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Tamil Nadu: Who will ally with the BJP?

February 13, 2014 11:39 IST

Vijayakanth's DMDK may play a big role as Tamil Nadu's political parties scramble for allies to win the state's 40 Lok Sabha seats. N Sathiya Moorthy reports.

With actor-politician Vijayakanth, leader of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, reportedly scheduled to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday for a discussion on issues of concern for Tamil Nadu, a clearer picture is likely to emerge on the poll alliances in the state for the coming general election. Some reports suggest that Vijayakanth may also meet Congress President Sonia Gandhi.

The meeting comes amid reports that the Congress is trying to revive contacts with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leadership, but without much success as yet.

The poll scene is still wide open in Tamil Nadu, which along with the lone seat in the Union territory of Puducherry, sends 40 members to the Lok Sabha.

The Tamil voters have a record of voting for one alliance en masse in recent elections, making it an attractive and challenging electoral proposition.

If someone thought that alliance formation would acquire some clarity after the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi's more than impressive public rally in Chennai last Saturday, it was not to be. It is not expected to be much clearer after the DMK's conference in Tiruchi on February 15 either.

Meanwhile, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam by commencing seat-sharing talks with the two Communist parties may have already closed even post-poll options for the party.

After separate talks with Communist Party of India leader A B Bardhan and Communist Party of India-Marxist General Secretary Prakash Karat on consecutive days recently, AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa said the issue of a prime minister for the emerging 'Third Front' would be settled only after the election.

The Tamil Nadu chief minister must count on the Left to back her if she were in a position to stake a claim to the country's top post.

The Vijayakanth factor

Complex as the emerging political situation is at the national level, it is even more bizarre in Tamil Nadu.

At the centre of the current poll calculations is the 'Vijayakanth factor'. The DMDK polled a respectable 10 per cent vote share in its first parliamentary election in 2009, up from eight per cent in the 2006 assembly election, only months after Vijayakanth launched his political party.

The DMDK contested both those elections on its own, but chose to partner with the AIADMK in the 2011 assembly polls. It won 29 seats and is the official Opposition party in the state assembly; the DMK won only 23 seats.

The DMDK is today at the crossroads of coalition politics and electoral choice. The AIADMK has poached into the party's legislative strength. Both the BJP and DMK have invited Vijayakanth to ally with them. Vijayakanth is yet to make up his mind. If one goes by the 2011 experience, he may wait until after the poll dates are announced to make his decision.

The Chennai rally was Modi's second in Tamil Nadu, after the one in Tiruchi last year. The state BJP left no stone unturned to make it a bigger event.

The previous fortnight, Vijayakanth held a rally in Villupuram, where the numbers were huge, making the DMDK an attractive poll proposition for both the BJP and DMK.

No one is talking about any party in Tamil Nadu wanting to align with Congress. The DMK is known to have brushed aside all overtures. DMK Treasurer and heir apparent M K Stalin is not keen on a tie-up with the Congress, though he is said to be more pragmatic in working with parties like the DMDK.

The Congress is hoping against hope that it can forge an alliance with the DMK, using Vijayakanth's good offices. That again would rest on Vijayakanth's calculations vis-a-vis the BJP, and his ability to bring around the DMK.

Like the DMK, the DMDK is also a family-run concern. Vijayakanth's wife Premalatha (Akka or elder sister to the cadres) and her brother Sudeesh hold the reins within the DMDK.

Committed votes and more

In a way, the local bodies polls of 2011, held a few months after the assembly election that year, could be a marker for evaluating the relative strengths of individual parties.

Unlike the coalitions for the assembly election, every party contested the local bodies polls on its own (barring the DMDK, which had the two Communist parties as its allies).

In those polls, the AIADMK recorded a 39 per cent vote-share, followed by the DMK (26 per cent), the DMDK alliance (10 per cent), the Congress (5.7 per cent) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (3.5 per cent).

This contrasts with the assembly poll figures when the AIADMK combine obtained 51 per cent vote-share (in the company of the DMDK, among others), and the DMK combine's 39 per cent (including the Congress and the Dalit-centred Vidudhalai Chiruthaigal Kadchi).

With two substantive Dalit parties in the VCK (influential in the north) and the Puthiya Tamizhagam (south) and two major Muslim parties already in its fold, the DMK hopes to have increased its committed vote-share, possibly to between 33 and 35 per cent for the Lok Sabha election.

It is here Vijayakanth's vote-share makes the difference to the DMK-AIADMK big fight, as even with the Left votes, the latter party would be in a marginally disadvantageous position.

With his eyes on the assembly polls of 2016, where he would have to compete with Stalin and Jayalalithaa for the chief minister's post, Vijayakanth cannot afford to lose out on 'secular votes' by aligning with the BJP now.

Theoretically at least, if the DMK can retain its committed vote-share and also those of its committed allies and ally with the DMDK and the Congress, the combine could hope for anything upwards of 45 per cent votes (going up to 50 per cent). This could put paid to the calculations of not only the BJP but also that of the AIADMK and its leader's prime ministerial ambitions.

How the AIADMK circumvents this will be interesting to watch -- but before that, the DMDK, DMK and the Congress would have to somehow come together. It is another matter that the additional/extra votes that the 'Modi factor' could garner for the BJP will come mainly from the AIADMK's traditional anti-DMK kitty.

The DMK continues to be wary of the Congress for two reasons: the Congress's negative image in the state and at the national level and its Tamil leaders's ambitious nature.

The Modi factor

There is no denying the 'Modi factor' in Tamil Nadu, but there is no 'Modi wave' (at least not as yet). The Tamil media, both television and print, have taken Modi's message to the villages. The message seems to be 'Give Modi a chance' just as it was 'Give Vajpayee a chance' in the Lok Sabha elections of 1988 and 1999.

Like in those two elections, the focus is on the man, not the party. As it turned out, the 'Vajpayee factor' in 1998 and 1999 elections brought in about seven per cent vote-share for the victorious AIADMK and DMK combines, with which the BJP had combined respectively. Since then, the BJP's vote-share has plummeted to the traditional sub-two per cent level.

The immediate problem for the BJP after the conclusion of Modi's Chennai rally flowed again from the 'Vijayakanth factor'. With the DMDK undecided on its ally, the BJP leadership is unable to finalise seat-sharing with committed partners like Vaiko's Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and Dr S Ramadoss's PMK.

With the BJP forced on the back foot in the interim, it is unclear how the party leadership hopes to cash in on first-time/additional voters: At 53.7 million voters, up by 12.4 million compared to the 2009 election -- the highest increase (29 per cent) in the country.

Image: DMDK leader Vijayakanth, a key player in Tamil Nadu.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political commentator, is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

N Sathiya Moorthy