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BJP's TN Gameplan: Knock AIADMK Out Of The Ring

March 20, 2024 12:57 IST
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The BJP game-plan: Take the top slot, or a close second, either for the 'Lotus' or the larger NDA, if it can and push the AIADMK to the third place, explains N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Bharatiya Janata Party supremo Narendra Modi at an election meeting along with Tamil Nadu BJP chief K Annamalai, Pattali Makkal Katchi party founder Dr S Ramadoss, Union Minister L Murugan, TMC MP G K Vasan, former Tamil Nadu chief minister O Panneerselvam and other politicians in Salem, March 19, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

For the Vanniar-strong Pattali Makkal Katchi with a committed five per cent vote-share since its inception way back in 1991 -- a rarity for a sub-regional party in Dravidian Tamil Nadu -- finalising the poll-pact with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre was a brain-racking affair by itself.

But the worse may be yet to come, as the father-son leadership duo of PMK founder S Ramadoss and party president Anbumani Ramadoss may find it even more difficult to keep their flock together and ensure that they deliver the votes to the alliance as a whole -- and even more importantly, retain their support-base for the assembly polls, due in 2026.

There are those who argue that the PMK's five-per cent across-the-state vote-share often translates to 8 to 10 per cent in select constituencies in the north and the west, where alone the party has a sizable or not-so-sizeable presence.

If true, that is saying a lot. But while contesting the 2016 assembly elections without allies, the PMK drew a huge blank.

Whether five per cent or eight per cent, the difference between the PMK and the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, founded by the late actor-politician Vijayakanth, is that the former (alone) could retain a steady poll percentage.

The DMDK could not since the formation and contesting elections in 2006, for the state assembly. Today, the DMDK is shuttling between the BJP and the All India Anna DMK, for an alliance.

Both parties want the DMDK, but neither wants to spare the number of seats -- more importantly, a Rajya Sabha seat (for DMDK's present leader Premalatha, Vijayakanth's wife).

Unsure of the immediate future, the DMDK has called for party applicants for all 40 seats, including the loner in the Union Territory of Puducherry -- but reportedly with less-than-lukewarm response.

The PMK's story was no different. For close to a month, every day, there were rumours of the party signing up with the Opposition AIADMK in the morning and the BJP by nightfall.

It was no different on Sunday, when evening reports indicated that the PMK had decided to go with the former.

It was also the decision supposedly taken by the leadership on Monday morning, but by evening -- supposedly after a phone call from Delhi -- it all changed.

Without further loss of time, the PMK announced its alliance with the national party.

Under the deal, the PMK gets 10 Lok Sabha seats. There is no mention of a Rajya Sabha seat for Anbumoni when his current term expires in 2026.

Definitely, there is no talk about a ministerial berth for him if the BJP-NDA won the Lok Sabha polls.

Both were said to have been among the pre-conditions that the party had laid. Possibly, the BJP did not want their INDIA rivals to rake up the long-pending CBI probe against Anbumani from his days as health minister under UPA-I.

IMAGE: Dravida Munnetra Kazagham President M K Stalin and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi greet each other at the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra-INDIA rally at Shivaji Park in Mumbai, March 18, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

According to reports, differences still persisted between the father and the son, with the former favouring the AIADMK, instead.

His rationale was that the PMK and the BJP did not share mutual strongholds to be supportive of each other.

It was not the case when it came to the party's alliance with the AIADMK, or even the ruling DMK.

Ramadoss Senior was keen to see some PMK members of the Lok Sabha early on. More importantly, he thought with a twin alliance, extending to the assembly polls of 2026, the PMK would be on the right track if it signed up with the regional party.

This was especially so after AIADMK boss and former chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami reportedly turned down the BJP's offers persistently.

The AIADMK's problems were different -- and so was the PMK's, which Ramadoss Senior seemed to have readily acknowledged initially.

As the two allies of the BJP in elections 2019 found out, their own cadres and voters had cross-voted for the DMK-Congress rivals in a very big way -- mostly because of the national ally's Hindutva agenda and accessories.

Their combined loss, including in some BJP strongholds was proof enough, leaving EPS with little choice but to break with the BJP.

This was especially so when EPS and the AIADMK had their sights set on the assembly polls in 2026, when they hoped that the anti-incumbency against the ruling DMK would work in their favour.

This was also why the AIADMK was keen on stitching an alliance with the PMK and even the DMDK.

Looking back, it is not entirely unlikely that the AIADMK leadership might have -- rather, should have -- thought a thousand times before parting ways with the OPS and TTV factions.

Today, with goals set for itself, the AIADMK needs every extra vote that it could garner, but is only seeing more of it slipping out of its fingers.

That includes both the BJP and the PMK, whatever the DMDK's alliance-decision.

It is now becoming increasingly clear that the BJP is targeting the second slot in Tamil Nadu if the top one against the DMK remains distant.

It is also for this reason that the party is reportedly insisting on the OPS faction to contest on the BJP's Lotus symbol if it wanted more seats.

Indications are that the OPS faction that lost the last-ditch battle for the undivided AIADMK's 'Two Leaves' symbol in the Madras high court on Monday, March 18, 2024, has been offered four or more seats under the Lotus, but only two if it were to contest on a separate symbol.

OPS's options are limited as there is the inherent fear that even the limited number of cadres and voters his faction has may desert him if he chose to contest on the BJP's symbol.

Going by current perceptions, the same may happen to TTV's votes too. Or, that is the hope of the AIADMK, which is confident that 'those anti-BJP' votes won't go the DMK way.

