Second-line AIADMK leaders and cadres alike say that by starting the talks first with the BJP and committing the party to an alliance without discussing seat-sharing, the leadership might have commenced the coalition discourse at the wrong end. According to them, even 20 seats for the BJP may be too many, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
If nothing else, Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s weekend visit to Chennai has overnight electrified the election scene in Tamil Nadu, where assembly polls are due in May.
While the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, through party coordinator and deputy chief minister O Pannerselvam (OPS) used a government function, Amit Shah’s only public event, to announce the continuation of their Lok Sabha poll alliance for the assembly polls, the latter too showered full praise on Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) and also challenged the DMK’s anti-corruption campaign against the ruling party in the state.
This will be the first time that the AIADMK and the BJP will be aligning for an assembly poll in the state. They began it in the Lok Sabha polls of 1998, reunited in 2004 after a break-up in 1999, but then party supremo Jayalalithaa gave it the go-by for the assembly polls of 2006. The break continued in the Lok Sabha polls of 2009 and 2014, with assembly polls falling on either side, in 2011 and 2016.
Despite Jayalalithaa making the 2014 LS polls a fight over ‘Modi-ya, Lady-ya?’ and won hands down, the post-Jaya EPS-OPS combine signed up with the BJP-National Democratic Alliance, only to hand over the state to the rival DMK-Congress combine in the Lok Sabha polls last year. Hence, AIADMK cadres are confused about OPS’s public declaration about the two parties continuing their successful alliance for the third time in a row.
Amit Shah did not react to OPS’s declaration, but it is possible that as protocol demands, he would let BJP national president O P Nadda do the talking on that front.
But there is the unraised and unanswered question of seat-sharing between the two, where the last available figure is that of state BJP president L Murugan. Weeks ago, he kick-started his poll campaign declaring that the BJP was capable of winning 60 seats out of the total 234, on its own. Both AIADMK strategists and political analysts are confused about how Murugan arrived at that number.
Be that as it may, OPS’s Saturday evening message is yet to sink into the AIADMK’s cadres, who had not expected a unilateral announcement on the alliance months before the elections, where such other poll allies as the Pattali Makkal Katchi and even the DMDK may matter the most for supplementing the AIADMK’s vote-share.
Indications are that the BJP would still keep its seat-share demand high and disproportionate to its proven voter base, which has never crossed the three per cent mark when contesting alone -- whether assembly or LS polls.
Second-line AIADMK leaders and cadres alike say that by starting the talks first with the BJP and committing the party to an alliance without discussing seat-sharing (as it looks), the leadership might have commenced the coalition discourse at the wrong end. According to them, even 20 seats for the BJP may be too many, but from the looks of it the figure could shoot up.
After sharing commensurate numbers with the PMK and others, the AIADMK’s seat numbers may hover around 160 if not fewer. This could make a single-party government for the party a pipe dream.
Incidentally, after meeting with Amit Shah at his Chennai hotel on Sunday morning, BJP Mahila Morcha’s new national president Vanathi Srinivasan, who is from Tamil Nadu, declared that the state would have a coalition government with the BJP’s participation. This has confused the AIADMK even more.
The only time the BJP was in alliance with a Dravidian major in the assembly polls was in 2001, when the party shared power with the DMK at the Centre. The Karunanidhi government lost power in the elections, and the party, in private, blamed it on the BJPs’ partnership and the wholesale drift of minority votes. Ahead of the succeeding LS polls in 2004, the DMK, PMK and Marumalarchi DMK together quit the Vajpayee government at the Centre and swept the state in the company of the Congress party.
The DMK camp is now peeved at Amit Shah’s ‘unwanted reference’ to the party, and his mentioning the 2-G scam, that too at a government function. The party feels that Shah was only referring to the CBI’s Delhi high court appeal against the acquittal of its MPs, A Raja and Kanimozhi.
While it could be embarrassing for the DMK on poll eve, they say such singling out could prove useful for the party, after the Narendra Modi government at the Centre went after incumbent AIADMK ministers, including EPS and OPS, to ‘make them crawl when they are expected not even to bend’.
Amit Shah’s brief mention to the DMK in the official function also included ‘dynastic politics’, which applies as much to the DMK as to the Congress, say BJP leaders. The reference this time is to DMK president M K Stalin’s actor-son, Udhayanidhi, who launched the party’s poll campaign the other day, and has been courting arrest every morning, to be released in the evening, for alleged violation of the curfew protocol.
Before Udhayanidhi, BJP’s Murugan had commenced the party’s ‘Vetrivel Yatra’, and has also been courting arrest likewise. For his part, state Congress president, K S Azhagiri has started a ‘plough rally’ to highlight the plight of farmers, especially in the aftermath of the Centre’s new farm laws. Both the BJP and the Congress respectively plan to have their Nadda and Rahul Gandhi for the final session.
In between, a scheduled meeting of the DMK high-level committee passed a long resolution on Monday, criticising Shah’s speech, the AIADMK’s ‘slavery’ before the BJP fearing action on their ‘governmental corruption’. Earlier, senior party leaders had issued statements condemning the arrest of Udhayanidhi, who is also the DMK youth wing leader, like father Stalin in his time.
