The DMK combine has won 37 of the 38 LS constituencies that went to polls in Tamil Nadu, and bagged 13 of the 22 assembly bypolls.
What swept away the AIADMK-BJP alliance in the southern state was not dravidian ideology but job loss and graft bias, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
Nothing explains the double whammy, anti-incumbency in southern Tamil Nadu than the Lok Sabha poll defeat of Bharatiya Janata Party's C P Radhakrishnan in the textile-and-SME town of Coimbatore. CPR lost to Communist Party of India-Marxist veteran P R Natarajan of the DMK-Congress combine by a whopping 1.79-lakh vote margin.
Incidentally, of the six seats the Left won in this election, four are in Tamil Nadu: Coimbatore and Madurai (both with CPM), and Tiruppur, again in the west like Coimbatore, and Nagappattinam (SC), in the south not far away from Madurai (both with CPI).
In election 2014, when the two communist parties contested on their own and together for the first time since the party split in 1964, they managed just about one per cent vote-share, and won no seats -- possibly for the first time.
In the state’s western region where Coimbatore and Tiruppur are located, the BJP, ruling AIADMK and PMK allies have traditional strongholds -- against the DMK, which has lost both the 2014 LS and 2016 assembly polls by huge margins, as mostly in the past.
The west is also the home turf of AIADMK chief minister Edappadi K Palanisami (EPS), where his Kongu Vellala Gounder community is the dominant socio-political force. But the party or its allies lost all seats in the region, including his native Salem parliamentary constituency, by a high 1.37-lakh vote margin. The DMK won the seat.
The west has always been a weak spot for the DMK barring clean-sweep polls like this time, and in 1996 and 2004. CPR won the seat for the BJP in the aftermath of the ‘Coimbatore serial blasts’ in 1998, again in the AIADMK’s company.
He started off at an advantage this time, with the combined vote-shares of the NDA giving him a theoretical 5-lakh vote-lead from the 2014 elections, when the ruling AIADMK swept all but two of the 39 LS seats in the state.
The magnitude of the twin anti-incumbency can be explained better if one considered actor-politician Kamal Hassan’s MNM polling a respectable 1.44-lakh votes in Coimbatore, the highest for the party in the state.
In comparison, MNM candidate in Aravakurichi assembly bypoll in south-central Tamil Nadu, polled around 1,300 votes, the lowest in the constituency, despite the party-founder choosing the place for making his ‘Godse statement’, which became a politico-electoral controversy across the nation in no time.
If critics said that Kamal Hassan had used Aravakurichi for making the statement because of a substantial Muslim voter-presence, it was wide of the mark as the results have since shown. That way, the Muslim candidate of T T V Dhinakaran’s AMMK, polled only 6,000 votes in the constituency.
It’s not only the MNM, but even the pan-Tamil ‘Naam Tamizhar Katchi’ (NTK) of another actor-politician, Seeman, polled a decent number of votes though too far away to impact the results, in traditionally anti-DMK constituencies and regions, but where the latter or its allies have won. In northern Kanchipuram (SC) constituency, the NTK, for instance, polled a respectable 62,000 votes.
Like Coimbatore and Kanchipuram, many constituencies across northern and western Tamil Nadu especially gave a high number of votes to the MNM, NTK and also AMMK, the latter a sort of surprise, considering that southern and south central Tamil Nadu (alone) was considered the relative stronghold of the ‘Sasikala/Dhinakaran family’.
But in those very family fiefdoms, the AMMK fared badly and could not retain even one of the 18 assembly seats for which by-polls were held after AMMK defectors from the parent AIADMK were disqualified.
The only four-digit victory margin for the DMK combine was in the Chidambaram (SC) constituency, where alliance partner and VCK leader Thirumavalavan won by less than 4,000 votes in a see-saw count. Here again, the AMMK, NTK and MNM candidates polled a total of more than 1.5-lakh votes, with the former getting 66,000.
If the VCK’s victory was by a nick, Thirumavalavan declared after the April 18 polling that the alliance with the DMK may have been over.
However, in constituencies where smaller allies, including Vaiko’s MDMK (Erode, western belt) contested on the DMK’s ‘Rising Sun’ symbol, the victory margins were huge.
