Tamil Nadu Assembly election 2021

In Tamil Nadu it's a two-horse race, still

Print edition : April 09, 2021

Edappadi K. Palaniswami, Chief Minister, seeking votes for the AIADMK’s candidate in Kallakurichi constituency on March 20. Photo: T. Singaravelou

M.K. Stalin, DMK president, during an election campaign meeting at Tirupattur in Sivaganga district on March 18. Photo: L. Balachandar

Kamal Haasan, founder of the Makkal Needhi Maiam, speaking at a meeting in Salem on March 16. Photo: LAKSHMI NARAYANAN E.

T.T.V. Dinakaran, founder of the AMMK. Photo: Karunakaran M.

Seeman, leader of the Naam Tamilar Katchi. Photo: JOTHI RAMALINGAM B.

The State is all set to witness an intense fight between the two fronts led by the AIADMK and the DMK with smaller players seeking to break the Dravidian ‘duopoly’.

Until around 7 p.m. on March 14, the Pallars of Pallapatti, a town in Virudhunagar district, were intent on voting for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)-led alliance in which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a partner. The reason: the BJP government had met the demand of the Puthiya Tamilagam, a party that has a strong base among Pallars in southern Tamil Nadu, to bring Pallars and six other Dalit sub-castes in the Scheduled Caste list under the nomenclature Devendrakula Vellalar.

Vivekanandan, a resident of Pallapatti, said: “Everyone was glad that someone ruling in Delhi had taken note and did something for us. It made us feel good, though there was confusion and disagreement among our people whether we should be in the S.C. [Scheduled Caste] list or be treated as MBCs [Most Backward Classes]…. We decided that the BJP was good for us.”

All that changed on March 14 evening, when the AIADMK announced that it will press the Union government to name the Madurai Airport after Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar, the icon of the Thevar community. Its promise was No. 79 on its election manifesto. The Thevars and the Pallars are traditional rivals. In the mid-1990s, the southern areas were rocked by clashes between Dalits (mainly Pallars) and Thevars. An inter-caste marriage among them is considered by Thevars to be far worse than love jehad.

(In a case that reverberated across India, Shankar, a Dalit who married Kausalya, a Thevar, was hacked in broad daylight by Kausalya’s close relatives in the western town of Udumalpet. There are several such stories across Tamil Nadu (Frontline March 13, 2020).)

Vivekandan asked: “Who gave land for the airport? Was it not our [caste] people? How can they take our land and not honour us?” Pallar leaders claim that people from their community in two villages gave land for the Madurai airport and that any name change should honour Pallars, not the Thevars.

On whether the classification of Pallars as Devendrakula Vellalars was not an honour to them, Vivekandan retorted: “That’s our right. What the naming [of the Madurai Airport] has done is that we have been denied the acceptance we deserve in the whole of India.”

The Pallars, who constitute eight per cent of the Sivakasi Assembly constitutency’s 2.6-lakh-strong electorate, now state that they want to move away from the AIADMK combine. The Paraiyar community, which also belongs to the S.Cs, constitutes four per cent. In any election, these two groups voting together will make a difference between victory and defeat.

About 20 kilometres north-west of Sivakasi, in Srivilliputhur, posters and banners have appeared asking the Centre to remove the Pallars from the S.C. category. This was also a demand put forth by the Puthiya Tamilagam. A banner read: “Each breath of ours [is dedicated to] obtaining a government order removing our community name from the S.C. list and naming us Devendrakula Vellalars.” The banner was put up by ‘Devendrakula Vellalar community people from Srivilliputhur, Kottaipadi and youngsters’.

The Scheduled Castes constitute about 20 per cent of the State’s population. The Pallars have a presence in over 25 districts and constitute a little more than 17 per cent of the total S.C. population in the State. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) alliance sees an opportunity in this discontent. Although it has not made any comment about the decision to rename the airport—a highly contentious issue—it has reached out to the second-line leaders in the community across southern Tamil Nadu in a bid to encourage them to vote for the opposition alliance.

Also read: Exclusive reservation for Vanniyar Community in Tamil Nadu: Playing with fire

K. Krishnasamy, founder of the Puthiya Tamilagam, has his sympathies with the AIADMK-BJP alliance, although his party decided not to be part of the formation. His party is contesting on its own in 60 constituencies. Krishnasamy, who is contesting from Ottapidaram in Thoothukudi district, is not particularly liked by many within the community because, over the past few decades, he has promised a lot but delivered very little. His decision to contest is to ensure that the disgruntled community votes stay with his party and do not move to the DMK alliance. Although he still has followers in the community, many in Tirunelveli, Tenkasi, Thoothukudi and Ramanathapuram told Frontline that the DMK alliance appeared to be a better choice for them this time.

