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Does Modi Understand Tamil Nadu?

June 25, 2024 11:29 IST
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In focus are the assembly polls in 2026.
From a BJP perspective, their attack on the ruling DMK, using the 'Hindutva' card, and Annamalai's targeting of both Dravidian majors on corruption has not worked, points out N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra D Modi at an election meeting ahead of the Lok Sabha polls at Mettupalayam, Coimbatore, April 10, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

On the face of it, AIADMK boss Edappadi K Palaniswami's decision to not have the party contest the July 10 assembly by-poll for the Vikravandi seat in northern Tamil Nadu is escapist, after having led the party to three massive defeats in a row over the past five years.

However, there is a hidden agenda aimed at a possible realignment ahead of the more important assembly elections two years hence, in 2026.

The Vikravandi seat fell vacant after the ruling DMK legislator died of a massive heart attack during the run-up to the April 19 first-phase Lok Sabha elections that covered the entire state.

For the ruling DMK-led combine under Chief Minister M K Stalin, it was a third straight sweep after the Lok Sabha polls in 2019 and the state assembly elections (2021), when the AIADMK with EPS as chief minister lost power.

In Edappadi's words, the AIADMK boycott owes to the conviction that the by-election will not be 'free and fair' under the DMK regime.

That he was insinuating against the Election Commission did not seem to have registered, especially with state BJP president Kuppusamy Annamalai, who has been firing on all pistons even after losing the Lok Sabha polls personally and for the party, making Narendra Modi 'teary'.

However, before deciding on Annamalai's fate and future, the BJP high command has to re-think on the party's future strategy for Tamil Nadu that has proved to be a standalone exception to the Mo-Sha wave of Hindutva politics across the country over the past ten years, if not more.

Truth be acknowledged, the BJP high command has to begin by accepting gracefully that the 'Modi magic' lost the state so very completely for the party after the prime minister made himself the key election issue in 2014, 2019 and now 2024.

He visited the state eight times during poll time and many more in the past years, all political rallies wrapped up as official functions.

This time round, he also fired on all guns at Tamil Nadu, from elsewhere in the country.

That simply was not acceptable to the Tamil voters, whose pride was wantonly hurt beyond repair.

It is another matter that the BJP did not understand the hurt to repair it.

Despite BJP-friendly and at times DMK-hating sections of the national media pumping up Annamalai's leadership of the state party as if manna from heaven and re-interpreting the victory of a single BJP councillor, a woman, in the Madras City Corporation for the first time two years ago -- and now following it up with an unsustainable defence of Annamalai's claims to a two-digit vote-share in the Lok Sabha polls.

After providing for contributions by allies, the figure should stand closer to the conventional figure of three per cent -- or, five per cent, and not 11-plus per cent, as packaged.

This would mean that the high command has to decide which way to go in the short and medium terms, the long term will have to wait.

In focus are the assembly polls in 2026. From a BJP perspective, their attack on the ruling DMK, using the 'Hindutva' card, and Annamalai's targeting of both Dravidian majors on corruption has not worked.

If anything, despite the high dance and drama attaching to the ED/IT raids on incumbent minister Senthil Balaji, who completed one year in pre-trial imprisonment post-poll, the DMK combine swept the poll all across.

The BJP has to remember that despite a stayed court-ordered conviction and sentencing of J Jayalalithaa, the party swept the 2001 assembly polls against the incumbent DMK government of Karunanidhi, and she herself won from all four constituencies she contested from, as if to make a point.

There is something more to Dravidian politics than the BJP can fathom, what Stalin calls the 'Dravidian model', which is welfare-centric at the individual and individualist level that the voter can touch, feel and benefit from.

IMAGE: All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam General Secretary Edappadi K Palaniswami speaks to the media during a protest against the government in connection with the Kallakurichi hooch tragedy during the Tamil Nadu assembly session in Chennai, June 21, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

The by-election has three main contenders, respectively from the DMK, the Vanniar-strong PMK, which is continuing in the BJP-NDA alliance from the Lok Sabha polls, and the NTK of actor-politician Seeman.

