled for April, but the E.C. refused to give any assurance in this regard. Also he had fallen foul of the ruling party, whose leader had thrown his weight behind him last time. The E.C. cancelled the April 10 byelection on the grounds that the situation in the constituency was not conducive to holding elections.

Dinakaran approached the Delhi High Court and drew a blank there too. Also, Dinakaran was not a leader who people could relate to though he was part of the AIADMK at one point and was the party treasurer under Jayalalithaa. She had also made him an MP. But, about five years before her death, she threw the entire “Mannargudi” (Sasikala and her extended family also wielded enormous clout in the Jayalalithaa regime) clan out. On the eve of her incarceration on February 15, 2017, Sasikala hurriedly brought him back into the party. So, Dinakaran had no legitimacy among the cadre of the party, had a slew of cases against him, and affected people were talking openly in the media about the high-handed ways of the Mannargudi clan.

Heroes stay away

The big heroes of Tamil filmdom, including “superstar” Rajinikanth, were threatening to enter politics, but they too shied away from the byelection battle. Rajinikanth was issuing statements since May 2017, and they were modified and altered many times over. At one point, he said that he had already entered politics in 1996—the day he made the observation against Jayalalithaa (that if Jayalalithaa was elected to power a second term, even God could not save Tamil Nadu). He also said that God would decide his entry into politics. As this issue of Frontline went to press, he said he would announce his decision on December 31.

The other big star who said that he had already taken the political plunge was Kamal Hassan. After being active in news television and on social media platforms and holding forth on the scourge of corruption for many months, he went silent after November 30. His last political tweet was on the safety of fishermen after Cyclone Ockhi. Though there were demands from a section of his supporters that he contest the R.K. Nagar byelection, Kamal Hassan made it clear that the shooting schedule in the United States for his new movie was his priority. He left for the U.S., taking leave from active politics. For over a month, there has been neither a political statement nor a condolence message for those who died following the cyclone.

In the absence of these two much-touted “alternatives”, the contest narrowed down to the DMK, which had a smooth internal transition of power, and a factious AIADMK. Without a party symbol, and without party backing, Dinakaran did not stand a chance to trump these two.

A host of parties were supporting the DMK—the Congress; both the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist); the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK); and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK). The factionalism within the AIADMK had come to the fore at the time of deciding the candidate, and this process had to be put off a few times before the party announced the name of E. Madhusudhanan.

The DMK had polled 57,673 votes against Jayalalithaa in the constituency in the May 2016 Assembly elections. Another 20,000 votes—if it could get them this time—would have given the seat to the DMK. From the beginning, many political analysts were of the view that this was a race for the second spot since the winner had been spotted much before the election process began. But as campaigning progressed, it became clear that money power would play a seriously big role in deciding the victor.

The DMK faced another problem in early December. A Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court in New Delhi announced that it would pronounce its decision on the “2G scam” case on December 21, the day of voting. Two DMK seniors, former Union Minister A. Raja and the party’s parliamentary party leader Kanimozhi, were among the accused in the case. There was apprehension in the party that if the decision went against the accused, the DMK might suffer an electoral setback. One DMK leader, who spoke to this correspondent in R.K. Nagar, said it was unfortunate that the day of the verdict was also the day of polling: the DMK did not even have a chance to explain to the people the “facts of the case” in the event of a “bad” verdict.

As expected, it appeared that people were waiting for the verdict before they got out to vote. For more than a year after the hospitalisation of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa on September 22, 2016, cable news television viewership data showed that the people of Tamil Nadu had been watching Tamil news television like never before. December 21, the day of the 2G verdict, was no different. All the channels had made elaborate preparations for the event, with leading television personalities from Tamil Nadu landing in the nation’s capital for their special coverage. The verdict, which acquitted the two DMK leaders, seemed to be working in favour of the party.

The first hour of polling saw just 7 per cent of voters turning up at the booths, and by end of the third hour, this inched up to 23 per cent. Soon after the court verdict, polling picked up, and by 3 p.m., 59 per cent had cast their votes. At close of poll, a record 77 per cent had voted—a new high for the constituency.

Dinakaran wins

But on counting day, conventional wisdom was turned on its head by Dinakaran. For the first time in the history of Tamil Nadu politics, an independent won a byelection, and for the first time since 1967, the DMK lost its deposit in a city constituency. Dinakaran’s tally was greater than that of the AIADMK and the DMK combined. If Dinakaran had come in at second place in the byelection—in the event of the DMK winning the election—that would have still proved to the people that he was better than the “official” AIADMK. But Dinakaran went for broke; and even as complaints of electoral malpractice flew thick and fast, Dinakaran steadily made inroads into the AIADMK bastion.

“We were given the symbol just three weeks before the election. Everyone—the State, the Centre, the E.C.—was against our leader. Still, our leader proved to be much smarter than the leaders of the AIADMK and the DMK combined,” said P. Vetrivel, a former MLA and Dinakaran supporter.

Brushing aside allegations that it was money power that sealed the issue, Dinakaran supporters insist that he destroyed the myth that the people blindly voted for the two leaves symbol. It depended on who had that symbol. They also point out that Dinakaran managed to win despite the official machinery being at the disposal of the ruling party. His supporters firmly believe that what is coming next is more important than this electoral victory: “Just wait and see. He will take control of the AIADMK,” another supporter said.

He was not wrong. On the night of the victory, one MLA visited him at his residence. Minister Sellur Raju, gave, true to style, a comic explanation: “We asked for votes for two leaves [the AIADMK symbol],” he told a television channel. “We never told people not to vote for cooker [Dinakaran’s symbol],” he added.