Another community leader with a dubious record is John Pandian, who leads the Thamizhaga Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam. He is in alliance with the AIADMK and is contesting from the Chennai Egmore reserved constituency for the second time in two decades. In 2001, he lost by a margin of 89 votes but not before giving a tough fight to the then DMK candidate, Parithi Ilamvazhuthi. This time, his opponent is E. Paranthaman, a DMK spokesperson. Paranthaman told Frontline: “The people of Egmore know us both. Let them decide if they need a clean person like me or someone whose hand is red because the stains can’t be washed away.”

A third leader of the community is K. Senthil Mallar, who runs a social and community outfit called the Mallar Meetpu Kazhagam. He is not inclined towards the ruling AIADMK combine and has confined his organisation to the uplift of the people.

The net effect of the discontent is that despite the BJP’s strategy to win over the Dalits in southern Tamil Nadu by acceding to the demand for a name change, its ally, the AIADMK, has undone this potential vote-gathering exercise with the proposal to rename the Madurai Airport.

Southern discomfort

A few BJP leaders in the State are upset over this decision of the AIADMK, but one AIADMK leader explained that the party did not have a choice. Facing a deep divide within its traditional Thevar vote base because of a splinter party that relies on the same vote, namely the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), the AIADMK had to take up some long-standing demand of the Thevar community and be seen as its champion. T.T.V. Dinakaran, nephew of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s close associate, Sasikala, is the founder of the AMMK.

A senior ruling party politician, who did not want to be named, said: “It [renaming of the airport] is a very risky gamble…. a double-edged sword. We don’t know if it will work. We sincerely hope it does.”

However, even this may not help the AIADMK. The Thevar community has always been close to the centre of power in Tamil Nadu, regardless of the ruling party. After Jayalalithaa’s death in 2016, the community saw the opportunity for one of them to occupy that seat of power sooner or later. O. Panneerselvam, the AIADMK’s convener, who belongs to the community, was Chief Minister for a brief while too.

Unfortunately for the AIADMK, although Panneerselvam is still popular within the community, he is not the top pick; their choice is Dinakaran.

On March 3, Sasikala announced that she was withdrawing from politics and hoped that Jayalalithaa’s rule would be established in the State. She has influence in the community and it is an open secret that she favours Dinakaran. Hence, the splitting of the Thevar vote is a reason for worry for the AIADMK.

In effect, the AIADMK has antagonised two critical communities in central and southern Tamil Nadu, presenting the DMK with an opportunity to score in those belts.

In the 2016 Assembly election, the DMK won 26 seats while the AIADMK won 32 seats in the southern districts of Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi, Ramanathapuram, Virudhunagar, Dindigul, Theni, Madurai, and Sivaganga.

Hopes within alliances

The two main alliances in the State are fighting an unequal battle for power in 2021. The DMK-led alliance, which has been in the opposition for a decade, made a resounding comeback in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, winning 38 of the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu.

The alliance is upbeat because it believes a host of factors are in its favour. They include the absence of Jayalalithaa, the anti-incumbency factor, infighting within the AIADMK, the desertion of a key AIADMK ally, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), the liability of the AIADMK having the overbearing BJP on its side, and a general sentiment in the State that the AIADMK will not perform well in this election.

In 2016, the difference of a mere 1.03 per cent of the votes sent the DMK to the opposition benches. The AIADMK won 40.88 per cent of the popular vote while the DMK and its allies won 39.85 per cent. That was when Jayalalithaa was alive and the AIADMK was intact with what she said was a “military-like discipline”. After her demise, the party was riven by internal dissensions starting with the revolt of O. Panneerselvam, now Deputy Chief Minister, eventually leading to the formation of the AMMK.

The AIADMK is banking on enormous funds in its possession, an effective social media outreach and control of traditional media to drive home the point that if DMK is in power, it will perpetuate family rule, lead to rowdyism and create law and order problems. The AIADMK campaign has touched upon a point that is often emphasised by the ruling party: once the DMK comes to power, there will be no development of the people, only the development of one family. It has highlighted the DMK’s decision to field Udhayanidhi Stalin, son of the party president M.K. Stalin, from Chennai’s Chepauk-Triplicane constituency, to drive home this point.

Also read: Moments of high drama lie in store ahead of 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly election

The AIADMK believes that in return for all its favours to the BJP, the ruling party at the Centre will keep DMK’s election ‘expenses’ under check by using the Central agencies in its command.

