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Can Stalin Repeat 2019 Lok Sabha Result In 2024?

January 05, 2024 12:35 IST
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Stalin still enjoys a lot of sympathy and empathy as someone wishing well for the state, but not full-throated support as in 2019 and 2021, notes N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodaras Modi being greeted by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin at the foundation stone laying ceremony for multiple development projects in Tiruchirappalli, January 2, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

In what should pass for irony of the coming Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched what passed for his ruling BJP-NDA's campaign in the company of ideological rival, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin of the DMK.

A prospective ally in three-time chief minister O Panneerselvam (OPS), who is still fighting a losing battle for the control of the Opposition AIADMK, instead, had to stand in a queue to greet the PM at Tiruchi, where Modi and Stalin shared the dais at more than one venue, both official functions.

Modi's speeches would have sounded official but for his telling his audience how the state had got 2.5 times the central funding from his government than from predecessor UPA I and II (of which the ruling DMK was a part).

In comparison, Stalin's demand for more flood relief after the twin disasters of the Michaung cyclone in capital Chennai and unseasonal and unprecedented heavy rains in four southern districts was more of an appeal than anything strictly political, even less electoral.

The CM's other demands were also development-driven, pertaining to civil aviation and the like in the exclusive control of the Centre.

What made Modi's TN visit even more political and electoral was his coinciding praise for the late DMDK founder 'Captain' Vijayakanth.

In a rare gesture, the prime minister penned a signed article on the departed leader. All local newspapers, both in English and Tamil, carried it prominently.

Earlier, Modi had dispatched Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, a Tamil, to pay last respects to Vijayakanth on behalf of the Centre, and console his wife and the party's new leader, Premalatha.

That was after Sitharaman had visited the flood-hit areas of southern districts, with a section of social media speculating that she could contest from one of the four southern constituencies, where the BJP has a substantial presence in at least two.

Sitharaman made news in Tamil Nadu after she ticked off state minister and DMK youth wing leader Udhayanidhi Stalin, the chief minister's son, as a 'brat' who had to be 'careful about what he speaks' if he has to reach where he wanted to reach in politics.

It was a loaded statement, yes, and was a retort to Udhaya's caustic yet casual remark that the state's flood relief demand, after all, not being met from her 'appan veedu', literally meaning 'parental home', which is in common usage otherwise.

As if to take the battle to the rival camp, Sitharaman, in one more of her recent forays into TN, contested the underlying theme behind Udhaya's unbecoming statement on 'appan veedu'. At a function in Chennai, she claimed that since coming to power, the Modi government had pumped in Rs 6.96 lakh crores to Tamil Nadu against Rs 6.23 lakh crores collected from the state in taxes.

The debate, kicked off by the state government and the ruling DMK months ago and in instalments, may not end here.

The question is if the BJP has electoral plans for Sitharaman, who has been a Rajya Sabha member from Karnataka in her two terms, more likely as the election in-charge.

As may be recalled, the finance minister was a frequent visitor to the state in the year preceding the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, but neither did she contest nor did she participate seriously in the TN political discourse other than in response to queries and accusations of bias in Parliament.

IMAGE: Modi along with Tamil Nadu Governor R N Ravi, Stalin and others at the 38th convocation ceremony of Bharathidasan University in Tiruchirappalli, January 2, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

The greater speculation is about the DMDK's choice of allies in the changed circumstances.

Ahead of Modi wooing the party for the NDA combine, Stalin walked the extra mile to organise a governmental venue for the public to pay respects to Vijayakanth and ordering a State funeral, including a 72-gun salute.

Yet, the question remains if the 'sympathy wave' following Vijayakanth's death would have a great electoral impact, going beyond the party's 3-3.5 per cent vote-share as the NDA coalition's state chief in elections 2014.

The DMDK's vote share had only been slipping even lower since then, from a very respectable 8.38 per cent in the maiden outing in the 2006 assembly polls and a higher 10.3 per cent.

On both occasions, the party contested on its own.

Today, the proven non-conformist segment of 'swing voters' since the very first general elections in 1952 may have suffered an urban-rural divide between political parties led by two other film personalities, namely Kamalahaasan and Seeman.

In the last electoral outing, for the state assembly, in 2021, Kamalahaasan's Makkal Needhi Maiam polled 2.62 per cent and Seeman's Naam Tamilar Katchi, 6.58 per cent.

After the Makkal Needhi Maiam backed the ruling DMK-led veteran Congress nominee E V K S Elangovan in the Erode East assembly by-election in March 2023, indications are that the MNM may join up for the alliance for the Lok Sabha poll.

The chances of those fan/non-committed voters travelling with the actor to his new electoral home are questionable.

So is the number of pan-Tamil Naam Tamilar Katchi voters that would back the DMK after Udhayanidhi Stalin's high-pitched anti-Centre, anti-Hindutva remarks, the latter centred on Sanatan Dharma.

Inevitable anti-incumbency mid-way through the government's term is weighing down the DMK, whose alliance with the Congress, Communists, MDMK, VCK and other anti-BJP outfits, rather than the anti-AIADMK per se, had polled 45.38 per cent, down from 53.53 per cent in the LS polls of 2019.

Against this, the AIADMK-BJP (NDA?) polled 30.56 per cent in 2019, when both parties were in power.

Out of power, the combine led by the AIADMK, which had a chief minister candidate in incumbent Edappadi K Palaniswami, polled a higher 39.72 per cent in 2021 even when he lost power.

It was this conviction that the TN voters do not subscribe to the BJP's Hindutva plank and Modi's leadership that forced the EPS camp to break away from the BJP, after making state party chief K Annamalai to bear the cross.

