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Can Stalin keep BJP out of Tamil Nadu?

February 23, 2022 13:54 IST
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With the Tamil Nadu electorate having given him an unprecedented mandate that had eluded his father the late M Karunanidhi, Stalin has to prove his worth, ensuring at the same time that the Dravidian drag on the AIADMK's side does not open up space for the BJP to make inroads in the state, observes N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazagham President M K Stalin waves to party workers at Anna Arivalayam, the DMK headquarters in Chennai, soon after results to the urban civic polls were announced, February 22, 2022. Photograph: PTI Photo

After decisive victories in elections to the Lok Sabha (2019) and the state assembly (2021), Chief Minister M K Stalin has reaffirmed that he is the unchallenged mass leader in Tamil Nadu, through sweeping results in the urban local bodies elections held last weekend.

In between, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam combine under him had out-performed the then ruling All India Anna DMK in the multi-phased rural panchayat polls, showing that both the DMK and the Stalin leadership are here to stay -- and that future politics in the state would continue to revolve around them during the run-up to the all-important Lok Sabha polls, two years hence, in 2024.

With these series of victories, Stalin has taken state politics away from the charisma-driven days of AIADMK founder M G Ramachandran and his successor Jayalalithaa Jayaram, back to the days of his later father M Karunanidhi's kind of politics, driven by the latter's ideology-cum-performance orientation.

Translated, he may have heralded a return to the 'perform-or-perish' kind of politics, which his AIADMK rivals seem to be tentative about in the absence of a new-generation charismatic leader after Jaya's exit over five years back, in December 2016.

In a way, this is what the AIADMK, for instance, should continue to be battling, and find new moorings to remain politically relevant and electorally successful.

Former chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) had begun well for a greenhorn in his place, like his estranged predecessor O Pannerselvam (OPS), but he became too ambitious, too early, that his palanquin-bearers convinced him that he was as charismatic as MGR and Jaya, if not even more, when all of it was utter nonsense in electoral terms.

This means, the AIADMK has to re-discover itself under the existing twin leadership and amicably, or would once again begin looking hopefully at the return of Jaya's confidante Sasikala Natarajan, who owing to age, health issues and years spent in a Bengaluru prison for her mentor, has seemingly timed out.

This predicament of the AIADMK has already enthused past ally Bharatiya Janata Party to flex its muscles, first to claim a larger-than-life share in the recent polls, and make an 'arrival statement', post the results, as the third largest party in the state -- though way behind the DMK/AIADMK combines in terms of seat and vote-share.

The message is for the AIADMK, that the party should be prepared for a tough BJP negotiations-plank for elections 2024.

It is significant that the DMK alliance has swept all 21 municipal corporations, 17 of them by the ruling party on its own, and a very high number of municipalities and town panchayats. The party-led alliance has also bagged most of the 138 municipalities and 489 town panchayats, not the kind of victory that the rivals were prepared for at any point in time.

The combine's victory in the 200-seat Greater Chennai Municipal Corporation was predictable, with the DMK picking up 153 seats and the allies another 25. But the party/combine has performed equally well in municipal corporations in traditional AIADMK and BJP strongholds, the latter in southern Nagercoil, Sivakasi and western-most Hosur.

The DMK took sweet revenge vis-à-vis its traditional AIADMK rival in the latter's western stronghold, where the ruling party-led combine bagged the prestigious Coimbatore corporation and also those in Salem, Erode and Tiruppur.

After a shoddy performance in the Lok Sabha polls, which the AIADMK-BJP combine lost completely, they had retrieved almost all of the lost ground in the assembly polls last year.

The DMK combine, for instance, had drawn a blank in Coimbatore district with 10 assembly seats. The alliance's performance was no better in other western districts either. However, in the urban polls, the DMK-plus has nearly swept all of the western region.

The AIADMK could not win even the ward seats where EPS and OPS are registered as voters, in western Edappady and southern Periyakulam.

Instances such as this, and there are many, have encouraged BJP state president K Annamalai to claim that the party is here to stay. He in particular has begun harping on the solo victory of Uma Anandan, who had reportedly defended Gandhiji's assassin Nathuram Godse.

The BJP says it was a fresh beginning after a 21-year break, but others, including those within the party, point out that 'one swallow does not a summer make'. They acknowledge that by going it alone the BJP has been able to test its relative strengths and weaknesses, but should not go gaga over a single victory in a 200-seat city council, forgetting that it had lost the remaining 199.

Annamalai's reiteration that the BJP has emerged as the third strongest party is a message as much to the AIADMK as to silent rebels within the state party intent on mischief and also for the national leadership -- that he has 'delivered' whatever was possible under the circumstances.

To be fair to him, Annamalai has proved to be an indefatigable fighter, though at times over-estimating the party's reach and his own command, as successive elections under his care have proved. His predecessor L Murugan, now an Union minister, and before him, Tamilisai Soundararajan, now Telangana governor, had developed a personalised style of functioning, unknown to the state BJP.

