WITH the Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu due in less than a year, the major opposition parties in the State seem to be least interested in putting up a fight against Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in the Assembly by-election scheduled on June 27. This, despite every opposition party denouncing the Karnataka High Court verdict of May 11 acquitting Jayalalithaa in the disproportionate assets case, which has enabled her to contest this by-election, and despite their constant attacks on her government’s “non-performance”. Every major opposition party has backed off from the battle, citing the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (AIADMK) money power, questioning the Election Commission’s (E.C.) neutrality, and attacking the E.C. for announcing the R.K. Nagar election at short notice.
Left takes up challenge
Only the Left parties—the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPI(M), and the Communist Party of India (CPI)—are in a mood to fight the election. After a meeting of the leaders of the two parties on June 3, R. Mutharasan, State CPI secretary, announced that a CPI candidate would contest against Jayalalithaa. He said, “There is no question of giving a wide berth to elections in a democracy. Since we believe in democracy, we are confident that all those who fight corruption and communalism will pledge their support to us. The CPI and the CPI(M) will jointly introduce the candidate.” G. Ramakrishnan, State CPI(M) secretary, however, was worried that “the ruling party will bring into play the official machinery and its money-power in this election”.
The principal opposition party the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Congress, the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and the Puthiya Tamilagam have all decided not to contest. At the time of going to press, Vijayakanth, the film actor who founded the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), had not revealed whether his party would contest. He has not snapped the alliance forged with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
DMK president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi explained why the DMK wanted “to avoid” a contest. He recalled that after the trial court’s sentencing of Jayalalithaa on September 27, 2014, which obliged her to resign as the Chief Minister, the Election Commission took 75 days to announce the by-election to the Srirangam constituency, which had elected her in 2011. The announcement came only on January 12. But after the AIADMK legislator P. Vettrivel vacated the R.K. Nagar seat on May 17 to make way for Jayalalithaa to contest from there, the E.C. took just 10 days to announce the by-election, he pointed out.
Karunanidhi also noted sarcastically how money power had played a big role in the Srirangam by-election and how policemen had “acted with honesty and a sense of fair play” not only in that election but the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu also.
“When we, therefore, know clearly what kind of treatment democracy will receive in this by-election, and the Assembly elections are to be held within a year, the DMK does not want to contest in R.K. Nagar,” he said.
T.K.S. Elangovan, DMK spokesman, said that the DMK contesting the by-election would be a “waste of energy and resources”. He added that the DMK was “preparing for the bigger event” of the 2016 Assembly elections and wanted to “take the message of the all-round failure of the AIADMK government to the people in the coming months”.
Informed sources said that the DMK was worried that if Jayalalithaa won by a big margin against a DMK candidate, she would start propaganda that the people were with her and not the DMK. The party reportedly planned to back the DMDK or the Congress if these parties contested from R.K. Nagar, which, it hoped, would prepare the ground for an alliance with one of them for the 2016 elections. But it did not happen. One DMK leader said that “the Congress is only a second option for us after the TMC” led by G.K. Vasan in the Assembly elections. If the DMK were to forge an alliance with the TMC, the CPI(M) and the CPI might also come into the fold. In the DMK’s reckoning, this would bring in Vijayakanth, too.
The TMC was founded only on November 3, 2014, after Vasan quit the Congress. But the DMK is keen on an alliance with this nascent party. This is because the TMC claims to have grown beyond its own expectations with a membership of 45 lakh. Almost the entire Congress cadre base in the State has shifted allegiance to Vasan. However, the TMC cadres’ sympathies lie with the AIADMK, and they have made that clear to Vasan. This was one of the reasons for Vasan’s refraining from any criticism of Justice Kumaraswamy’s verdict acquitting Jayalalithaa. “Just as we did not criticise the D’Cunha judgment, we do not attack the latest verdict now,” Vasan said. His publicly stated stand on the TMC’s preference for an ally for the coming Assembly elections is this: “We will go with the alliance that people want.” TMC cadres read it as a euphemism for forming a front with the AIADMK.