Thirumavalavan insisted on contesting on the VCK symbol while his party nominee who contested on the DMK symbol won the by a high 1.27- lakh votes in traditional electoral adversary PMK’s founder Ramadoss’s native Viluppuram, which became a ‘Reserved’ constituency in 2011.
Like Coimbatore and Tiruppur, Erode and Salem, Kanchipuram, Sriperumpudur and North Chennai constituencies are home to many of Tamil Nadu’s SMEs, where the state government acknowledged that five lakh MSMEs were closed owing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s GST initiative alone, leading to a job loss for five lakh persons, with accompanying downstream jobs and family incomes.
However, the voting pattern, especially those going to the non-DMK combine parties, have clearly showed that cadres and supporters of AIADMK, BJP and AIADMK do not fancy the performance of the two governments, nor that of their respective party leaderships.
It is more pronounced in the case of the AIADMK and PMK, in semi-urban and rural constituencies in the north and the west, and less so in the case of the BJP with its limited influence in select constituencies like Coimbatore and Tiruppur, South Chennai and Central Chennai.
In Central Chennai, former DMK Union minister Dayanidhi Maran, another of the anti-BJP leaders facing court cases on allegations of corruption, won by a high three-lakh vote margin.
It is anybody’s guess why the AIADMK and the BJP, in that order, gave away the seat to the PMK, which has nothing but the state party headquarters located in the constituency.
It is even more unclear why the PMK nominated an unknown, non-politician of a businessman, Sam Paul, whose Christian community, too, does not have any presence in the constituency.
If Sam Paul polled 1.46-lakh votes against Maran’s 4.47 lakh votes, MNM’s Kameela Naser, wife of a film actor and founding member of Kamal Hassan’s party, got 30,000 votes and the NTK nominee, 30,000 votes.
Elsewhere in the state capital, the MNM polled 1.03-lakh votes in North Chennai and the highest 1.35 lakhs in South Chennai, both the constituencies too returning DMK nominees. The NTK polled 60,000 and 50,000 votes, respectively, in these two constituencies.
In another suburban constituency of Tiruvallur, outside Chennai city, again an industrial belt in parts, the MNM and NTK polled 64,000 and 57,000 votes respectively, and AMMK polled 29,000 votes. The DMK won the seat reserved for the SC community.
If it was job loss in Coimbatore and Kanchipuram, North Chennai and Tiruvallur, Kanchipuram and Sriperumpudur, it was the perception of ‘anti-people’ (read ‘anti-Tamil’) policies of the state government, or its inability of stand up to a stronger Centre, post-Jayalalithaa, that can be attributed to the twin defeats of the two ruling parties, at the Centre and in the state.
It’s thus that DMK’s Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, half-sister of party president M K Stalin, swept the southern Thoothukudi LS seat by a high 3.5-lakh vote margin. The losing BJP candidate Tamizhisai Soundararajan was the state party president for a long time now.
Better or worse, still, both main candidates were ‘outsiders’ to the constituency, but Kanimozhi, an incumbent Rajya Sabha member, started off at an advantage after the ‘anti-Sterlite’ police firing had left 13 dead this time last year. It is another matter that BJP insiders had reportedly forced the seat on an unsuspecting Tamizhisai, hoping her ‘guaranteed defeat’ in the constituency would ensure a ministerial berth for herself in ‘Modi 2.0’.
Elsewhere, too, anti-incumbency over the hurried Salem-Chennai eight-lane highway project contributed to the AIADMK-led alliance’s massive defeat across five western and northern districts through which it was to pass.
If the DMK rival hammered on possible graft as the sole reason for EPS & Co taking an undue interest in the project, localised civil society movements, whom the rulers dub as ‘naxalites’, gathered the people who were losing their farmlands and homes to the project.
It was the same against the Centre and the state government in south-central Tamil Nadu, comprising Thanjavur, Tiruchi and a couple of other districts and constituencies, where anyway, the DMK was traditionally strong.
The BJP Centre’s perceived ambiguous stand advantageous to upper riparian Karnataka, the twin governmental drive to bring up ‘anti-people’ hydro-carbon project to the region and also PM Modi not visiting them when the area was badly affected by ‘Cyclone Gaja’, all contributed to the huge victory margins for the DMK-led combine.