On the other hand, the alliance of two ruling parties (at the Centre and the State) has its own advantages. Several police officers told Frontline that two factors influence their personnel: one, the AIADMK has been in power for a decade, and two, the BJP is with the AIADMK. Hence, there was the possibility of police officers looking the other way on ruling party transgressions of the model code of conduct.

A government official said that until late March, there was no mass transfer of police personnel or Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers, even though some had spent considerable time in their current posts. The only transfers were related to two sexual harassment cases.

In short, the ruling combine has not left any stone unturned to make this election a tough fight.

The line-up

Of the 234 Assembly constituencies, the DMK will contest 174 seats on its own. Its main ally, the Congress, will contest in 25 seats and the lone Lok Sabha seat, Kanyakumari, where a byelection is scheduled following the death of Vasanth Kumar, the sitting MP. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) will contest six seats each, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in three seats and the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi in two seats. Apart from these, a few minor parties with regional influence will contest under the DMK symbol.

The AIADMK will contest 171 seats. Its main ally, the BJP, which dictates terms within the alliance, is contesting 20 seats. The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), which claims to represent Vanniyar interests, will contest 23 seats. The party is overjoyed with the AIADMK government’s announcement of 10.5 per cent reservation for the Vanniyar community within the existing MBC quota. The Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), led by G.K. Vasan, has been given six seats. The remaining seats have been given to smaller allies.

Dissatisfied with the offer of seats from the alliance, the Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam led by actor Vijayakanth walked out and struck an alliance with the AMMK.

The two other fronts in the fray, one led by actor Kamal Haasan and his Makkal Needhi Maiam party, and the other led by Dinakaran, will hope to stay relevant in Tamil Nadu politics.

Naam Tamilar Katchi, a Tamil nationalist party floated by Seeman, has polled about three per cent of the votes across the State and has managed to attract many youths. It is fielding candidates in all constituencies.

U. Sagayam, an IAS officer who quit his job at the fag-end of his career to enter politics, is contesting in 20 seats with a significant Christian population, with his image as an anti-corruption crusader. As a result, he is being accused of trying to split the Christian vote, which would otherwise go to the DMK combine. Confirming the accusation, as it were, he has decided to contest against the DMK president in Kolathur constituency but has not put up a candidate against Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami.

Two Muslim outfits, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), have also allied with the AMMK.

The AIMIM has consistently considered the BJP and the Congress as part of the problem. On many occasions, its attack on both parties in equal measure has helped the BJP immensely in many geographies.

The SDPI is hopeful of cutting into the Muslim vote. M. Rishab, a businessman in Tenkasi, said: “The SDPI being in the AMMK alliance will only help the DMK. It is a very clear signal that all moderate Muslims are on the side which will protect our secular nature…. There will be no split in votes merely because of the AIMIM or the SDPI.”

Factors of caste and religious community

As a bloc, the Scheduled Castes (regardless of internal divisions), form the largest number of candidates in the fray—44 each from DMK and the AIADMK—because of the number of reserved constituencies.

The Backward Classes and the MBCs are well-represented in both combines, indicating the importance of caste in electoral calculations.

From the Vanniyar community, there are 42 candidates in the AIADMK front and 36 in the DMK front. As many as 27 Thevars are fighting the election as part of the DMK front, while the AIADMK front is fielding 37 candidates from the community. The Gounder community is represented by 27 candidates in the DMK front and 32 in the AIADMK front.

The AIADMK combine is fielding only four Muslim candidates (compared to the DMK front’s 11), a disproportionately low number given their proportion in the total population (6 per cent). As many as 10 contesting candidates in the DMK front are Christian, while the AIADMK front has allotted the community eight seats.

AIADMK’s campaign

The AIADMK has mounted an effective social media campaign with stunning visuals and creative memes showcasing the many achievements of the government, such as announcing the delta region as a protected agricultural zone; waiver of cooperative farm loans; opening of 11 medical colleges; 7.5 per cent reservation in medical colleges for students from government schools; withdrawal of the jallikattu ban, establishment of the Cauvery Management Board, obtaining permission to increase the water storage level in the Mullaiperiyar reservoir in Kerala to 142 feet, and effective control of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also read: AIADMK in crisis ahead of 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections

The campaign also highlights the ‘effective implementation’ of the rule of law leading to peace and tranquillity in the State, the government’s ‘efficient handling’ of damage caused by cyclones in the last few years, its distribution of Rs.2,500 each as a special gift to people ahead of the Pongal festival, and its distribution of laptops, bicycles, books, footwear, and so on to government school students, along with a scheme to distribute milch cows and goats to people and grant 10.5 per cent reservation to Vanniyars.