Dinakaran’s supporters claim that there are many who want to cross over from the “parent” party, but Dinakaran has asked them to wait. “I mentioned about sleeper cells earlier. It is very much there in the AIADMK,” claims Thanga Tamil Selvan, a former AIADMK district secretary, who has been staunchly behind Dinakaran from the beginning. It appears that Dinakaran does have significant support within the ruling AIADMK. If he does not end up in legal tangles over the bevy of cases against him, Dinakaran is set to take over the AIADMK at some point in 2018. Asked about this, Dinakaran said his first priority was to “send this government home in three months”. But a more realistic and possible future will be for Dinakaran to take over both the party and the government, and throw out the leaders who went against him.

AIADMK’s strategy

In an attempt to rein in their flock and to put Dinakaran on the back foot, Palaniswami and Panneerselvam issued a joint statement after the election, condemning Dinakaran for colluding with the DMK to win the election. While this might seem like an innocuous line of attack for a person not well versed in Tamil Nadu politics, the import of this should not be lost: the highest form of treachery in the AIADMK is collusion with the DMK.

During Jayalalithaa’s tenure, Tamil Nadu was perhaps the only State where senior members of the ruling party did not attend social functions hosted by the opposition and vice versa. The DMK patriarch studiously stayed out of the Tamil Nadu Assembly every time Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK was in power, and Jayalalithaa too attended the Assembly only a few times when the DMK was in power.

Many well-wishers of the EPS-OPS combine are upset with the manner in which Dinakaran won. Some, such as the Thuglak Editor S. Gurumurthy, have been candid and critical of the AIADMK leadership. He went to the extent of calling them “impotent”, which led to a war of words for the first time, with Gurumurthy on one side and Ministers on the other. The impotent imagery went on and on, with Minister D. Jayakumar using the word in a context that he thought was correct, and Gurumurthy later clarifying on social media why he used the word. He also said that there was more than one meaning for the word “impotent” but did not offer an apology as demanded by the Ministers.

The biggest reality check in R.K. Nagar was reserved for the BJP. The party received about a 1,000 votes fewer than NOTA (None of the Above option), and soon became the butt of jokes in Tamil Nadu. Even the Naam Tamilar Katchi, which lost some ground from the May 2016 elections, managed a better show in R.K. Nagar.

All was not well in the State BJP from the beginning. As soon as the byelection was notified, the BJP candidate for the April byelection (which was rescinded), music director Gangai Amaran, made it known that he was not interested in contesting the seat again. He later clarified that he was not well and hence would not be able to withstand the rigours of a campaign. Gangai Amaran was a BJP top catch and his withdrawal from the scene did affect the morale of the party.

The DMK had the biggest shock in the byelection. Smarting from the sting, DMK working president Stalin blamed it on the E.C., which, he said, had failed to check the massive deployment of money power. Stalin made it known that he would not resort to money distribution by the DMK in this election. This came as a shock to many leaders, and even cadre.

For a party credited with inventing the “Tirumangalam formula” of money distribution ahead of elections, fighting an election in a principled manner was too much of a risk to take. Three leaders in the party opined that a better strategy would be to withdraw from the race, citing the massive distribution of money by the two main rivals in the fray. “If we had withdrawn, it would have saved us a lot of embarrassment,” said a DMK leader, after the DMK suffered a humiliating deposit-losing defeat. Explanations notwithstanding, Stalin has set up a committee to analyse the election result.

Lessons for the DMK

Soon after the loss, former Union Minister and Stalin’s elder brother M.K. Azhagiri called into question Stalin’s leadership and told the media that as long as he was in charge, the party would not win a single election.

His analysis was based on the fact that Stalin made all the calls during the 2011 Assembly elections, the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2016 Assembly elections. For the first time since 1984, the AIADMK won successive Assembly elections in 2011 and in 2016. Since 1987, after the demise of M.G. Ramachandran, the DMK and the AIADMK had alternated as the ruling party. That changed in 2016, and Azhagiri said that this happened because of Stalin’s inability to lead the party.

Hence, there has been a rash of reactions. But the fact remains that leaders do make mistakes in strategy. Many point out that if M. Karunanidhi had not publicised the letter of resignation written by Jayalalithaa in the late 1980s, there possibly would not have been a phenomenon called Jayalalithaa. Even later, in 1996, if Karunanidhi had refrained from arresting Jayalalithaa, the course of Tamil Nadu politics would have been different. (Technically, he arrested her after the High Court asked why she was not arrested.) Also, from 1977 to 1987, Karunanidhi lost all the general elections to MGR. Despite this, he was not seen as a leader who had lost it.

Party seniors point to two serious flaws in Stalin’s leadership though: his over-reliance on his tech-savvy son-in-law V. Sabarish, and his inability to tolerate dissent. In Karunanidhi’s DMK, dissent, debate and deliberations were a way of life. In Stalin’s DMK, there is a dearth of debates; there is more reliance on data and interpretation of data. Karunanidhi’s DMK believed in powerful regional satraps who would hold a region together; Stalin’s DMK demands loyalty over all else. It was Stalin’s idea to double the number of district secretaries in the State. Though this was done when Karunanidhi was running the party, the move effectively reduced the powers of a district secretary.

The churning within the DMK will take some time to play out. A new narrative will emerge within the party once the process of reconciling old ways with the new is completed. Until such time, the DMK too will witness a series of struggles, just as the State tries to make sense of the rapidly evolving political scenario in an age without a Karunanidhi and a Jayalalithaa.

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