The deadlock over finalising alliances has had a deleterious effect on the candidates of every party. The delay in alliance conclusion has also sent out confusing signals to the grass-roots who are unsure who will be their party candidate, or which party within an alliance will be allotted a particular constituency, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
Continuing confusion over the complex nature of coalition formation has seemingly cut into the limited campaign time even otherwise available for candidates of almost every other political party in poll-bound Tamil Nadu.
Baring the Pattali Makkal Katchi, which has nominated former Union minister Anbumani Ramadoss as its chief ministerial candidate, no other party or candidate has launched the campaign for assembly elections slated for March 16 in Tamil Nadu and the Union territory of Puducherry.
The party too has not declared that it would not open alliance talks even at this ‘later hour’, where the Bharatiya Janata Party figures as a possible candidate still.
For the BJP, however, to accept Anbumani R as chief minister candidate could expose chinks in its TN electoral armour.
Trying to bring the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam and the PMK on the same platform as in 2014 parliamentary polls, the BJP declined to project actor-politician Vijayakanth, founder of the former, as its chief minister nominee.
Now to accept Ramadoss Jr, could ‘expose’ the party in ways it would not want to promote itself in the caste-ridden Tamil Nadu election scenario.
Another political party that has announced its candidates for all 234 assembly seats in Tamil Nadu is the Naam Tamizhar Katchi of actor-politician Seeman with a defined streak of pan-Tamil ideology standing out.
This is Seeman’s first full-fledged electoral outing, and hence will have to prove its poll credentials before other parties took him and his ideology seriously.
It’s surprising that even a week after Vijayakanth’s go-it-alone decision, the two ‘Dravidian majors’ have not taken any firm step forward.
The ruling AIADMK’s Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and rival DMK’s ‘heir-apparent’ and former deputy chief minister M K Stalin have begun receiving leaders of a host of less significant parties and/or groups, to discuss ‘seat-sharing’, or for the latter to pledge their support.
In the past, Jayalalithaa has been known to pip everyone else by coming up with her candidates’ list, poll manifesto and even launch her personal campaign days and weeks ahead of others.
This time, however, the AIADMK has delayed the process.
There are issues for the AIADMK too to reportedly consider. Though Vijayakanth has declared the DMDK’s decision to contest alone, he is said to have come under intense internal pressure from party cadres to reconsider the ‘near-unilateral’ decision imposed by him and his inner circle, comprising wife Premalatha and her brother Sudeesh.
In particular, DMDK electoral aspirants, whom Vijayakanth had personally interviewed for nominations, have returned to him saying that the party stood no chance without and alliance with the DMK -- and none else.
This has caused ripples whose effects are felt in the AIADMK shores, too, it is said.
With the result, the AIADMK is also said to be continually reconsidering the option of tying up with the BJP, if it came to that.
The conclusion is that with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Jaya campaigning together, the combine could still turn the tide in their favour “even more” -- as some leaders in the two parties claim.
In recent times, however, national level BJP leaders like TN party in-charge, Muralidhar Rao, and poll negotiator and Union minister Prakash Javadekar have begun targeting the Jayalalithaa government frontally, on development issues – possibly hoping to please Vijayakanth and his DMDK cadres. Rao made the most recent attack in Chennai this week.
This contrasts with the recent political behaviour of state BJP leaders. They used to target the Jayalalithaa leadership fiercely through the past year, when the national leadership was at times seen as wooing the AIADMK leadership. Now, they are silent, not knowing whom to target, when, how and how far.
Speculation about an AIADMK-BJP alliance began doing the rounds again after Jayalalithaa held back alliance/seat-sharing talks with the Tamil Maanila Congress and the Muslim-centric TMMK, though she has already met others of the ilk.
The TMC was revived by former Union minister G K Vasan, son of original party founder the late G K Moopanar, out of the Congress parent after his father’s death.
Both the TMC and the TMMK are said to be uncomfortable in the BJP’s company -- and more so could be their respective cadres.
For all this, however, the TMC in particular has an open invitation from the four-party front of Vaiko’s MDMK, Thiumavalavan’s VCK, the CPI and CPM. But the AIADMK is the TMC’s first preference.
More importantly, the four-party combine is still keeping the doors open for the DMDK, openly offering the chief minister’s job to Vijaykanth. The alliance has not made any move/noise on the TMMK, which should fit into their bill as much as the DMK-led combine.
