However, the tilting factor still remains: Can the rivalling ‘Modi brand’ of ‘soft Hindutva’ and ‘hard-sell nationalism’ garner more votes for the NDA in Tamil Nadu, asks N Sathiya Moorthy.
With the Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhaga quickly signing up a seat-sharing agreement with main ally Congress at the national-level on Wednesday, just a day after the ruling all India Anna DMK had patched up the pact with the Bharatiya Janata Party counterpart at the national-level and also the Vanniar-strong Pattali Makkal Katchi, Tamil Nadu is poised for a tough and interesting poll fight.
For now, the undecided DMDK of ailing actor-politician Vijaykant is holding up the final accord for both fronts, the party seeking parity with the PMK on the AIADMK front but with nothing substantial to seek from the rival DMK combine, though former state Congress president S Thirunavukkarasar has formally opened a line of communication.
The DMK-Congress seat-sharing was waiting to be tied up, but the PMK and DMDK sending out cross-signals to the two alliance leaders had held back a formal announcement.
With the PMK deciding to hitch its stars to the AIADMK-BJP combine, that left the DMK with that many seats to spare the Congress -- from an initial seven to 10, including the lone Puducherry UT seat, in a combined total of 40.
DMK president M K Stalin had sealed the alliance in principle when he unilaterally declared Congress president Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate. However, last-minute hitches did reportedly appear when party Rajya Sabha member and Stalin’s half-sister Kanimozhi commence seat-sharing talks with the Congress team in Delhi earlier in the week.
The problems reportedly arose when some Congress leaders from the state pressed for 15 seats after the PMK’s exit, but a firm Stalin was seemingly ready to break up the talks. Better counsel prevailed when Kanimozhi had a second round of discussions with Rahul Gandhi in Delhi on Tuesday night, after the rival combine had inked the pact in Chennai and announced the same earlier in the day.
Stalin’s reported firmness may have been displayed behind the scenes. It however flowed from past experience, especially seat-sharing with the Congress partner in the UPA-2 government at the Centre, for the 2011 assembly polls in the state. Yielding to high-voltage pressure, ailing DMK president the late M Karunanidhi reportedly yielded 60-plus seats in the 234-member assembly to the Congress ally.
As the DMK complained post-poll, centred on the common 2G scam of the time, the Congress could not only win as many seats but also not ‘transfer’ even available votes to the DMK and other alliance partners.
However, after the 2016 assembly polls, where the DMK allotted 41 seats to the Congress, of which it won only eight, Karunanidhi blamed the combine’s narrow defeat (supported by the 40-41 per cent vote-share in favour of ruling AIADMK under Jaya) on the ‘poor performance’ of the Congress in particular.
If he was pointing a finger at Stalin for giving away so many seats to the Congress -- in the form of a tit-for-tat charge against the father from elections 2011 -- neither came out in public on that score.
Unlike in the past, when Congress high-level teams would meet with DMK counterparts in the latter’s ‘Anna Arivalayam’ HQ, this time Stalin despatched Kanimozhi and former Union minister T R Baalu to Delhi instead.
For the average DMK cadre, Stalin leaving it to Kanimozhi to handle the party’s ‘Delhi affairs’ as only late cousin Murasoli Maran and the latter’s estranged son Dayanidhi Maran had done with the full confidence of the leadership, has come as a demonstrated ‘reunion’ of the family -- leaving out older brother and former Union minister M K Azhagiri, of course.
Against this, the reported father-son differences within the PMK ally of the AIADMK-BJP combine was doing the rounds in select social media platforms until both showed up for alliance talks.
While AIADMK bosses, Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, met with Ramadoss Sr at a five-star hotel in the city, son Anbumani Ramadoss was present at the pact-signing ceremony, shutting critics’ mouths on purported differences within the PMK’s first family -- and also the party.
Even within the AIADMK, the so-called EPS and OPS factions seemed to have closed ranks, though in the final analysis the identification of constituencies for individual parties in the two alliances and the selection of candidates, especially in the respective coalition leader-party, will go a long way in determining the victory chances of individual candidates.
It is here that the DMDK seems to perceive itself as the ‘deciding factor’ in individual constituencies. The temptation for the party to feel attracted towards the DMK than the AIADMK seemingly flows from the possible choice of constituencies.