The high command had seemingly told off competition from within for all three, and given them a free hand. But those two were not able to deliver results, as with Annamalai being given freedom to walk out of the AIADMK alliance for offering too few seats than the state BJP's demand.

Truth be acknowledged, the party's central leadership would have to re-examine the dynamics for the Tamil Nadu BJP, afresh, if it has to become acceptable to allies and cadres alike -- even as larger issues like the hijab row and federalism are likely to hamper the party's growth in the Dravidian state.

After this election, the Chennai Corporation will get its first Dalit woman mayor, as the post was earmarked as such -- and only the second since inception in distant 1688. As the only municipal corporation in the state, Chennai got its first woman mayor only in 1971, when the DMK's Kamakshi Jayaraman donned the mantle.

That was under the British era's 'cyclic scheme', by which the mayoralty was shared by different communities for a year each through the five-year term, which was not gender-sensitive. Kamakshi got her turn as the only DMK councillor from the Brahmin community, whose turn it was for mayor.

This is a mixed bag for the DMK as a party, as its poll partner in the Dalit-strong Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi of parliamentarian Thol Tirumavalavan can begin feeling pressure from within.

But for the Stalin leadership too, balancing a Dalit mayor in Chennai's elite urban setting is not going to be easy. Similar problems await the party, not from within and from allies at large, but could well be with the larger electorate.

Outside of it, Tamil Nadu voters, cutting across the state, religions and castes, have sent out a clear message. That the days of sub-regional and peripheral parties are all over, especially if they hope to hang out on their own.

Thus, the Vanniar-strong Pattali Makkal Katchi and self-styled pan-Tamil Naam Thamizhar of actor-politician Seeman have done very poorly, despite their unconvincing defence to the contrary.

Actor Kamal Hassan's Makkal Needhi Maiyam has drawn a huge blank, this time leading to questions which way would these parties want to travel, wind up or lose out over the medium term, say, by election 2024.

Within the limited sphere of the current elections, the DMK combine's performance has put paid to the hopes and dreams of the large number of Independent candidates, including some rebels from all major parties, who had hoped to be the decision-makers in a possible tie in the indirect elections to the mayoralty and chairpersons.

According to social media reports especially, many of them have spent substantial sums on their campaign from personal and borrowed funds, but to little effect.

It is not that candidates of major political parties did not spend beyond the fixed upper-limit or their own means. Rivals charged the ruling DMK with over-spending, and offering 'bribes' in cash and kind, but reports from the ground indicated that everyone indulged in the practice. That includes the BJP, which has been known to do so for years and elections now.

Often times, the response when cornered is both simple and simplistic: 'Do in Rome as Romans do.'

Ironically, sections of the elite urban middle class sympathisers of the party from the Jan Sangh days to the present Modi era look the other way round when the culprit is not a Dravidian party.

After the elections, Stalin has claimed it to be a victory for the 'Dravidian model', implying a combination of the party's 'federal principles' on Centre-state relations and the traditional social justice plank, with contemporary aspects of pan-Tamil sentiment. Under his leadership, the DMK has pitted this as an alternative to the BJP's 'Modi model', but only at the state-level thus far.

During the campaign time for the urban polls, senior DMK leaders like veteran Rajya Sabha member T K S Elangovan projected Stalin as a fit candidate for the nation's prime ministership. Insiders feel that it is self-aggrandisement of the kind that had done in the AIADMK's Jayalalithaa during the run-up to elections 1996, when in power, and which she lost personally, too.

Indications are that Stalin would tread cautiously in the matter, like his late father. Despite entreaties by the late Biju Patnaik, Karunanidhi, having faced the DMK's worst electoral rout earlier in 1991, did not buy into the suggestion for him to be the prime ministerial candidate of the non-existent anti-BJP, non-Congress Third Front.

More importantly, the TN electorate having given him an unprecedented mandate that had eluded his father, too, Stalin has to prove his worth, ensuring at the same time that the Dravidian drag on the AIADMK side does not open up space for the BJP to make inroads that had eluded the party and also national predecessor the Indian National Congress, now a DMK ally.

To this end, Stalin has already cautioned his party's elected councillors to be true to their commitment and has also warned them of stringent action for bad behaviour and corrupt practices. This is going to be a tougher task at the grassroots level than he can imagine, as despite his positive image still, street reports have it that DMK office-bearers and cadres have not measured up in terms of propriety, public welfare and illegal gratification, especially in matters like sand smuggling.

Not just the state's electorate but the BJP-ruled Centre too would be watching the DMK's cadre behaviour even more from now on, the former to assess their performance ahead of the Lok Sabha polls and the latter to 'fix' the party, if it could, as it had done in the case of its AIADMK predecessor, forcing them to a not-so-wholly welcome alliance for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, contributing to their combined defeat at the hands of the rival DMK combine.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist, political analyst and author, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.

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