‘Of equal importance was the AIADMK’s precarious assembly membership, what with 11 of its MLAs including deputy chief minister OPS facing court cases for disqualification and by-elections due in another 21. To shore up the party’s numbers for anticipated eventuality on the 11-MLAs’ front, the AIADMK leadership in general and chief minister EPS in particular, were even more focussed on assembly seats than LS seats, just now,’ says N Sathiya Moorthy.
If anything, the three-party Lok Sabha poll tie-up among the ruling all India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, counterpart Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre and their on-again-off-again ally Pattali Makkal Katchi have raised the inevitable image of a formidable combine, but issues seem to remain.
While on paper the emerging alliance, in which the BJP seems keener on having the wishy-washy Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam of actor-politician Vijayakant, convalescing now at home after treatment for reported kidney ailment in an American hospital, the question remains if the AIADMK, as chief negotiator of the combine, shares the same urge.
As per the alliance package announced by Union minister Piyush Goyal in Chennai on Tuesday, the BJP gets five of the 40 LS seats, including the loner in the Union territory of Puducherry. After purported BJP intervention, AIADMK coordinator and deputy chief minister O Panneerselvam and co-ordinator Edappadi K Palaniswamy, who holds the all-important chief ministerial position in the state, signed the PMK deal in the presence of party founder Dr S Ramadoss.
The PMK now gets seven Lok Sabha seats and the promise of a Rajya Sabha seat from the AIADMK’s winnable number of seats. With BJP’s Piyush Goyal unable to swing along the DMDK after a courtesy call on Vijaykant and serious discussions with his wife and party treasurer Premalatha and company, party boss Amit Shah reportedly stalled visiting the city to announce the formation of the ‘grand alliance’.
In turn, the AIADMK leadership also did not visit Vijayakant, as was expected.
Even initially, the DMDK had reportedly kept its ambitions high, pegging it closer to the 14 seats that they had contested under the BJP-NDA in 2014. With BJP showing signs of desperation in wanting to make it big in the state, and the AIADMK too offering a Rajya Sabha seat to ‘friendly rival’ (?) PMK, their party seems to have hinted at a non-negotiable position.
The PMK’s ‘first round’ victory, of a high number of seats than the rival DMK-led combine was ready to offer the party, and the DMDK’s high-stakes negotiations, flow possibly from two factors.
One, as with elections 2014, the BJP started their 2019 campaign with a denouncement of the ‘Dravidian duo’ at least by state-level leaders. The ferocity and the consequent animosity had only grown, first with the exit of AIADMK’s Jayalalithaa, followed by that of DMK’s Karunanidhi.
Not discouraged by the national leadership, the state BJP leaders even talked about a BJP-led alliance, hinting at even the ruling AIADMK having to be seen as part of a ‘Modi-led formation’. But when the chips were down, and hard-bargaining by the AIADMK commenced, the BJP could not but yield -- thus showing greater signs of nervousness, to other intended allies like the PMK and MDMK.
Two, and of equal importance was the AIADMK’s precarious assembly membership, what with 11 of its MLAs including deputy chief minister OPS facing court cases for disqualification and by-elections due in another 21. To shore up the party’s numbers for anticipated eventuality on the 11-MLAs’ front, the AIADMK leadership in general and chief minister EPS in particular, were even more focussed on assembly seats than LS seats, just now.
EPS is still engaged in shadow-boxing for un-dinted supremacy of the MGR-Jayalalithaa kind within the party. He would not mind if there was no strong representation from the AIADMK at the Centre and unsure party veterans like deputy speaker M Thambidurai, consequently, coming to high-profile ministerial berths under a second Modi government, if the latter became a reality, post-poll -- at least until he was ready to take them on and neutralise them, too.
All these seem to have forced the AIADMK to ensure that the BJP and the PMK would not stake claim to any or many of the assembly seats. Going by past coalition experience of instant desertions by alliance partners after polls, the BJP/PMK commitment to support the AIADMK in the by-polls that are now due in 21 of the 234-seat state assembly will have any binding if and only if the by-polls are held along with the LS polls.
If this were to happen, it would be the first time after elections 1996 that simultaneous polls would be held -- even if only for less than 10 percent of the assembly seats. In that election, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa lost the state and her Bargur seat to rival AIADMK, then under a robust Karunanidhi. It became clear that anti-incumbency against Jaya’s leadership also ensured the AIADMK-Congress combine’s complete rout in the accompanying LS polls, especially with veteran leader G K Moopanar walking out of the national party to form the Tamil Maanlia Congress and joining hands with the DMK.