The simple question is if the AIADMK wants to and is capable of transferring its substantial vote share to the PMK candidate, especially when the latter is still in the company of the BJP, which the EPS leadership especially continues to love to hate.

Despite EPS's fears that his candidate would lose in the follow-up to the Lok Sabha poll-wave and he will have to bear the cross when breakaway factions under three-time chief minister O Panneerselvam and Jayalalithaa's confidante Sasikala Natarajan are making a move for a straight re-entry.

Between the two, the former seems to be less ambitious after his own single-seat disastrous defeat in the BJP's company in the Lok Sabha poll.

However, Sasikala, who is yet to wade into the political waters after completing her four-year jail-term in the 'wealth case' against her deceased boss and mentor, in a post-poll statement has hinted at a leadership role for herself.

Independent of stray talks and unclear initiatives at reunification of multiple AIADMK factions, including the one under Sasikala's estranged nephew T T V Dhinakaran, another Lok Sabha poll loser in the BJP's company, there is no imminent threat to EPS's leadership of the party.

That is mainly because all of them are sailing in the same loser's boat -- with or without the BJP's company.

Yet, Vikravandi could be another cuppa.

If the AIADMK lost yet another time, that too in a multi-cornered contest, there could be internal re-thinking inside the party that he leads now.

The reasons are not far to seek. In the assembly by-polls that accompanied the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the AIADMK, then in power, defeated the rival DMK by a massive margin, 113,000 votes to 66,000.

The by-poll victory was sweetened when in the simultaneous Lok Sabha polls to the Villupuram seat the AIADMK polled only 83,000 votes against the DMK rival's 74,000 -- but maintaining the electoral superiority in the constituency, all the same.

Losing Vikravandi is thus not an option for the AIADMK, especially to EPS's leadership.

While OPS and TTV have joined the BJP ally in backing the PMK, the DMDK partner of the AIADMK too has announced a boycott.

This may lead to a realignment of forces for the assembly polls, whoever wins the by-election.

On the face of it, the temptation would be to conclude that the AIADMK may be prima facie aiming at weaning away the PMK from the BJP's company.

Otherwise, attempts would be aimed at re-inventing the BJP-NDA alliance all over again under the AIADMK, as in 2019 and 2021.

Already, multiple schools of thought exist that the DMK combine swept the Lok Sabha polls only because of the division of rival votes, between the AIADMK and the BJP-NDA.

There is no explanation however why the combine lost when it was together in 2019 and 2021.

Unless some soul-searching is done, it may be difficult for them all to come out of the current mess in which they find themselves in, divided or united.

There is no denying an anti-incumbency factor against the three-year-old Stalin-led DMK government.

Thanks to the never-say-die attitude of EPS and Annamalai, not necessarily in that order, anti-incumbency against the ruling party has resurfaced.

Incidents like the Kallakurichi hooch tragedy that has claimed 55 lives, attack on a senior government official for targeting the sand mafia and revived talks of upward revision of tax and tariffs have only helped the divided Opposition, but there is no knowing if they are capable of converting them into votes two years hence, collectively or otherwise.

Right now, the hooch tragedy is in the news during campaign time in Vikravandi in the neighbouring Viluppuram district. But if it will impact the by-election as much as the possible, independent transfer of AIADMK and allied votes to the PMK candidate is the question.

From the time the then DMK government of M Karunanidhi lifted total prohibition since the pre-Independence era as a 'temporary measure' measure in 1971, liquor sales and deaths, hooch or not, have not influenced poll results. In the very next year, for instance, the DMK-Congress-I alliance under then prime minister Indira Gandhi swept the twin-polls to the state assembly and the Lok Sabha.

