Jayalalithaa’s attack on BJP’s PM hopeful a little too late in the coming, says N Sathiya Moorthy
“Who is a better administrator? Is it Gujarat’s Narendra Modi or this lady in Tamil Nadu?”
The Hindu quoted Tamil Nadu chief minister and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief Jayalalithaa asking her campaign audience, ahead of the April 24 polling in her state for the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. As the newspaper pointed out, it was for the first time she had drawn a “direct comparison between herself and the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate”.
Jayalalithaa’s comparison, preceded by days of her taking direct hits at Modi, was not wholly unexpected ever since she decided on her ruling AIADMK to go it alone in the polls. It might have been a little late in coming. Rather, a little too late, as the last-minute tactic-change may have only helped ‘marketing’ Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party in the state more than any professional campaign manager could have done.
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If Jayalalithaa had thought that she would not focus on the BJP and Modi initially, it was not without reason. One, like all other political parties in the state, particularly rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, her AIADMK had kept its post-poll options open.
Hurting the BJP beyond a point of recovery might have embarrassed both sides if it came to post-poll rapprochement of any kind. Now, as she may have found, hurting the BJP would be better in the immediate term than hurting the AIADMK. The ruling party has to face assembly polls in May 2016, and she herself is facing court cases in Chennai and Bengaluru.
It’s not that Jayalalithaa has not hurt an election rival this way earlier. Focussing her attacks on the ‘foreign origin’ of Sonia Gandhi, like her BJP ally of the time in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, she went one step further and farther by casting aspersions on the Congress chief’s widowhood, for the latter joining hands with the ‘killers of her husband’.
The Congress won the polls nationally, first in 2004 and five years later, too, and there was no going back for the AIADMK to the Sonia league.
This time round, as a shrewd political leader with a sixth sense of some kind, Jayalalithaa was not the one to focus greater attention on Modi initially than the BJP in the state deserved. The more she targeted Modi and the BJP, greater would be the chances of ‘polarisation’ of the minorities and possibly the Dalits, too, against the National Democratic Alliance in the state, and the benefits possibly going still to the DMK.
But today, with a lacklustre campaign providing no relief to her party, she needed to focus attention away from the purported anti-incumbency factor that the DMK and the state-level partners of the BJP in the expanded NDA were hurling at her. Modi was fair game.
The AIADMK supremo was right in judging that any polarisation of the kind could put the BJP on a pedestal, even after providing for the ‘Modi factor’ to bring in another five-plus percentage vote share, as the ‘Vajpayee factor’ did in the parliamentary polls of 1998 and 1999. Given her known ambivalence towards the BJP after her taking over full charge in the 90s, the DMK would have been the cross beneficiary of such a tactic on her part. Again, Jayalalithaa’s electoral logic was not wrong.
Karunanidhi’s after thought
The current problem for the AIADMK arose when DMK supremo M Karunanidhi too kept his post-poll BJP options seemingly open by claiming that the Modi he had seen only once, that too at an NDC meet in Delhi, was a ‘good friend’ and an able administrator. Even as media speculation was centred on what they believed was an inevitable pre-poll alliance between the BJP and the AIADMK open, Karunanidhi’s periodic references of the kind also led to tentative speculation about a possible seat-sharing arrangement between the BJP and the DMK. That Karunanidhi was using the ploy to push actor-politician Vijaykant’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam to ally with the DMK fast was acknowledged, at least in some circles.
Yet, the damage had been done, and Karunanidhi too needed to reset the tone and tenor of the DMK’s poll strategy if the party had to be in any meaningful electoral reckoning. With firm electoral alliances struck with the important Muslim and Dalit parties, and also given the fact that the minorities and the Dalits comprised 30 per cent of the state’s electorate, he could not afford to be tentative. Karunanidhi hyped his anti-Modi (more than the anti-BJP) tirade early on, once he hit the campaign trail. It did send enough reverberations in the DMK’s favour, or so it seemed to party strategists, but not enough to consolidate all the ‘Hindu voters’.