Truth be acknowledged, until proved otherwise, T T V Dhinakaran's Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) may have more votes than OPS's faction, the AMMK candidates having polled above five per cent votes in about five or six assembly constituencies in 2021, the figure going up to 16 and 20 per cent in at least two.

It is another matter that the party could not retain the respectable 8.46 per cent vote-share from the Lok Sabha polls in 2019 -- something that the BJP should not lose sight of.

IMAGE: Modi at a roadshow in Coimbatore, March 19, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

The BJP game-plan goes this way, or so it seems. Take the top slot, or a close second, either for the 'Lotus' or the larger NDA, if it can -- and push the estranged AIADMK rival to the third place.

When Amit Shah and state BJP chief K Annamalai began talking about either 25 seats or a 20-plus per cent vote-share, they also had in their mind the 2014 Lok Sabha figures, when J Jayalalithaa swept the 'Modi-ya-intha-Lady-ya?' contest convincingly.

In that election, the DMK rival drew a blank as the anti-BJP wave went in Jayalalithaa's favour.

Yet, the BJP-NDA won two seats -- one of them Anbumani Ramadoss's Dharmapuri constituency in the west.

The NDA polled a very respectable 18.5 per cent vote-share, which included the PMK's standard five per cent and possibly around 3 to 4 per cent from the DMDK.

For the latter, it was a huge slide from the 10 per cent in the 20089 Lok Sabha election. The figure may have dwindled further now, owing not to Vijayakanth's intervening illness and death, but the wrong policies and alliance-negotiations.

There is no denying the increased BJP vote-share in three specific elections over the past two decades and more.

In the Lok Sabha polls of 1998 and 1999, the AIADMK and DMK-led alliances respectively added an otherwise unaccounted 5 to 7 per cent vote-share attributable to the charisma of then BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, their ally.

In 2014, the 'Modi magic' did work to add a similar figure to the NDA vote-share in Tamil Nadu.

Today, by roping in the PMK, OPS and TTV, the BJP seems to hope that their weighted average coupled with their own perceptions of Modi's greater charisma than in 2014 and 2019, may make for a much higher vote-share than rivals and independent analysts are ready to concede. On paper, they may have a point.

Unlike in 2019, at least two allies in two seats in the DMK alliance are contesting on their symbols and not the party's 'Rising Sun'.

Whether they win or lose, the vote-share that the MDMK's Durai Vaiko (son of party founder Vaiko) and the VCK's sitting MP, Ravikumar in Villupuram would poll would not be shown as that of the DMK.

Ravikumar had won the previous election on the DMK symbol, by a high 128,000 vote-margin, against a PMK candidate from the NDA.

The second VCK candidate Thol Thirumavalavan, the party boss, too is contesting in his old constituency, Chidambaram.

The last time round, Thirumavalavan insisted on contesting on his party symbol, but became the victor with the lowest margin of 3,000 votes.

The BJP -- and the AIADMK, separately -- expect the DMK's vote-share to fall from a high 53 per cent in 2019.

They also hope for the DMK alliance's total vote-share to decline, and also seat-share to fall from 39 of 40, including Puducherry.

In this background, the BJP's strategy is to win as many seats as the new NDA can -- and poll as many votes as the 'Lotus' can.

Then, compare it with the new vote-share of the DMK in particular, to tell the rest of the country that the 'Modi magic' had begun working even in 'Dravidian' Tamil Nadu, at last.

In doing so, they now hope at least to push the AIADMK to the third place, and try and capture the voter-imagination in the state, as the 'government-in-waiting'.

For that to likely happen -- if at all -- the BJP desperately wanted allies like the PMK and the rest.

IMAGE: BJP supporters greet Modi in Thoothukudi, February 24, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Yet, there is an interesting issue that may have cropped up against the BJP and Modi's 'Mr Clean' image of the past 10 years, without anyone noticing it.

Even in southern-most Kanyakumari last week, Modi attacked the DMK-Congress alliance on corruption and dynasty rule.

But in Salem on Tuesday, March 19, he seems to have forgotten all about corruption, maybe in the light of the Supreme Court rap over the electoral bonds scheme.

The irony is that the DMK reportedly received at least 10 per cent of the Rs 6,000-plus crores (Rs 60 billion) that the BJP was supposed to have collected through electoral bonds, that too Rs 500-odd crores (Rs 5 billion) from 'lottery king' Santiago Martin.

If someone thought that Modi would target the DMK in Martin's native Coimbatore, his Monday's engagement was confined to a long road-show with no speeches.

In Salem, not far away, only hours later on Tuesday, Modi targeted his rivals on Hindutva, saying that both the DMK and the Congress targeted only Hinduism and not other religions.

It is anybody's guess if anyone intends taking it up with the Election Commission arguing that it tantamount to seeking votes in the name of religion, or sowing religious enmity during poll campaign -- and what the Election Commission may have to say now, or the courts, after the polls.

After all, no case about the conduct of elections could be taken up by courts during the pendency of those elections.

Otherwise, Modi continued with his 'mind-game' tactic from the rest of the country, where he declared early on that the BJP would get 370 seats and the NDA, 400 -- long before the poll-mood had actually set in.

In Salem, he declared that the DMK had lost its sleep already at the very thought of the BJP sweeping the polls in the state.

His alliance leaders on the dais applauded him -- so did his audience, whose numbers were definitely not small, not that it was small either in 2014 or 2019!

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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