IMAGE: BJP's Tamil Nadu president Kuppusamy Annamalai meets families of the Kallakurichi hooch victims. Photograph: Kind courtesy K Annamalai/X

For EPS, there are three factors for such unification.

One, transfer of AIADMK votes to the PMK candidate in Vikravandi, if ordered, as the latter is still in the company of the 'Hindutva' BJP that party voters despised in the past elections.

For him, pre-poll acknowledgement that he would be the CM candidate of the alliance, with or without the BJP, is even more important at a personal level.

These were the two reasons why the AIADMK had to unilaterally break the alliance, when Annamalai as the state BJP boss kept talking about the party leading an alliance for the assembly polls when it was still light years away.

Even after the Lok Sabha poll debacle under his leadership, he remains unchanged.

He still spoke all the right phrases that would irritate a hurt AIADMK, both leaders and cadres alike.

If some AIADMK leaders responded in kind, the party cadres were not amused by what they consider as Annamalai's congenital hatred for Dravidian politics, including the AIADMK.

They are askance at why the BJP national leadership has not silenced him even after the Lok Sabha poll defeat if they desired a re-think for 2026.

While it may be true that other powerful voices within the state BJP, like former Telangana governor Tamizhisai Soundararajan's, too have risen against Annamalai after the Lok Sabha poll, there is no knowing if the BJP high command is ready to replace him as state party chief.

For the EPS leadership of the AIADMK, that alone would suffice -- as the signal has to go all across, to party cadres and also voters alike.

Otherwise, the AIADMK and the PMK may want to re-unite for the 2026 assembly polls.

As past poll figures show, both in 2016 assembly elections and the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the votes polled by the losing AIADMK and the PMK together surpassed those of the DMK by yards.

It is another matter that the DMK won the seat in 2016, when the ruling AIADMK retained power with Jaya 'Amma' continuing as chief minister until her death later that year.

IMAGE: DMK President M K Stalin speaks at a public meeting after the DMK's spectacular performance in the Lok Sabha election. Photograph: Kind courtesy M K Stalin/X

All of it turns the focus back to the DMK and Chief Minister Stalin.

Despite criticism to the contrary from all sides and in all forms, the man has emerged as a 'gentle colossus' in Dravidian politics without any of the frills and fanfare attaching to Jayalalithaa and his late father Muthuvel Karunanidhi.

The exit of the two contemporary giants around the same time, leaving a void on either side of the Dravidian political divide might have helped -- but his longer innings in active politics too may have helped in fending off the likes of EPS and Annamalai, whether jointly or severally.

Unknown to self and unacknowledged by others, Stalin may have moved away from the kind of acrimonious politics from the Dravidian past, where he and he alone from the top joins ideological issues, whether with Governor R N Ravi or with Prime Minister Modi, after seemingly weighing all options and giving them time.

This seems to have worked with the new generation voters, who do not seemingly want to live the political lives of their fathers and grandfathers.

Today, it may not be as visible as it was in the case of Karunanidhi and more so, Jaya.

But especially through welfare schemes targeting women and youth, Stalin has gone to the voter over the head even of the once cadre-based party like the DMK.

This could mean that in the coming months, he could act as a strong chief minister and party boss, which role he was possibly not cut out for but will have to wear on his sleeves, if only to enforce discipline, both in the bureaucracy and the party.

It was a missing element in his first three years as CM, and contributed to anti-incumbency in no small measure.

And after the Lok Sabha polls, anti-incumbency factors have revived.

For Stalin to ask party cadres at the DMK's annual 'Mupperum Vizha' in Coimbatore to work for winning 200 of the 234 assembly seats in 2026, based on the fact that the alliance led in 221 segments in the Lok Sabha polls, is one thing.

But for the party to win a simple majority in the company of its existing allies, comprising the Congress, the two Communist parties and the VCK, among others, is another.

And that is what Tamil Nadu politics until 2026 is going to be.

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

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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