For instance, the DMDK is said to be keen on getting Salem constituency in the western region for Vijaykant’s wife and party treasurer Premalatha to contest. The DMDK’s alternative candidate for the seat is said to be Premalatha’s brother and party deputy general secretary L V Sutheesh.
On the other side, EPS hails from Salem district and the AIADMK would have problems palming off the constituency to any alliance partner, on purely political calculations and personal preferences. The DMK is said to be not having any such problems of the kind -- at least not as much as the AIADMK.
However, such concerns alone would not be influencing the DMDK alliance decision. Overall, the party still harps on the 14 seats that it had contested unsuccessfully in 2014 under the BJP-NDA combine. Prospective alliance partners are talking about the results, especially the polling figures.
Alliance interlocutors also seem to be touching a raw nerve in the form of the DMDK’s assembly poll performance two years later, in 2016. At the time, not only did Vijaykant, a two-time MLA, lose in his chosen constituency. He lost his security deposit too, like all other party candidates when the DMDK headed a five-party combine.
The DMDK is not the only one playing truant. Smaller parties on either side of the electoral divide also seem to be pressuring the rival alliance leaderships with demands for a higher number of seats and also select constituencies.
The tendency in ‘Dravidian’ Tamil Nadu especially has been for the alliance leaders to try and palm off ‘insecure seats’ to smaller parties. In a way, even the identification of the constituencies is an indicator of the alliance leaders’ perception of various allies -- including national parties like the BJP and Congress, CPI and CPM. Less said about sub-regional parties like the PMK and MDMK, DMDK and VCK, the Dalit-strong party of former MP, Thol Thirumavalavan.
Here, the DMK is more likely to face tough demands from the Congress, and other prospective allies like the MDMK, the two communist parties and VCK, among others. The Congress itself has been reduced mostly to a ‘party of generals, at constant wars with each other’, over the past decades.
Though both the Congress and the ruling BJP rival at the Centre can only hope for five and three per cent vote-share in a ‘good election’, they have their own advantages for the respective alliance leaders.
For the AIADMK in 1998 and the DMK rival in 1999, the ‘Vajpayee image’ contributed an additional five per cent vote-share across the state. In 2014, the ‘Modi magic’ wasted it on the BJP-NDA, which still won two seats -- one each for the BJP (Pon Radhakrishnan, Kanyakumari) and the PMK (Anbumani Ramadoss, Dharmapuri).
The Congress does not have such a personality advantage vis-à-vis BJP for prospective allies. Instead, the raging perception is that ‘minorities’ would gather only around those parties and candidates that would vote with and for the Congress, against the BJP rival at the national-level.
These apart, the DMK had itself failed with Stalin as mascot for over a decade when the choice of party candidates for both LS and assembly polls came in for a lot of criticism from the cadres. The voters just did not know many of the candidates, who were seen as ‘last-minute’ imports from outside the constituency/district, some of them also with no real ‘cadre connect’ either.
Against this, the Congress has one too many ‘wounded veterans’ who refuse to yield electoral space to youngsters, which has also been a bane for the state party. This compares with some of the other states where too the party is not in power for long but still has been able to attract ‘committed youth’.
Yet, the Congress has the ‘minorities vote-bank’ to offer against the BJP-NDA, more this time possibly against any time in the past. The tilting factor remains: Can the rivalling ‘Modi brand’ of ‘soft Hindutva’ and ‘hard-sell nationalism’ garner more votes for the alliance than under Vajpayee or even in elections 2014, where the ‘Lady factor’ won the day for AIADMK rival under Jayalalithaa?
There of course is the indeterminable ‘Dhinakaran factor’, which if made deep inroads into the parent AIADMK’s vote-banks in any or many constituencies could favour the DMK rival, all the same. The added speculative question centres on the DMDK’s decision.
If the party still insists on numbers than ‘winnability’, Dhinakaran’s AMMK seems to be the only option for the party -- but then, Vijaykant may have a lot to explain to cadres and voters alike, like the PMK before him, about purportedly compromising on ‘corruption’ of the AIADMK variety, from the past and allegedly continuing still.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analysts, is director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.