These leaders, as also the party resolution. highlighted how EPS was using government authority, position and the official campaign for Covid control, making those public meetings a political rally for the ruling party. In context, the OPS camp within the AIADMK points out how even after their leader accepting EPS as the party’s chief ministerial nominee in the assembly polls, he is not being invited to join the other in his tours across the state.
Insiders claim that apart from party cadres, apolitical youth are also turning up to see and hear Udhayanidhi, and point to the absence of youthful leaders in the party, calling it a legacy of Karunanidhi’s time. In context, the question remains if Udhayanidhi could stimulate youth interest in the party, as Stalin did in 2016, when the party presented him as its chief ministerial candidate.
In context, some of them also are alive to Udhayanidhi daring the state police and also naming senior police officers, whose ‘raj will continue only for the next four or five months’ and whose ‘names we will remember’. Others also point to Stalin continuously targeting the AIADMK on corruption issues. According to them, the voters would have decided on graft-like issues already, and based on their personal experience. What the DMK needs to do now is to go with regular positive messaging on what it would do if in power.
They are apprehensive that this could send a wrong message to the ‘swing voters’, who may otherwise be inclined to vote the DMK, whatever be the cadre reaction to his bold and courageous comments. For the older generation of voters who have been voting for the DMK at least since the nineties, it could be a return to the sixties and the seventies.
From other prospective allies of the DMK and the AIADMK, both the Congress and the PMK too are sending out confusing signals. For the Congress, Azhagiri and high command observer Dinesh Gundu Rao have indicated that they would not be over-ambitious, but wanted the DMK to acknowledge the real strength of the party in the state and its electoral usefulness.
Should the BJP get away with a larger share of seats in the rival combine, multiple factions in the Congress, too, may force the hands of the party leadership to demand a ‘fair share’. They may have a point, as the Congress, though weakened over the past decades, is relatively stronger, compared to the BJP.
As if by coincidence, PMK founder S Ramadoss, who has revived talks of a 20 per cent ‘exclusive reservations’ for his Vanniar community, held a conference on Sunday, and announced protest demonstrations, beginning December 1. With a consistently proven five per cent share, the PMK can be the deciding factor in about 40-50 assembly constituencies in the northern belt and also a part of the western belt. This is more than what the BJP can bring to the table.
The PMK has ‘transferrable votes’, both for the AIADMK and the DMK, and the party going on its own could lead to nail-biting polls in those many constituencies. By the looks of it, the DMK may continue with the victorious combine from the LS poll, which included the Congress, the two communist parties, the MDMK and the Dalit-strong VCK.
According to some assessments, the PMK attracts as much ‘negative votes’ as it could bring in ‘positive votes’ for the alliance, and the DMK may continue to remain wary.
Nor could the DMK be seen as ditching the VCK, especially when the BJP under Murugan has been wooing the Dalit community, to the Arunthathiyar sub-sect of which he too belongs. With the Devendra Kula Vellalar-dominated Puthiya Tamizhagam (PT) already in the BJP’s company, VCK, representing the third, Adi Dravidar sub-sect, crossing over, could mean consolidation of ‘Dalit votes’, or at least an image thereof, until proved otherwise. Of course, this could come up with an anti-Dalit consolidation at village and constituency levels.
Yet, the DMK and the AIADMK are as keen on forming a government on their own as on winning the assembly poll. Citing the 1980 assembly poll experience, when the DMK entered into a 50:50 seat-sharing talks with the Congress and lost badly, neither wants to repeat the idea of a coalition government, at least ahead of the polls.
To this end, they cite post-Independence Tamil Nadu history, when the state has always voted for a ‘stable government’ under a single-party rule, barring in 2006. In that election, the DMK became the first and only ‘minority government’ in the state in a long time, but Karunanidhi, with only 96 DMK legislators against the required 118, managed with the Congress ally’s ‘outside support’, with absolutely no murmurs of protest or demand for seat-sharing even at the local level.
To this end, AIADMK cadres are looking at the kind of seat-sharing that may emerge at the end. Incidentally, pro-BJP sections of political analysts too feel that excessive demand by the BJP could lead to a situation in which the ‘transferability’ of numerically strong AIADMK votes to the party could become suspect, after failure on that front in the LS polls.
According to them, none of the ‘DMK rebels’ that Murugan has netted for the BJP could bring more votes to the party and the alliance. To them, the DMK may have conveniently, if not consciously, offloaded some of their deadwood on the BJP, which would prove to an ‘avoidable extra baggage’.
They also point to Murugan signing up men and women in the police list of criminals into the party and giving them BJP posts at various level, as another disastrous ploy, which could prove counter-productive at the grassroots-level.
From within the AIADMK, there are apprehensions that ‘surrendering’ too many seats to the ally, especially the BJP, could make the party look weak, especially post-Jaya, and with too many constituencies going unrepresented by their candidates, there may be a drift towards jailed V K Sasikala Natarajan, who is expected to be freed from the Bengaluru prison in the third week of January.
Whether or not she takes to active politics or is forced to stay away, AIADMK politics in her name may start having a new innings and spin.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.