The political strategy team hired by the DMK largely projects the party president M.K. Stalin. However, the party’s media campaign focuses on various livelihood issues, including price hikes in petrol and diesel and LPG cylinders.

Promises and the reality

The AIADMK manifesto contains 160 promises, including the one to give each ration card-holding family a washing machine. Stalin mocked the AIADMK at a meeting in Namakkal, stating: “I would not be surprised if Edappadi suddenly announces that each family will be given a helicopter.”

The AIADMK has also made a bizarre promise of asking the Centre to revoke the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), if voted to power. Answering questions soon after filing his nomination in Edappadi on March 15, the Chief Minister said: “The AIADMK government is committed to protecting minorities. We have announced that we will insist that the Centre revoke the CAA. The minorities placed this demand to us because they are aware that only we will protect them.” This promise runs counter to its stand on the CAA issue.

On December 11, 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) was passed in the Rajya Sabha only because the 11 AIADMK MPs voted in favour. In the Rajya Sabha, the CAB was passed with 125 MPs voting in favour and 99 MPs against. In the Lok Sabha too, the lone AIADMK member, O.P. Raveendranath, son of O. Panneerselvam, voted in favour of the Bill.

Its promise to convert the delta areas into an agriculture zone has also drawn criticism. P. Rajakumar, advocate and Congress leader from Thanjavur, said: “Yes, the AIADMK announced it. But you also need to treat the area as an agriculture zone, right? That has not happened.”

G. Anbalagan, MLA and the DMK’s candidate from Kumbakonam, said: “If they announce from Chennai and there is no action on the ground, what good is the announcement? When an announcement is made, there should be some plan to act on it. If not, it is made just to fool the people.”

In the eight delta districts, from Cuddalore to Nagapattinam, the DMK won 19 seats while the AIADMK won 29. T.R.B. Rajaa, the sitting DMK MLA from Mannargudi, in the heart of the delta region, said: “You have to view the contests in the central districts in the background of the decline in agriculture sector over a decade and the neglect of the people in general.”

Rajaa, the son of former Union Minister T.R. Baalu, is seeking to get re-elected from the same constituency. He said: “My party has done more to address farmer-related issues than the ruling party. The ruling party confines itself to announcements and publicity.”

The CPI (M)’s V. Sukumaran (vice-president of the Tamil Nadu Science Forum), a familiar face in Thanjavur, said that the delta districts and the south were looking “good” for the DMK alliance. According to him, the ‘political drama’ that the State has been witnessing from the time of Jayalalithaa’s death, the abysmal manner in which the government was run, the massive corruption, and the hike in prices of all essential items will play a large part in how people vote in Tamil Nadu.

Sukumaran said it was a myth that only money can win an election in Tamil Nadu. “Several of our leaders have proved otherwise. Yes, we have seen widespread use of money power, but people will still vote for those who will be with them in their hour of need.”

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

A case in point is the candidature of K. Srinivasan, who is fielded by the CPI(M) in Kovilpatti. Coming from a humble background, Srinivasan has an uphill task in taking on two politicians who are backed by enormous money power: Kadambur Raju of the AIADMK and Dinakaran of the AMMK. Manikandan, a contractor in Kovilpatti, said: “One side is offering just kattu soru [packed food] while the other two are offering biryani and at least Rs.300…. Srinivasan has a huge task.”

K. Marimuthu, the CPI’s candidate for Thiruthuraipoondi, is an agricultural worker who still lives in a hut. Marimuthu said that the CPI had retained the constituency in many elections, adding that he is a familiar face in the constituency. He is confident that his lack of resources will not affect his performance.

DMK’s promises

The DMK’s manifesto promised a lowering of the State’s taxes on petrol, one-year maternity leave for and free bus passes to women, apart from rolling out a host of schemes for the poor.

It also promised live telecast of proceedings of the Legislative Assembly so that people could watch for themselves the behaviour and conduct of the MLAs.

The DMK has said that it will set up special courts to fast-track corruption cases involving AIADMK Ministers against whom serious charges have been levelled. It has also promised to urge the Commission probing Jayalalithaa’s death to complete its inquiry at an early date and submit the report. Besides, the party promised extensive schemes for the revival of agriculture and made several sector-specific promises.

On the campaign trail, the DMK and its alliance partners focus on the hike in the prices of petrol and diesel and LPG cylinders, and the cascading effects it has had on all sectors, apart from talking about how the AIADMK government bartered away all the rights of the State in issues such as NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test), and allowed projects detrimental to the State’s interests such as the one allowing prospecting for oil in the delta region. The DMK promised that it will take all steps possible to work towards repealing NEET.

