Tamil Nadu election analysis

Tamil Nadu remains an impregnable Dravidian territory in electoral politics

Print edition : June 04, 2021

M.K. Stalin , the newly sworn in Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, at his office in Chennai on May 7. Photo: PTI

The AIADMK’s two leaves symbol and the DMK’s rising sun symbol seen on a wall in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district. The latest Assembly election results reinforced the hegemony of the two Dravidian parties in the State. Photo: T. Singaravelou

Edappadi K. Palaniswami, senior AIADMK leader and the party’s joint coordinator, at the party headquarters in Chennai on May 7. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

The 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly election results demonstrate yet again that the vast majority of the voters are firmly behind the two major Dravidian parties and that no third party or front, national or home-grown, can hope to emerge as a meaningful challenger.

In the last four decades, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) have been the main contestants in Tamil Nadu elections. Of course, there are several other parties in the fray too, trying to gain some political space in the State. They include national parties such the Indian National Congress (INC), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Communist Party of India (CPI), and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M), along with regional players such as the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). These parties have established their vote bases in specific constituencies but mostly ended up aligning with either of the two major Dravidian parties to contest elections.

The same happened this year too, with the BJP, the PMK, and the TMC being part of the AIADMK-led alliance, while the INC, the VCK, the CPI, the CPI (M), and some smaller parties aligned with the DMK. Therefore, the 2021 Assembly election once again turned into a contest between the DMK and the AIADMK.

Interestingly, this time, a few other regional parties fought the election without joining either of the major combines.

The Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK), headed by film actor and director Seeman, contested independently in all the constituencies in Tamil Nadu. The Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM), founded by the actor Kamal Haasan, and the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), led by T.T.V. Dinakaran, a nephew of V.K. Sasikala (former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s aide), formed two separate alliances with other smaller regional parties.

Also read: Sunrise in Dravidian land: DMK storms back to power in Tamil Nadu

There was considerable buzz in the media that the 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly election was seeing a five-cornered contest. However, the election results showed yet again that all the 234 seats are shared between the two major Dravidian parties and their alliance partners, underscoring the fact that the contest is always between the DMK and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.

Splitting the vote

Contratry to high expectations about their prospects, the NTK, the MNM, and the AMMK did not create much disruption in the political situation. Their vote shares in most constituencies were not big enough to win seats but tilted the fortunes of the Dravidian majors in some seats. They collectively garnered a mere 11.6 per cent of the polled votes, while the two major alliances cornered a whopping 86 per cent of the votes between them. Interestingly, among the postal votes, which comprise the votes of government employees predominantly but also include the votes of differently-abled and citizens above 80 years of age this time, their performance was worse as together they gained only 7.4 per cent of the votes (Table 1).

Altogether, the votes gained by these three minor parties impinged on the fortunes of the two major alliances in 94 seats. The victory margin between the winner and the first runner-up was less than the votes obtained by either of these three minor parties in these seats. In these 94 seats, the three minor parties together got 12.6 per cent of the votes, while the major alliances got 84 per cent. Out of these 94 seats, the DMK- and AIADMK-led alliances won in 61 and 33 seats, respectively, resulting in a net gain of 28 seats to the DMK-led alliance.

Individually, the AMMK and the MNM influenced the results in 27 seats each, and the NTK in 82 seats. In the constituencies influenced by each party, the seats were again shared by the DMK and the AIADMK alliances in the same 65:35 ratio. In the remaining 140 seats, these three parties were nowhere near the winning margins.

Also read: Winds of change in Tamil Nadu

If we assume that the smaller parties get the votes of people who are dissatisfied with both the Dravidan majors, then we can state that these parties decide the winners between the DMK and the AIADMK in 40 per cent of the constituencies, without themselves winning a single seat.

Dravidian parties’ performance

The people of Tamil Nadu once again voted and elected representatives only from the two major Dravidian parties and their alliance partners (Table 2). Therefore, for a perceptive analysis, we can classify the battle for 234 seats into three types: (i) a direct contest between the DMK and the AIADMK, which occurred in 131 seats; (ii) a contest between either of the Dravidian majors and the rival alliance partners—the AIADMK contested against DMK alliance partners in 48 constituencies while the DMK contested against AIADMK alliance partners in 42 constituencies; and (iii) a contest between the alliance partners of the DMK and the AIADMK, which happened in 13 seats.

In a pre-election analysis, the authors highlighted the crucial role of the direct contest between the DMK and the AIADMK, with an argument that a 70 per cent strike rate in the direct contest was a minimum requirement to win a majority in the Assembly (“Crucial role of straight contests”, Frontline, April 23, 2021).

In 2021, the DMK won 92 out of 131 seats in the direct contest with an exact 70 per cent strike rate, while the remaining 39 seats went to the AIADMK. The DMK and the AIADMK secured 46 per cent and 40 per cent of the vote share, in the direct faceoff that sets the election agenda. The direct debate between the two Dravidian parties in these 131 constituencies resonates in all other constituencies. In the past, the Dravidian party that secured more seats in the direct contest ultimately formed the government. The 2021 Assembly election was no exception to this pattern.

Also read: No room for a third front in Tamil Nadu

In the tussles where the AIADMK faced the DMK’s alliance partners, it won 26 out of 48 seats with a 43 per cent vote share, while the remaining 22 seats went to the DMK alliance partners with a 39 per cent vote share. On the other hand, in the contests where the DMK faced the AIADMK’s alliance partners, it won 33 out of 42 seats with a 50 per cent vote share, while the remaining nine seats went to the AIADMK alliance partners with a 35 per cent vote share. As in the past, the winning Dravidian party, the DMK in this case, scored victories against the rival alliance partners with a larger vote share and seat share than in the previously mentioned direct contest.