Around the time, Jayalalithaa seemed to have found that despite her hitting the campaign trail earlier than anyone else, and despite her hard-hitting speeches, keeping the DMK and the Congress, alone in focus, she might have missed a point or two. Her government’s performance since 2011, particularly on the price and infrastructure fronts, came in the way of her connecting with the voter, as easily as she had done over the past two decades.
The power-situation, which usually used to be manipulated around the time of any election in any part of the country, would not help Jayalalithaa tide over the deficit even at the campaign peak, just now. While Chennai City is spared of it for the time, the rest of the state continues to reel under hours of power cut. Jayalalithaa’s tactical re-orientation from Tamil Nadu being a power-surplus state under her charge, to her charges of a ‘conspiracy’ on the power front to weaken her electorally, displayed her desperation. It only received derisive laughter. And DMK’s campaign chief M K Stalin in particular exploited it to the hilt.
With summer now slowly peaking up, and the Election Commission too fixing April 24 as the sole polling date for Tamil Nadu in the middle of its nine-phase calendar, drinking water too was expected to be an unavoidable problem for the water-starved state. The campaign weeks have witnessed sections of the voters in interior villages denying entry to AIADMK ministers, complaining about one poor service or the other under the party’s care. There might have been something political about such protests, but all of them were not exactly of the same nature.
Three-way contest or what?
Jayalalithaa’s constant and repeated attacks on Modi in particular have other causes and reasons, too. With this, she is seeking to take the voter’s attention away from what essentially was boiling down to an AIADMK-DMK contest in the state, with anti-incumbency threatening to hurt her party’s electoral interests. With the chances of her becoming an acceptable prime ministerial candidate in a non-starter of a Third Front, she could hope to keep the estranged Communist ally from the pre-poll run-up, in good humour by targeting Modi.
Three, the AIADMK found for itself that Jayalalithaa’s high-pitched anti-Congress tirade was a non-starter of an election campaign for no fault of hers. With the poll fortunes of the Congress down in the dumps in purported public perception, both in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, there was no way she could enthuse the ‘undecided voters’ to side with her more. Given her ‘national campaign-tag’ that might have been chosen when Jayalalithaa was eyeing the prime minister’s job straightaway becoming irrelevant for both reasons, she needed to re-focus on the man who was there in front of the rest of the nation, and not someone who had receded onto the shadows.
It is another matter that unlike in the past, Jayalalithaa had not targeted either Sonia or Rahul until they chose to campaign in the state in the last leg. With Sonia addressing a campaign rally in Kanyakumari at the land’s end, and Rahul choosing Ramanathapuram, another coastal constituency with Rameswaram the temple town that is at the centre of the fishermen row with neighbouring Sri Lanka, the chief minister could not but come down heavily on the lady in particular for ‘shedding crocodile tears’ for the TN fishers when it had become too late.
Four and most important, with the larger-than-life prime ministerial ambitions receding, Jayalalithaa needed to re-focus her electoral energies on state politics, where assembly polls are due two years from now. As the AIADMK’s experience in the 1999 polls and that of the DMK in 2004 showed, previous electoral alliance with the BJP had cost for both whatever committed vote-share they had had from within the minorities and the Dalits. She could not afford to lose more.
Better or worse still, any advantage, however limited it be, for the NDA in the state could also mean that the alliance, possibly with Vijyakant as the chief ministerial aspirant (not wholly acceptable to the PMK until at least Ramadoss Jr became a Union minister in an anticipated Modi team), challenging the divided Dravidian hegemony of electoral politics in the state. Both Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi needed to send out a message to the non-BJP partners in the state NDA that Modi may be a campaign burden for them in 2016. If Jayalalithaa was ready to share the burden, if not shoulder the job for him, Karunanidhi, for once, was not the one to stand in the way.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.
Image: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and AIADMK Supremo J Jayalalithaa addresses an election campaign rally at T Nagar in Chennai on Monday
Photograph: R Senthil Kumar/PTI photo