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The iron lady wins!
May 20, 2005
What is the quickest way to reach Fort St George, the headquarters of the government of Tamil Nadu? Well, the suburban electric train services to Chennai Central happen to start from Arakonam and a hitherto little-know town named Gummidipoondi. So, in a sense, the road to power starts at Gummidipoondi!
I refer, of course, to the stunning results of the Gummidipoondi and Kancheepuram assembly by-elections. By any reckoning, the Democratic Progressive Alliance, the seven-party alliance led by the DMK, should have swept both seats.
Almost exactly a year ago, the DPA swept Tamil Nadu, winning all the 39 Lok Sabha seats in the state. In the Gummidipoondi assembly segment specifically, the DPA won 78,201 votes; it polled 80,725 votes in the Kancheepuram assembly segment. To general astonishment -- even consternation in some quarters -- the DPA lost over 20,000 votes in Gummidipoondi and about 10,000 votes in Kancheepuram.
The AIADMK romped home in both seats, actually bettering its performance of 2001 (when it had won both). No wonder that The Hindu was reduced to a headline screaming 'Upset Victory'!
Jayalalithaa has been taking flak from all quarters since the general election. Following that debacle, there was all the controversy over the arrest of the Kanchi Shankaracharya and the supposed bungling in the post-tsunami relief work. Obviously, all this hullabaloo was of greater importance to other politicians -- and journalists too! -- than to the voters of Kancheepuram and Gummidipoondi.
There was, to be sure, something of a sympathy wave in both seats. The Kancheepuram seat fell vacant after the sitting MLA, S S Thirunavukkarasu, died of cancer in November 2004. K Sudarsanam, who represented Gummidipoondi, was shot dead by dacoits in January. Jayalalithaa cannily fielded Thirunavukkarasu's wife T Mythili from Kancheepuram and Sudarsanam's son, K S Vijayakumar, from Gummidipoondi. But that surely does not explain the massive swing away from Karunanidhi's coalition.
The veteran DMK chief had earlier cautiously stated that by-election results need not necessarily indicate how people would Vote in full-scale assembly polls. But later, throwing restraint aside, he did state that the two by-elections would be a 'footpath' to victory. If so, this indicates that the DPA victory in the assembly polls scheduled for 2006 need not be taken for granted.
This will have some fallout within the DPA itself. Thus far, Karunanidhi has been able to dictate terms to his allies. The Congress, the MDMK, the PMK, the CPI-M, the CPI, and the rest have all been junior partners -- and Karunanidhi has never lost an opportunity to remind them of the fact. The fact that Jayalalithaa was able to withstand their united assault will give everyone something to think about. (The DPA had demanded the resignation of the Jayalalithaa ministry after the Lok Sabha election; the AIADMK is now returning the favour by asking the MPs from the two seat to resign in a gesture of 'moral responsibility' for the defeat!)
So, what could have led to the DPA downfall after the euphoria of the general election? I suggest that it could be a combination of more than one factor.
First, the voters might believe that Karunanidhi is just too old to last a full term as chief minister once again. Running hand in hand with this theme is the current of disapproval with his designated heir, his son Stalin. It is open to question whether elements in the DPA itself -- the MDMK's Vaiko comes to mind -- can accept Stalin's leadership as they agreed to that of Karunanidhi.
Second, let us admit that Jayalalithaa is probably one of the finest administrators in India today. Whether it is maintaining law and order or prodding the bureaucracy to ensure civic services, Chennai is a nicer place to live than, say, Mumbai, Delhi, or perhaps even Bangalore. And the fact is that her government did a better job of relief and rehabilitation in the wake of the tsunami than neighbouring Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, and anyone who speaks of 'bungling' in Tamil Nadu should take a good hard look at its neighbours.
The bias of the Union government is shocking. Tamil Nadu was by far the hardest hit by the tsunami in terms of lives lost and property damaged. Yet while Kerala and Andhra Pradesh received assistance worth Rs 1 billion (Rs 100 crore) each, Tamil Nadu was granted Rs 1.5 billion (Rs 150 crore), totally out of proportion to what it was forced to sustain. Of course, it helped that both Kerala and Andhra Pradesh have Congress chief ministers.
The third factor? Well, could it be that the Manmohan Singh ministry has failed to prove its capability, and that some of that unpopularity has rubbed off on Karunanidhi? I raise the hypothesis hesitantly, but if the DMK continues to insist that its 'Kalaignar' is the most popular man in the state, how do you explain Gummidipoondi and Kancheepuram? It is at the very least something to think about.
Indian folk wisdom has it that the dance of the peacock does not always herald monsoon rains. Nor should the results of two by-elections mean that the DPA is bound to come undone in the assembly election next year. But one thing is for sure: Jayalalithaa has again proved that she remains a formidable factor in the politics of Tamil Nadu.