Some in the BJP camp are now convinced that minus the factions led by OPS, Sasikala Natarajan and her estranged nephew T T V Dhinakaran, the AIADMK's vote-share may have shrunk now.

There is also a revived belief in them about the BJP-NDA's 2014 voting figure, which stood at a respectable 18.5 per cent after the AIADMK's then chief minister J Jayalalithaa had swept 37 of 39 seats with her 'Modi-ya, indha lady-ya?' battle-cry (44.92 per cent).

The DMK combine then drew a blank with a low vote-share, 26.8 per cent.

Contesting on their own, the Congress polled 4.3 per cent and the two Communist parties together, a combined low of just one per cent.

The argument is that with sympathy votes after Vijayakanth's death, Premalatha could bring more votes back to the DMDK, especially if in the BJP's company.

There is also the expectation that with all three AIADMK factions in its camp, the NDA would still be able to obtain around 20 per cent vote share, even if the PMK from 2014 joins the DMK camp.

This speculation owes to PMK founder Ramadoss with a proven five per cent vote-share since inception in 1991, calling on Stalin, in the rare company of a host of ministers, purportedly to demand a caste census in the state.

With the PMK in the camp, the NDA, they submit, can pool up to a more than substantial 25 per cent.

Parties like the PMK thus have a four-way option, choose one of the three alliances in existence or go on its own.

Of the three, EPS as the AIADMK boss ended up having to prove his anti-BJP credentials as after breaking ties in 2023, the 24 resolutions passed at the party's first general body meeting since the internal split did not squarely condemn the erstwhile ally even while reserving a lot of criticism for the DMK rival.

Obviously forced by the second-line, EPS in his concluding remarks had to declare that there was no way the party would align with the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections -- but there was no mention of post-poll possibilities.

IMAGE: Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman pays her respects to the mortal remains of Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) founder-leader and actor Vijayakanth, who passed away at the age of 71 in Chennai. Photograph: ANI Photo

The NDA's hopes in this regard are not far to seek.

With the Dalit-centric VCK in its camp, the DMK would find it difficult to accommodate the supposedly anti-Dalit, Vanniar-strong PMK, in form and content.

Prima facie, the party does not have enough seats to spare the PMK that would also keep the latter's ego intact.

Two, the DMK also does not have the energy and intermediaries capable of maintaining the balance between the other two throughout the campaign period in the northern districts, which is crucial to the party.

When Nirmala Sitharaman's name suddenly began hitting the headlines in the last fortnight, speculation was that she could be contesting the Lok Sabha polls from one of the four flood-hit southern constituencies.

That rumour has died a natural death now, and may be revived only after the composition of the NDA becomes clear.

Likewise, Telangana Governor Tamizhisai Soundararajan, who was TN BJP president earlier, met the flood-hit residents of Thoothukudi, where she had lost the 2019 Lok Sabha elections to the DMK's Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, Stalin's half-sister.

However, she has since clarified that she was not contesting the Lok Sabha poll this time.

Tamizhisai, in between, attracted strong social media criticism for her constant diatribe against the DMK government and the party's perceived ideology and political philosophy, that too in a state not under her gubernatorial care, violating Constitutional norms and best practices.

Maybe because the CM and the state government are working to restore working relations with incumbent Governor R N Ravi, that too at the instance of the Supreme Court, Tamizhisai may escape a legal complaint against her, for the time being.

As governor of Telangana, Tamizhisai was already at the receiving end of the Supreme Court's homilies after holding back cabinet decisions of the then state government under then CM K Chandrasekhar Rao.

The indications were that the Supreme Court might serve it on a platter to Ravi as the court seemed to be of the view that it should not be seen as telling a Constitutional authority about the limits and limitations of his/her job -- especially after it was forced to tick off Punjab Governor Banwarilal Purohit, who had been transferred from Chennai's Raj Bhavan not long after Stalin became CM.

IMAGE: Stalin distributes flood relief material and food in Chennai. Photograph: ANI Photo

Yet, there is no denying a mid-term referendum on Stalin's leadership, well ahead of the 2026 assembly polls.

The CM still enjoys a lot of sympathy and empathy as someone wishing well for the state, but not full-throated support as in 2019 and 2021.

The social media platforms of the BJP/AIADMK rivals have been able to get across the message that he was not as 'efficient' (tough/autocratic?) as Jayalalithaa and as not 'sharp' (cunning?) as his late father M Karunanidhi.

There is a general perception that Stalin is too good to the bureaucratic aides who just do not measure up.

It is an imagevlaw that the party has not taken seriously to counter such campaign.

Instead, it seems convinced that the split in the Opposition vote by itself would do the trick, especially if it is able to retain the traditional vote-shares of constituent parties and also add a few more like the PMK and the MNM.

Otherwise, corruption, as perceived from distant Delhi, may not be an election issue in 'Dravidian' Tamil Nadu.

Given perceptions of better educational standards and exposure, it is accepted as a global phenomenon.

That benefit goes also to the BJP ruling the Centre, which is also allegedly involved in a host of financial scams.

However, there is a rider: Why make a song and dance of IT, CBI and ED raids only in Opposition-ruled states and their ministers, including jailed Senthil Balaji and convicted Ponmudy, apart from a host of others in their combined long list?

Barring those concerned, their families and to an extent for the party, all those raids, arrests and court cases seems to have only entertainment value for the rest in across the state, with traditional anti-DMK, anti-Dravidian segments alone voting on the issue with not many neo-converts seemingly in the pack.

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

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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