Yet, in the absence of any positive signals from the AIADMK and the DMDK respectively, the TMC on the one hand and the four-party alliance on the other have not been able to formalise their poll strategy, list of candidates, etc.
The AIADMK is also reportedly being plagued by yet another phase of ‘weed removal’, personally by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, who is also the party’s all-powerful general secretary.
The current crop of ‘weeds’ has included the ‘five-man army’ in the party second-line, led by two-time stand-in chief minister, O Pannerselvam.
Many of their known loyalists have been removed from key party posts across the state when the assembly elections are already round the corner.
In recent months and years, these five senior ministers used to be entrusted with all election-related work. Not this time, however -- or, at least so far.
Jayalalithaa met the smaller parties, though together, personally and without aides. Earlier, these tasks used to be handled by the second-line leadership, Panneerselvam more recently and others, before him.
By doing so, Jayalalithaa seems to have sent out two messages to her cadre and the TN voters.
One, she was in control of the party, and no one need to dream of replacing her, without her intent and consent.
Two, she was in good health, enough to meet with alliance partners to discuss serious issues of seat-sharing.
It is another matter that nothing serious seemed to have transpired at the common meeting with the smaller party leaders, other than the ‘demonstrative’ effect that it was sought to produce -- however limited it be.
In turn, it’s argued that the DMK too was left with little option but to be seen as being seriously into alliance-building.
There is nothing otherwise to suggest that the DMK was wholly ready to ditch Vijaykanth as yet -- and proceed with seat-sharing talks with the Congress and other minor allies, candidates’ nominations and launch its poll campaign.
This deadlock has had a deleterious effect on prospective candidates of every party and prospective allies, too. Apart from individual party/candidate’s campaign, the delay in alliance conclusion has also sent out confusing signals to the grass-roots. They are unsure who will be the party candidate, or which party within an alliance – existing or possibly prospective – will be allotted a particular constituency.
Given the phased-out nature of the five-state assembly polls this time, the Election Commission may have helped set the right mood for them to launch their poll campaign early on. But the party leaderships in Tamil Nadu are not ready as yet to pass on the time advantage to their candidates and district/constituency level poll managers.
The leaderships seem to have convinced themselves that ‘proven poll mathematics’ alone was enough to see individual alliances through. Barring Vaiko, as convenor of the four-party People’s Welfare Alliance, no other political leader seem to have given weightage to the substantial number of ‘non-committed, swing voters’, whose number still hovers around 25 per cent, through the past two-plus decades.
With the result, candidates might get only about three weeks of campaign time. This comes with an added problem for the parties, too.
Where faces of individual candidates are fairly well-known to their voters, they owe it to notoriety of some kind rather than popularity of any kind.
Gone are the days when candidates were as established as the parties concerned, at least in their immediate geographical and community surroundings.
With the result, the candidates invariably face the uphill task of having to ‘market’ their faces first even before being able to campaign for votes.
They hardly get time for the former in most cases -- and virtually none at all for the latter task.
With the result, the candidates’ dependence on the party leadership’s face identification and those of the party symbol and flag have become greater in recent years and decades.
They seldom have any votes to call their own, and hence suffer from no responsibility or accountability to their constituents or constituency. Their loyalty to the party and the leadership, whose face alone have marketed them, ends up becoming at times disproportionately high.
This tells a different story of its own. That is to say, respective party leaderships either win or lose elections – candidates, don’t.
It’s akin to saying that Tamil Nadu, if not the rest of India, is voting for leaders, and not candidates – though using the institution and tools of indirect elections belonging to the parliamentary democracy scheme.
In the past, when the Indian electoral process was in its infancy and the procedural hiccups owed to absence of the present-day computerised systems management, candidates initially used to get eight weeks for campaigning.
It came down to six weeks later, and down to four weeks. Now it is closer to three weeks.
Today, when computerisation and greater use of technology has smoothened the poll process, the predicament and predilection of parties and their leaderships seem to be weighing down on the parliamentary poll scheme in more ways than thought to be.
Cut in the campaign time now being made available to individual candidates – and their constitutional emotional commitment to their voters, and subsequent responsibility and accountability – thus travel hand in hand, but with consequences not just for the election of individual candidates or parties, or even in individual states, but more so to the credibility of our electoral scheme and systems.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation.