Dravidian hegemony in Tamil Nadu politics

No room for a third front in Tamil Nadu

Print edition : December 18, 2020
An analysis of the Assembly and parliamentary elections held in Tamil Nadu in the past decade clearly indicates that no entity is likely to pose a serious threat to the hegemony of the Dravidian parties, whose vote bases are intact.

Since 1967, Tamil Nadu has been ruled by either the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) or the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Although both the parties have fought Assembly elections in alliance with other parties, the alliance partners were not part of the State government. The alliances continued in the parliamentary elections as well, and these two Dravidian parties were part of the coalition governments at the Centre. Whether it was Assembly elections or parliamentary elections, the two main parties were in alliance with other parties, but they contested most of the seats, formed the government in the State on their own, and were partners in the coalition governments at the Centre.

Since 1967, several new parties and third fronts have emerged, claiming to be a credible alternative to these parties. But is there space for a third alternative in the electoral politics of Tamil Nadu? This is the central question that we try to answer in this article.
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Let us take the five elections held in the last decade—the parliamentary elections in 2009, 2014 and 2019 and the Assembly elections in 2011 and 2016—for this analysis. All these elections were held after the fourth delimitation of constituencies conducted in 2006-07.

The five elections saw a consistent increase in the total number of electors, from 416.20 lakh in 2009 to 590.94 lakh in 2019. This growth in the number of electors was matched by the proportion of votes polled, which increased from 73.01 per cent in 2009 to 74.83 per cent in 2019. However, the polling proportion was higher during Assembly elections than parliamentary elections.

Maurice Duverger, a French political scientist, argued in 1951 that in the ‘first-past-the-post’ election system, there would only be two effective contestants in a constituency. This is known as Duverger’s Law in political science. Why would there be only two parties in a simple majority, single-member constituency? The third contestant is relatively ineffective, and the electors do not want to waste their votes on ineffective contestants. Several statistical indices were created to test Duverger’s Law. In all such indices, the effective number of parties is calculated based on either the seat share or the vote share of parties in an election. Alternatively, we can test Duverger’s Law in Indian parliamentary and Assembly elections with a simple calculation. The effective number of contestants in a constituency is the number of contestants who retain their deposits. A candidate who gets less than one-sixth of the votes polled in a constituency loses the deposit or the deposit is forfeited. Such candidates can be categorised as ineffective candidates.
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Let us now calculate the effective number of contestants per constituency in Assembly and parliamentary elections in Tamil Nadu (Table 1). The number of contestants in the parliamentary elections was in the range of 825 to 850, that is, approximately 21 to 22 candidates per constituency. After deducting the contestants who forfeited their deposits, the effective number of contestants was in the range of 77 to 97; thus, the effective number of contestants per parliamentary constituency was in the range of 1.97 to 2.49, which is close to Duverger’s prediction about the effective number of contestants in a constituency.

In the case of the Assembly elections held in 2011 and 2016, 2,748 and 3,775 candidates contested, respectively; the effective number of contestants per Assembly constituency in these two elections was 2.04 and 2.11, respectively, after deducting the candidates who lost their deposits. This once again proves that Duverger was right in estimating the effective number of contestants in the first-past-the-post election system, at least in Tamil Nadu.

Two reasons are attributed to the working of Duverger’s Law. One is that voters do not waste their votes by casting them for ineffective candidates, and the other is that the third candidate is not a close competitor to the second candidate. If the electors do not want to waste their votes, then they should choose between the top two candidates. In other words, the higher share of the combined votes of the top two candidates in the total votes polled shows that the electors did not want to waste their votes on other candidates. We can ascertain from the data that except in 2014, in all the elections the combined share of the votes of the top two candidates was more than 80 per cent. Thus, we can conclude that the electors of Tamil Nadu do not waste their votes on ineffective candidates. The second reason can be tested by calculating the votes of the third candidate as a proportion of the votes of the second candidate; if this vote share is high, then the third candidate is an effective competitor to the second candidate.
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Once again, except in 2014, the third candidate polled only around 20 per cent of the votes polled by the second candidate, and hence the third candidate was not an effective competitor to the second candidate. In general, in both parliamentary and Assembly elections, the first two candidates in a constituency retain their deposits, while the deposits of all other candidates are forfeited. Who these two candidates are should be our next question.

Effective coalitions

Both the AIADMK and the DMK contested in both parliamentary and Assembly elections after forming alliances with other parties. They invariably remained the major partners and led the respective alliances in the elections (Table 2). These two alliances polled around 80 per cent of the votes in all the elections, except in 2014. Moreover, except in 2014, these two alliances shared all the seats, leaving nothing to the other contestants. In the 2009 parliamentary election, the AIADMK-led alliance polled 37.66 per cent of the votes and won 13 constituencies, while the DMK-led alliance polled 42.17 per cent of the votes to win 26 constituencies.

Comparing the 2014 and 2019 parliamentary elections, we see that in the former, the AIADMK-led alliance polled 44.22 per cent votes and won 37 seats, leaving no seat to the DMK-led alliance, which polled 26.80 per cent of the votes. In the latter, the vote share of the DMK-led alliance was 51.33 per cent and it won 38 seats, leaving only one seat to the AIADMK-led alliance, which obtained a vote share of 30.09 per cent. In the 2014 parliamentary election, two seats went to candidates who were not in these alliances, and this was an aberration.

In the two Assembly elections held in 2011 and 2016, the two alliances won all the seats. In 2011, the AIADMK-led alliance won 203 seats and polled 51.79 per cent of the votes, while the DMK-led alliance polled 39.43 per cent of votes to win 31 seats. In 2016, once again the AIADMK-led alliance won 136 seats with 40.82 per cent of votes, while the DMK-led alliance polled 38.79 per cent of votes to win 98 seats.
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Thus, the AIADMK- and DMK-led alliances are the effective two contestants in the elections in Tamil Nadu. Whether alliances with smaller parties improved the prospects of the major parties or whether smaller parties gained under the shadow of the big partners is our next question.

Who gained from the pre-election alliance arrangement—the bigger or the smaller parties? The alliance partners of these two major parties in these five elections are listed in Table 3. All these small parties had a pre-election alliance agreement with either of the two major parties in different elections; in some instances they also contested without forming an alliance with either of them. Some of them contested alone in certain elections, while others formed a third front in a few elections.

When parties contest with a pre-election alliance arrangement, the votes secured by a candidate of an alliance partner are the combined votes of all parties in the alliance. There is no simple process of segregating the exclusive vote share of a party. However, by comparing the vote shares of parties across different elections with different alliances, one can reasonably gauge the vote base of a party at the aggregate level.

Let us look at the smaller parties to understand their performances (Table 4). The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) contested in the parliamentary election alone in 2009, in alliance with other smaller parties in 2014, and as a part of the AIADMK-led alliance in 2019. Its performance increased in terms of vote share only when it was in alliance with other parties, and its highest vote share was with the AIADMK-led alliance in 2019. Thus, the alliance partners brought votes to the BJP and not the other way round.

Both the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the CPI (Marxist) contested alone in 2014 and as part of the third front called the People’s Welfare Front (PWF) in 2016. On both occasions their vote share was only 3 to 7 per cent in the constituencies they contested and their candidates lost their deposits in most of the constituencies. However, the two parties’ vote share zoomed to 50 per cent when they were in alliance with either of the Dravidian parties and they won almost all the seats they contested in the 2009 and 2019 parliamentary elections and the 2011 Assembly election. The CPI and the CPI(M) leveraged the votes from their major Dravidian partners but not vice versa.
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The Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) contested alone in the 2009 parliamentary election and in alliance with other smaller parties in the 2014 parliamentary election and the 2016 Assembly election. In all these elections, its vote share was in the range of 5 to 14 per cent, and its candidates forfeited their deposits in most of the constituencies. However, the party’s vote share increased to 45 per cent when it contested in alliance with the AIADMK in the 2011 Assembly election and won 29 out of the 41 seats contested. Once again, as an alliance partner in the 2019 parliamentary election, the DMDK contested in four constituencies; it lost in two seats and also lost the deposit in the other two. The DMDK had only a 22 per cent vote share. We can infer that the DMDK’s vote share has been declining in the constituencies where it is considered to have a substantial vote base. As far as leverage is concerned, the same story continues: the party secured the votes from the bigger alliance partner and had little to contribute to the alliance.