Anti-incumbency or not, the AIADMK too faces a tough task on the by-poll front than in the LS polls. If anything, alliance with the BJP and PMK has ensured that the ruling party in the state could have complete sway over the LS seats in EPS’s western districts, where anyway the party under Jaya had won all seats but Dharmapuri in 2014. PMK founder’s son and former Union minister Anbumani Ramadoss won the seat for the DMDK-centric BJP-NDA combine.
There is nothing to suggest that the DMK rival has become stronger in the western belt now than in the past, to be of any greater challenge to the ruling party in the state than in 2014. Nor has the Congress ally grown bigger, barring a greater consolidation of ‘minority votes’ in the region -- as with the rest of the state -- against the BJP, and the AIADMK and the PMK, by extension, this time round.
It would thus boil down to the combine victors now registering a bigger victory margin than the AIADMK did, going solo in 2014. For the Modi leadership it would still mean that there are that many number of LS members to back him, if push came to shove and he is expected to prove his majority on the floor of the House. This may be true of the other seats that the alliance may win in other parts of the state.
But in overall LS numbers, the alliance may face real problems, not only in the central and southern regions of the state, where the PMK is near-absent and the BJP’s numbers are not known to have grown more than in 2014. The local media is maintaining a strategic silence for months now on the strength and status of the rebel AIADMK under T T V Dhinakaran -- and his breakaway AMMK has faced some internal dissensions in recent months.
The AMMK has to prove its poll mettle after Dhinakaran’s sweeping victory in the controversial R K Nagar by-election, for the seat held by Jayalalithaa when alive. If the party is still able to make a dent even in terms of vote share, if not seat share, then the DMK-led rival combine could benefit from it. This could be more so in the southern districts, from where both Dhinakaran and deputy chief minister OPS hail.
The strong and domineering presence of their Mukkulathore community, a traditional support-base of the undivided AIADMK under MGR, and even more under Jaya in the south, could well be a clincher, for the AIADMK combine, or the DMK, or technically even the AMMA is the question.
For now, Dhinakaran and AMMK are tied in the Delhi high court for the AIADMK’s popular mascot in the ‘Two Leaves’ election symbol. The Supreme Court-set one-month deadline for the high court to decide the issue should end in the coming weeks, and definitely before the LS polls.
If the AIADMK were to retain the symbol, that by itself would not have any add-on effect on the cadre mindset. But if it were to go the Dhinakaran way, there could be some rumblings, even though the loser may move the Supreme Court, where the final disposal may not happen before the polls.
Yet, in the interim, those upset with the AIADMK leadership either over the ‘anti-minority’ BJP alliance, or for throwing away ‘winning seats’ to the allies, could use it as an excuse/justification to cross over, if the ‘Two Leaves’ were to become Dhinakaran’s property even if for a short period, until the Supreme Court intervention.
For now, Ramanathapuram MP Anwar Rajah, who has openly criticised the Modi government in Lok Sabha debates, on the ‘triple talaq’ Bill, has announced his quitting the party after the leadership announced the BJP alliance on Tuesday. On occasion, the party leadership had to distance itself from Rajah’s parliamentary speeches and public statements on such issues, post-Jaya.
However, their numbers at the second-line leadership level may not be many, nor could the ‘dissidence’ at the ranks-level be fathomed until after the polls. The fact however remains that more than the north and the west, it is in the southern region that the AIADMK has been known to be weak, too weak in places, to be of any support to the BJP, which has a few strong electoral bases.
That will be the problem for both the AIADMK and the DMK. Where they can really do with a substantial alliance vote-share, the current allies also do not have much to offer. Where they are strong, the allies too are relatively strong, thus adding to vote-shares, not seat-share.
Nowhere else is the predicament more visible than on the by-election front. Of the 21 assembly constituencies, including Karunanidhi’s Tiruvarur home-seat, the PMK has substantial vote-share to offer the AIADMK ally only in three or four. The BJP possibly has fewer, but more so in terms of the actual votes it can garner or even transfer for the AIADMK partner now.
Where the AIADMK used to be competing with the DMK for seat-share, the impact of the ‘Dhinakaran factor’ remains to be seen, especially since most of these 21 seats had belonged to the AIADMK, won for the party by Jayalalithaa in elections 2016.
The other question is for the PMK, where new-generation cadres are embarrassed by the high-voltage Ramadoss father-son duo’s campaign against the AIADMK in particular, and also the BJP otherwise, for months and years post-Jaya, before settling on their own terms, without any real reference to or consultations with the cadres.
Media reports about the PMK proposing the ‘sharing of resources’ on poll-campaigns in every way, too, has upset them -- but then the party strategists are confident that their near-consistent five percent vote-share over very many elections, and their proven ability to ‘transfer’ those votes to the candidates and allies of the leadership’s choice, has been the clincher.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.