It was thus that DMK’s Poondi Kalaiselvan won late party patriarch Karunanidhi’s Tiruvarur assembly seat in the 22-constituency by-election by a margin of 63,000-plus votes, closer to the latter’s 68,000-plus margin, the highest in election 2016.
The DMK’s Senthil Balaji retained native Aravackurichi seat in the region, likewise, by a margin of 35,000-plus votes.
A former state minister under Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK regime (2011-16), Balaji was the victorious ruling AIADMK candidate in the re-election conducted in 2016 after the EC had cancelled polls in the constituency along with Thanjavur.
Post-Jaya, he did a stint in the breakaway AMMK of ‘rebel’ AIADMK leader Dhinakaran, for which he was disqualified along with 18 others, by Speaker P Dhanapal, which was upheld by the Madras high court.
What should however be a shocker for the long-time AIADMK cadre is the party losing the southern Andipatti assembly seat to arch-rival DMK, again by a substantial margin. Both party founder MGR and his political heir Jayalalithaa had won from the constituency when things were supposed to be not going well in their favour.
So should be the loss of the sentimentally important Dindigul LS seat, even before the poll battle was joined. The first seat that the AIADMK won in a by-election after the founding of the party, the AIADMK palmed off Dingidul to its PMK ally, which did not have a base to call its own in the constituency.
The twin AIADMK leadership of chief minister EPS and deputy chief minister O Panneerselvam, or OPS, had bucked the constituency as the rival DMK had won three of the six assembly segments in election 2016.
It’s likewise that the AIADMK-BJP combine passed off Tiruchi (Tiruchirapalli) constituency to actor-politician Vijaykanth’s DMDK, after the constituency had returned BJP’s late Union minister Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, in 1998.
Ex-state Congress president Su Thirunavukkarasar, who had commenced his political journey in the DMK and moved on to the AIADMK at the party’s founding and later under Jayalalithaa, won by a 4.59-lakh vote margin, possibly the highest in the state.
If the DMK combine’s victory owed to cohesive campaigning, the AIADMK lost the Karur seat to possible infighting since Jayalalithaa’s exit. Outgoing deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha, M Thambidurai, lost badly to Jothimani of the Congress, who could not make the grade in the first outing five years ago. Jyothimani won the seat by a 4.2-lakh vote-margin, as Thambidurai was seen as blowing hot and cold vis-a-vis the twin party leadership, anticipating ultimate sidelining of a veteran like him.
Where it mattered possibly the most for the BJP especially, Union minister Pon Radhakrishnan lost the southern-most Kanyakumari seat to Congress MLA and chain store entrepreneur, H Vasanth Kumar, by a margin of 2.59 votes, beating the earlier record of former national party president, K Kamaraj’s 1.26-lakh vote-margin, in the 1969 by-election.
Incidentally, Vasanthakumar is the paternal uncle of BJP state chief Tamizhisai, whose octogenarian father Kumari Anandan, all natives of the district, was the state Congress president for a term -- and also represented the constituency in the post-Emergency polls of 1977.
There may be some truth in the argument that Christian-dominated Kanyakumari (earlier named ‘Nagercoil constituency’) votes on communal lines, but the fact is that the BJP (read, Pon Radhakrishnan) has been winning this seat when and only when there is a three-cornered contest is borne out by facts and figures.
Dubbed once by the late political commentator ‘Cho’ S Ramaswami as ‘Nadar-koil’, after Nagercoil returned the late Congress president K Kamaraj in the LS bypoll of 1969 after the latter had lost his native Virudunagar assembly seat to DMK’s student leader P Sreenivasan in the historic election 1969 (and for which Cho would apologise later), the constituency has always preferred national parties, the Congress, the BJP or the CPM, to the two Dravidian majors.
So much so, when AIADMK under Jayalalithaa returned to power in 2001 assembly polls, her party nominees lost their security deposit in three of the assembly segments constituting the LS constituency.
In election 2014, the BJP-NDA lost the state to Jaya’s ‘Modi-ya, Lady-ya?’ campaign call despite the former creating a nationwide wave on his poll platform centred on corruption and probity in public life.