On June 2, Vasan explained why the TMC would not contest in R.K. Nagar: “A political party’s paramount duty is to take part in elections. A by-election was once a gauge to measure the ruling party’s performance. But those days are gone, and the situation today is that the ruling party always wins the by-elections. In particular, it is the ruling party which has won every one of the 22 by-elections that have been held in Tamil Nadu since 2001. On that basis, the TMC did not contest the Srirangam by-election. No occasion has arisen to resile from that stand. We, therefore, have decided that the TMC will not stand in the R.K. Nagar by-election.”
The BJP seems to be divided on the issue. Pon. Radhakrishnan, Union Minister of State for Shipping, said on June 2 that his party would consult allies such as the PMK and the DMDK before deciding on fielding a BJP candidate. Dr Tamilisai Soundararajan, the State BJP president, said on the same day that the BJP would back the DMDK if the latter contested.
Meanwhile, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has categorically said the BJP would not team up with either the AIADMK or the DMK for the 2016 Assembly elections.
One party that both the BJP and the DMK seem to be wooing with an eye to the 2016 elections is the DMDK, though it is emaciated after the crossing over of several of its legislators to the AIADMK in the last couple of years. The rub is that Vijayakanth, an aspirant for the Chief Minister’s post, would like to lead the alliance himself, whether he is in the company of the DMK or the BJP. There is no way the DMK can accommodate Vijayakanth’s ambition, of either leading the alliance or being a chief ministerial candidate.
What is, in a way, thwarting the opposition unity is that there are at least three chief ministerial aspirants among the opposition parties now. Karunanidhi’s son M.K. Stalin, who is the DMK treasurer, is a powerful contender for the Chief Minister’s post and a natural leader for any alliance that the DMK may stitch up. Then there is Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, son of the PMK founder Dr S. Ramadoss, and Vijayakanth. The massive turnout at a public meeting in Madurai on May 24 has enthused Stalin. Addressing the meeting, he urged the people to rally under one front for the Assembly elections. “I have come to Madurai to draw the first battle line to put an end to four years of the AIADMK’s atrocities,” Stalin said. He spoke of the AIADMK government’s non-performance on a variety of fronts and accused the AIADMK of not fulfilling the promises it had made to the people. “It is a crime if you maintain silence and do not fight against injustice,” he said.
The PMK is ploughing a lonely furrow. S. Ramadoss has repeatedly ruled out an alliance with either the DMK or the AIADMK. The party may not have walked out of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP, but it is only a sullen and inactive partner in the coalition.
A united opposition is yet to materialise, but Thol. Thirumavalavan, VCK founder, has set his sights far afield. His party is organising a conference on June 9 in Chennai on “Forming Coalition Governments in Tamil Nadu”. Thirumavalavan met the Left leaders Ramakrishnan and Mutharasan, MDMK leader Vaiko and Vijayakanth, enlisting 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. We are engaged in such efforts.”
The ruling AIADMK, meanwhile, is an awkward situation. Cadres are jubilant that Jayalalithaa is back in the saddle, but there is nervousness at the party’s top echelons after the Karnataka government decided to file an appeal in the Supreme Court against her acquittal.
The party is wary of aligning with the BJP for the Assembly elections because it fears the loss of minority community votes. Besides, the TMC, which swears by secularism, will not join the AIADMK bandwagon if it allies with the BJP.
In the coming months, the AIADMK plan is to galvanise the administration, complete pending infrastructure projects, organise the much-vaunted Global Investors’ Meet in September, and project itself as a formidable party under a strong leader.
Its leaders are confident that it can return to power in 2016 without any allies if the opposition remains fractured. As a forerunner, it is keen on proving in R.K. Nagar that the people are with it. And it is against this backdrop that the AIADMK flagged off its campaign from the constituency on May 31.
But now that the Left parties have decided to send a candidate into the ring against Jayalalithaa, the other opposition parties—the DMK, the Congress, the TMC, the MDMK and the VCK—may find themselves in a quandary: to support or not to support the CPI nominee.