Contest on their own and get washed out, as happened in the 2016 assembly elections?
Or contest in league with one of the Dravidian majors and get submerged under its election symbol?
With elections looming, minor political parties in Tamil Nadu are caught in this dilemma, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
With only months left for the Lok Sabha polls, minor political parties in southern Tamil Nadu are caught in an ‘identity crisis’ of sorts, having to choose between victory or a share in the ‘victorious’ alliance on one hand and re-obtaining official recognition and a registered symbol ahead of the state assembly polls two years hence.
The 2016 assembly polls witnessed a unique situation in which three parties among them cornered all the seats and much of the votes, denying the ‘minor parties’, many of whom formed a Third Front, with disastrous consequences. The ruling AIADMK, whose ‘minor’ allies also contested under the party’s ‘Two Leaves’ symbol, obtained 41 per cent votes while the Opposition DMK+ combine came a very close second with 40 per cent in terms of vote-share. Within the DMK combine, the party obtained 31.86 per cent, and the Congress 6.47 per cent, among others.
The problem for the Pattali Makkal Katchi, which contested alone and came a very distant third with 5.36 per cent vote-share, is that the party still fell short of the six per cent required for retaining the “Mango’ symbol, allotted by the Election Commission, for ‘recognised parties’.
Less said about the other ‘minor parties’ the better, as the MDMK, VCK, TMC and, apart from the CPI and the CPM, contested together as the People’s Welfare Front (PWF), so also the ruling BJP at the Centre, could obtain way before even the half-way, three per cent mark.
For a political party to be not only registered but also recognised by the EC to be allotted a ‘frozen symbol’ of its choice, it should have obtained six per cent vote-share in a particular state. For national parties, they should have obtained two per cent vote-share each in three states LS polls, or six per cent vote-share in assembly elections in four States.
Under this scheme, only the BJP, Congress, CPM and the BSP qualify for ‘national symbol’ while the DMK, AIADMK and the DMDK of actor-politician Vijayakanth are in the reckoning. Of them, the DMDK, having polled 5.1 per cent vote-share in the LS polls of 2014 as a partner in the victorious BJP-NDA at the national level, slipped to 2.41 per cent, and faces the danger of losing the ‘registered’ ‘Drum’ symbol.
It is against this backdrop that behind-the-scenes ‘jockeying’ for seat-sharing, especially within the Opposition DMK-led combine has begun in right earnest, or so it seems. Trouble started when the party’s high-profile treasurer Duraimurugan, a veteran legislator and former minister, ‘clarified’ in a television interview that only the Congress and IUML were their ‘allies’ at present and parties like the MDMK and VCK were ‘friends’.
Reading between the lines, MDMK founder Vaiko and VCK’s Thol Thirumavalavan told newsmen that their cadres were upset over such categorisation. Truce was announced when the two leaders especially met the DMK president M K Stalin, separately, and the latter reportedly ‘reassured’ them on this score.
By all accounts, given the narrow vote-share difference in elections 2016, which however made a huge difference in seat share for the ruling AIADMK from the previous 2011 assembly polls, the DMK, now under M K Stalin, is keen on retaining the 40 percent alliance vote from 2016 and boosting the vote share across the board, both in Tamil Nadu and in the lone Puducherry LS constituency.
Going by past experience, the DMK may not be unwilling to shed more seats to the allies than the rival AIADMK. It is another matter, that the latter too cannot be as assertive in the post-Jaya scenario, as it was in 2014 and 2016, when the party went on its own and swept the twin polls all by itself.
Given in particular the untested quality of the Sasikala-Dhinakaran led ‘rebellion’ that cost the RK Nagar assembly by-election for Jayalalithaa’s seat, the AIADMK under the twin leadership of Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) and Deputy CM, O Panneerselvam (OPS) may be more accommodative than even the DMK at times.
There is another angle to the episode. Given perceptions of the ‘anti-minorities’ tag attaching to the ruling BJP at the Centre and purported ‘anti-people policies’, also of the ruling AIADMK in the state, the two parties are said to be still unclear and unsure of tying up for the LS polls.
One possibility that is being tossed about is for the AIADMK to tie up with the ‘minor parties’ and bag at least a dozen or so of the 40 LS seats (including Puducherry) and then join the BJP-NDA alliance, if it came to that.