In the contests between the alliance partners of both these parties, the DMK’s alliance partners won 12 out of 13 seats with a 46 per cent vote share, while the remaining seat went to the AIADMK’s alliance partner with a 36 per cent vote share. The performance of the victorious DMK alliance partners was relatively better in terms of strike rate and vote share.

Altogether, the two Dravidian parties and their alliance partners secured a vote share in the range of 82-86 per cent in different contests. Ultimately, the victorious DMK alliance secured 159 seats, while 75 seats went to the AIADMK alliance.

Thus, the two Dravidian majors continue to remain the major political forces in the State without any challenger in sight. The remaining smaller parties must either align with one of them to win seats or remain insignificant players during elections.

Winning margin analysis

The winning margins throw up some interesting insights that help us understand the vote share of each of the two Dravidian parties in the State. A comparison of the election results of 2016 and 2021 shows an interesting pattern in the margin of votes secured by the winners. We classify constituencies into three categories: the average margin as middle, the margin below the average as low, and the margin above the average as high.

The average winning margin was higher in 2021 than in 2016 (Table 3).

Also read: In Tamil Nadu it's a two-horse race

A deeper look into these categories reveals three primary pieces of information.

First, the low-margin constituencies were either a contest between the alliance partners of the AIADMK and the DMK or a contest where a third force with a vote base tilted the fortunes of the majors. In either case, the seats were shared between the AIADMK and DMK alliances in the ratio of 60:40, favouring the winning coalition. For example, in 2016, the AIADMK contested in all the 234 seats alone without any alliance partners, but a third front, called the People’s Welfare Front—an alliance of the DMDK, the MDMK, the CPI and the CPI (M), the TMC and the VCK—was in the fray.

The PMK independently contested in all 234 seats.

Thus, the low-margin seats are predominantly contested by the alliance partners of the DMK, with the significant presence of a third front splitting the votes favouring the winner. The same pattern continued in the 2021 election as well.

Second, in high-margin constituencies, it is purely a contest where star contestants are present, such as the probable Chief Minister, Ministers, or strong party leaders with a core cadre following. In addition, the alliance partners of both the major parties also contribute when they contest against the opposite party’s star candidate. Thus, in 2016 and 2021, the constituencies of Chief Ministerial candidates, Ministerial probables, and party heavyweights saw the same winning ratio of 60:40, favouring the winning alliance. In 2021, a tilt in this ratio in favour of the DMK indicated the shortage of heavyweights in the AIADMK.

Third, in the middle margin category, the same pattern remains in both the 2016 and 2021 elections. They are mostly directly contested by the Dravidian majors with a core vote base. Here too, the winning alliance takes the seats in the ratio of 60:40; and the middle category is the major one with 175-180 constituencies.

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The key inference from this is that the Dravidian majors command a vast majority of the vote base, and the winning margins are determined mainly by the factors related to seats contested by the alliance partners, the presence of a significant third party in that particular constituency and a contest of heavyweights. Thus, wherever an equal contest exists between the AIADMK and the DMK, the voters give a slight majority to the winning alliance in the ratio of 60:40.

Vote share of AIADMK and DMK

The combined vote share of the AIADMK and the DMK stands firmly around 80 per cent, with the swing of the remaining voters between the two parties deciding the ultimate winners. Let’s compare the vote shares of the AIADMK and the DMK in 2016 and 2021. The AIADMK contested in 234 constituencies and won 136 seats with a vote share of 40.9 per cent, whereas in 2021, it contested in 179 constituencies and won 65 seats with a vote share of 41.1 per cent in those 179 constituencies. This trend is reversed for the DMK; it contested in 180 constituencies and won 89 of them with a vote share of 41.1 per cent in the contested seats in 2016, whereas in 2021, it contested in 173 constituencies and won 125 seats with a vote share of 47.5 per cent in the contested seats.

The combined vote share of the AIADMK and the DMK in the constituencies they contested was in the range of 82-90 per cent. Assuming that the alliance partners contributed 8-10 per cent vote share, then these two parties retained a combined 80 per cent vote share. Although each Dravidian party contests in 175-180 constituencies, they do not contest against each other in all the constituencies. However, either of the two Dravidian parties is present in 221 seats; in this way, they are omnipresent in the State election. The two Dravidian parties’ combined vote share includes the swing in neutral voters between them in various elections. Therefore, it is firmly established that the two Dravidian parties’ combined vote share in Tamil Nadu is 80 per cent.

How is this 80 per cent distributed between the two Dravidian parties? We get a clue from the winning margins of the candidates in the two parties. In the last two elections, DMK won with a median margin in 75 per cent of the seats, whereas the AIADMK won with a median margin in 83 per cent of seats in 2016 and 74 per cent of seats in 2021. Moreover, the DMK won with a higher margin in 13-16 per cent of the seats, while the AIADMK won with a higher margin in 4-12 per cent of seats in these two elections.

Also read: Deepening divide

The election story of Tamil Nadu firmly establishes the fight between the AIADMK and the DMK, irrespective of the presence of smaller parties either individually or collectively through an alliance. The smaller parties opposing both the Dravidian majors only change the winners between them rather than gaining a seat for themselves. Some smaller parties stand to gain if they align with the winning Dravidian party. The two Dravidian majors prefer to directly fight against each other in more than half of the constituencies so as to form a non-coalition government.

This also establishes the process of marginalising the smaller parties in the electoral fray with or without an alliance with the Dravidian parties. By marginalising a few smaller parties and keeping a few other smaller parties within the alliance and distributing only a few constituencies to them, the two Dravidian parties have retained the combined vote share of a little over four-fifths of the votes polled, including the neutral voters. The swing in neutral voters between the two Dravidian parties decides the winners. Any other narrative of electoral politics in Tamil Nadu is just empty rhetoric.

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

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