The AIADMK won 37 of 39 LS seats while the rival DMK-led combine has won 37 seats this time, with polls cancelled in the northern Vellore constituency, following huge money recovery from DMK candidate Kathir Anand’s firms and friends.
Yet, that did not stop the state to vote in at least three persons whom the BJP at the Centre had sought to nail on corruption charges. Apart from DMK’s Kanimozhi, daughter of party patriarch Karunanidhi, her Tihar jail co-inmate and former Union minister A Raja (in the 2-G case) has been elected from the Nilgiris (SC) constituency by a margin of 2.05-lakh votes.
A bête noire of the AIADMK in the state from Jayalalithaa’s days and of the BJP almost all along, former Union finance minister P Chidambaram’s son, Karthi Chidambaram, has won the native Sivaganga seat by a margin of three-lakh votes. With this Tamil Nadu has got the first father-son MPs’ brigade, with PC being a Congress RS member from Maharashtra.
Karthi had contested and lost the Sivanganga seat in 2014. Both Karthi (a Nattukottai Chettiar) and his BJP opponent H Raja (a Brahmin) are from communities that are in a minority in the constituency, where the dominant Mukkulathores have been identified with the AIADMK, especially since Dhinakaran’s jailed maternal aunt, V K Sasikala Natarajan, became Jayalalithaa’s live-in confidante in the '80s. Not any more, it would seem.
If Karthi Chidambaram is considered controversial owing to the long list of court cases that the BJP-ruled Centre had foisted on him, his parents, wife and aides, Raja is seen equally controversial for his high-octane ‘Hindutva-centric’ attacks on the founders of the Dravidian movement and their inheritors, especially Karunanidhi and the DMK.
If however the ‘anti-graft’ charge did not sell now as may have on earlier occasions whenever Raja was the BJP candidate, at times supported by the AIADMK, it may have owed to the long Tamil electoral history of putting ‘social justice’ over religious sentiments revolving around the selective anti-god campaign of the late Periyar E V Ramaswami Naicker, and at times Karunanidhi & Co, but given up halfway through after their original goals had been achieved.
To the extent the DMK and the rest have changed their religious tack, with DMK’s MK Stalin openly canvassing for Hindu votes this time, even taking the ‘minorities’ vote bank for granted, what with his wife Durga Stalin openly acknowledging her Hindu beliefs, worshipping at Hindu temples across the state and also undertaking a pilgrimage to Varanasi, otherwise the LS constituency of BJP Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi.
At the end of the day, the BJP-NDA nominee in Theni LS constituency, P Ravindranath Kumar, son of AIADMK deputy chief minister OPS, alone has won the seat. Both Congress president Rahul Gandhi and PM Modi campaigned in the constituency, one after the other, one day after the next.
The losing Congress rival, E V K S Elangovan, a one-time state party chief, is not a native to the constituency as the winner is, but then, a grand-nephew of Periyar polling a substantial number of votes displayed greater cohesion within the DMK alliance than used to be credited with under Karunanidhi’s care.
Yet, the DMK rival bagged the Periyakulam assembly segment, which was among the 18 seats of ‘disqualified’ AIADMK legislators, and which used to be the victorious seat of OPS in 2001 and 2006, before it became a ‘Reserved’ seat in election 2011.
Elsewhere, in north-western Tamil Nadu, a migrant Congress candidate in A Chellakumar won the Krishnagiri LS seat despite his name being announced closer to the closing day of the nominations. Bordering Karnataka state, the constituency has traditionally had a substantial BJP presence, and so that of the Vanniar-centric PMK, whose ‘rising star’ Anbumani Ramadoss lost the neighbouring Dharmapuri seat that he had won in 2014.
Anbumani’s defeat and also the PMK’s other losses, including that of a section of traditional voters, owes to the party’s U-turn on the AIADMK, which his father S Ramadoss had strongly accused of big-time corruption until they signed up under the BJP-NDA alliance.
The PMK’s loss is similar to that of the BJP in the state, where the Modi Centre was seen as using anti-graft raids against the ruling AIADMK leaders, post-Jaya in particular, only to tame them and not to punish them, unlike in the case of other national and regional adversaries of the party and the leader across the country.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.