The Congress contested alone in the 2014 parliamentary election, in which it got 5 per cent of the vote and lost deposits in 38 of the 39 constituencies it contested. In all the other four elections, where the party contested in alliance with the DMK, its fortunes in terms of vote share and seats won improved significantly.

PMK’s strength

The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) contested in alliance with the DMK in the 2011 Assembly election and alone in the 2016 Assembly election. In 2011 it had a 40 per cent vote share in the 30 Assembly constituencies it contested, winning three seats, and importantly, not losing the deposit in the remaining 27 constituencies. In 2016, it contested in 232 constituencies and lost the deposit in 212 constituencies and got only a 5 per cent vote share.

The PMK had an alliance with the AIADMK in the 2009 and 2019 parliamentary elections and contested in six and seven constituencies, respectively. In these elections the PMK did not win a seat but it did not lose deposits in any constituency either; also, its vote share was 35 per cent in 2009 and 29 per cent in 2019. In the 2014 parliamentary election, the PMK contested as a part of the National Democratic Alliance, fielding candidates in eight constituencies. It lost the deposit in two seats and won one seat, with an overall 21 per cent vote share. The PMK has a substantial vote share on its own in eight to 10 parliamentary constituencies, but that is not enough to win a seat. However, the PMK brings its vote share to an alliance and leverages the major partner’s vote share to win seats.

Among all the smaller parties, the PMK can retain the deposit in many constituencies on its own; that is, it has a more than 16.33 per cent vote share and is thus a formidable force in the constituencies where it contests. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) contested in alliance with the DMK in four of the five elections and as a part of the third front in the 2016 Assembly election. The fortunes of the VCK in terms of vote share and the number of seats won fluctuated with the fortunes of the DMK. When the VCK contested as a part of the PWF in the 2016 Assembly election, it secured only a 7 per cent vote share, lost all the 25 seats it contested and lost the deposit in 22 seats.
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Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) got 3.96 per cent of the votes and Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) got 4 per cent of the votes in the 2019 parliamentary election. This is owing to the fact that all the other small parties aligned with either of the two major parties, so the leftover votes that traditionally form the vote base for the other independents was shared between the MNM and the NTK. Comparing the vote share of parties in the Assembly elections of 2011 and 2016 is instructive to drive home the point of relative vote share of parties in Tamil Nadu. In 2011, all the smaller parties were aligned with either the AIADMK or the DMK, whereas in 2016 the two major parties did not have alliance with any of smaller parties.

From Table 5, we can glean that the smaller parties at the aggregate level gained 37 per cent from the alliance with the two major Dravidian parties; however, the two Dravidian parties could gain only 8 per cent from such alliances. Even this meagre gain is not essential for the Dravidian parties to win the seats in all the constituencies because, in 2016, all the Assembly seats were shared between them.

Key pointers

We get three important pointers from this analysis. Firstly, none of the smaller parties except the PMK has a substantial vote base even in specific locations. The PMK has a vote base in the northern districts, but its vote base is not enough to carry it to win a seat on its own. However, its alliance with other parties will be mutually beneficial.

Secondly, all the smaller parties have had alliance relations with both the AIADMK and the DMK at different times. These smaller parties gained when the two major partners did well in the elections on their own. And the smaller parties lost when the major partners also did not fare well in the elections.

The third important lesson is about the DMK and the AIADMK. In the 2016 Assembly election, both parties did not have many partners. But these two parties collectively secured 80 per cent of the votes.

The DMDK was described as an alternative to the two Dravidian parties, but subsequent electoral experiences reduced it to the position of a junior partner of one of the Dravidian parties. It led the PWF in the 2016 Assembly election, only to realise that smaller parties together cannot put up a fight against the two Dravidian parties.

Even the MNM, started by actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan, polled a substantial number of votes in the 2019 parliamentary election, but that did not eat into the vote bases of the two Dravidian parties.

The most important takeaway from the analysis of the last five elections in Tamil Nadu conducted over a decade is that either of the two Dravidian parties owns winning vote shares in all constituencies. The neutral voters would not waste their votes on smaller parties or a third alternative. A third alternative is possible only if it eats into the vote bases of the two Dravidian parties, failing which any challenger has no choice but to remain content with being a junior partner of either of them.

R. Srinivasan is Professor in Econometrics, University of Madras. S. Raja Sethu Durai is Professor in Economics, University of Hyderabad.

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