However, the results of the ongoing four-state assembly polls may be a determinant, too. This is even truer of the ‘minor parties’, which see a looming ‘anti-incumbency wave’ against the BJP and the AIADMK in their respective spheres.
Still, however, for the DMK or the AIADMK, to forego seats to ‘minor parties’ could well mean that the latter might have to be allowed to contest on new and ‘Independent’ symbols, often allotted through a draw of lots after the last day for withdrawal of nominations.
Given that only 21 days would be available for campaigning and the way the EC has been coming down on ‘unlawful campaign methods’, popularising new and different symbols for the same party in different constituencies could prove to be a Herculean task for the respective party leaderships and their alliance leader.
In turn, this could mean that the alliance per se may have to give up hopes of winning those very seats, and thus increasing the seat score of the rival combine, as if by default. As alliance leaders at the national level, the BJP and the Congress, may not be appreciative of such an initiative, either, though their say in the matter might not be the decisive factor.
Given the complexities of the issues involved, a section within the DMK is believed to have mooted the idea that ‘junior/minor’ partners contest the LS polls on the party’s ‘Rising Sun’ symbol, and the leadership be as ‘generous’ as can be under the circumstances, in terms of seat shares and constituency allotment.
In continuation thereof, it is also said in private that the ‘junior partners’ would get their share in the subsequent RS polls, given the DMK combine’s existing 98-member strength in the 234-seat state assembly, and more so in the assembly polls of 2021.
It is also being speculated that any disastrous results for the ruling AIADMK in the LS polls, and a possible defeat for the BJP-NDA at the national level, could fast-track assembly polls, for the DMK’s ‘junior partners’ to get their ‘due share’.
It is also being pointed out that even with ‘separate’ symbols, even if the same for all constituencies contested by the ‘junior partner’, there was no way the DMK or the AIADMK leader of either combine could allot them as many seats as may be required for the respective parties to obtain the six per cent vote share, required for retaining/regaining their ‘registered symbols’.
There is however truth in the suggestion that contesting as a Third Front in elections 2016 and in the BJP-NDA’s company in 2014, none of the ‘minor parties’, including the PMK and the MDMK, could poll enough votes to retain/regain their ‘registered symbol’.
The suggestion is for most if not all of the ‘minor parties’ to yield to pressure from a major party in the impossible situation presented at the LS polls, but cartelise themselves within the combine, post-polls, and demand their ‘pound of flesh’ in the assembly elections. This way, it is felt, they could also ensure that the major partner did not ride rough shod over junior partners, threatening them with the ‘anti-defection’ law, which especially the AIADMK under Jayalalithaa was wont to do in her time.
Though the figures might go up in the company of a larger ally like the DMK, AIADMK or even Sasikala-Dhinakaran’s AMMA, the last one in particular getting a registered symbol itself may depend on the party’s performance in the 20-seat assembly by-polls, which the EC has promised and/or is expected to hold by February 2019, ahead of the LS elections, due by May.
That way, yes, LS poll alliances may be dependent on combination(s) for and the vote shares obtained in the by-polls, if held ahead of the assembly polls. While the ‘minor parties’ may be desirous of contesting a few seats from either of the major fronts, it is most unlikely that they would be allotted any, given that almost all of them had contested elections 2016, without being in the company of either the ruling AIADMK or the rival DMK.
The list includes the PMK and the DMDK, which seem to have concluded that for a ‘victorious alliance’, the DMK and/or the AIADMK would have to compete with each other to invite them to join their combine, rather than either of them, separately, wooing one of the major parties. Reality speaks otherwise, which junior parties like the MDMK, VCK and the TMC do not hesitate to acknowledge.
All of it has since come out in the open, what with Stalin addressing the issue squarely while talking to newsmen in Chennai. He said that there was ‘no discontent’ among the party’s allies, existing and prospective, over former Union minister A Raja’s suggestion that some of them could contest under the DMK’s ‘Rising Sun’ symbol.
It’s all ‘media creation’, Stalin said further, though that still remains an unconvincing proposition.
It is this kind of cracks in the emerging DMK-led combine the ruling AIADMK is hoping for, to help them win a respectable number of seats for the party and the party-led alliance, whenever finalised.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.