Asked how practical the DMK’s promises were, in the light of the heavy loan burden of the State government, which is pegged at Rs.5 lakh crore, K.N. Nehru, the party’s principal secretary, drew attention to the DMK’s past record, stating: “We never make promises that we cannot keep. The very first signature of our leader Kalaignar [M. Karunanidhi] in 2006 was to waive farm loans…. In every meeting, he presented people a progress report as to how many of the promises had been fulfilled.”

However, Chief Minister Palaniswami thinks otherwise. He said: “In the 2006 manifesto, Karunanidhi promised 2 acres of land to landless farmers. How can you give land that does not exist? All lies. They are trying to fool people and garner votes. If you promise a scheme that can be implemented, it can be welcomed. If you make a promise that you can’t fulfil, what is that you are trying to tell people?”

All eyes on the west and the north

In the western districts, anger against the AIADMK is barely visible. The Chief Minister belongs to the Gounder community, a fact not lost on his kinsmen, and the caste has a dominant presence in the region. They hope that the Chief Minister can sway Salem, Coimbatore strongman S.P. Velumani can keep the district with AIADMK, and P. Thangamani can hold on to Namakkal. Between these three, they believe that the remaining districts too can be swung the AIADMK way.

The BJP has a strong presence in both Coimbatore and Tiruppur. A noted businessman who did not want to be named said: “The people of Tiruppur seem to have not made up their mind yet. The vote here cannot be taken for granted…. There is some attraction towards Kamal Haasan but that could be because he is a film star.”

The BJP has an uphill task in most seats it is contesting. Inexplicably, Vanathi Srinivasan, a prominent leader, has been pitted against Kamal Haasan in the Coimbatore (South) constituency. The actor is said to be gaining ground. Mayura Jayakumar of the Congress is the DMK alliance candidate in the same constituency.

In Dharapuram, BJP state president L. Murugan has done considerable ground work even before the election. Even with this, he will find the DMK’s Kayalvizhi Selvaraj a very tough opponent to beat. A similar story plays out in Aravakuruchi, where Annamalai, Tamil Nadu coordinator of the National Democratic Alliance, takes on the DMK’s Ilango.

Also read: A caste variant of love jehad vitiates social atmosphere in Tamil Nadu

In 2016, the AIADMK won as many 32 of the 39 constituencies in the six western districts. The DMK overhauled its party structure in the district and has selected better candidates this time around, hoping to improve its tally.

It can be safely assumed that if the AIADMK does not do well in the western region, then it has lost the whole of Tamil Nadu. The AIADMK-BJP combine banks on the western and the northern belts of the State. It hopes to at least match the DMK in the Chennai region, a traditional DMK bastion, and cobble together the required numbers.

In 2016, the DMK did well in the northern region, winning 40 seats. The AIADMK won 29. This time around, with the grant of 10.5 per cent reservation to Vanniyars, a demand voiced by the PMK, the ruling alliance hopes to win more seats. But that is easier said than done. Going by reports from the northern districts, it appears that all the other communities may gang up and vote en bloc for the party which, in their perception, is likely to win the election.

In Tiruvannamalai and Vellore districts, this counter-consolidation against the Vanniyars is strong. Both the DMK and the AIADMK are facing trouble from those who were not granted tickets. Minister K.C. Veeramani appears strong in Jolarpettai, but many other AIADMK candidates might find the going tough. In Vaniyambadi, the AIMIM might take away enough votes to cause the IUML some grief. This is also compounded by the fact that the Congressmen are unhappy over the seat being given to the Muslim party.

Chennai scenario

In Chennai’s 16 constituencies, the DMK combine is optimistic about its chances. The BJP, which came third in about 10 constituencies in 2016, hopes to push for a win in at least one constituency. The actor Khushboo Sundar is a contender in the Thousand Lights constituency but she is fighting the DMK’s Dr Ezhilan, a well known activist on the public health and environment fronts. Already, there is considerable resentment among supporters of former MLA Ku. Ka. Selvam, who, despite crossing over from the DMK to the BJP recently, was not given the party ticket.

In Kolathur, Stalin faces Adhi Rajaram, a capable AIADMK leader who once contested and lost against Stalin in the mayoral election. Udhayanidhi, Stalin’s son and the DMK’s youth wing leader, does not face any major challenge from his rival from the PMK, which has a relatively weak presence in the constituency.

In Saidapet, the contest between Ma. Subramaniam of the DMK, a former Mayor, and Saidai Duraisamy of the AIADMK, also a former Mayor, is expected to be close.

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