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Post-Bihar polls, ally worries for TN's Dravidian parties

By N Sathiya Moorthy
November 18, 2020 10:00 IST
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While the DMK fears that the Congress with its poor strike rate will pull it down in the 2021 state elections, like it did five years ago, the ruling AIADMK is worried that the BJP may ultimately do a Bihar on it, relegating it to second place in Tamil Nadu, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Union Home Minister Amit Shah (right) greets Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar after the oath-taking ceremony at Raj Bhavan in Patna November 16, 2020. From a dominant partner, the Janata Dal-United of Chief Minister Kumar has been relegated to second spot in the state NDA with the BJP holding all the cards. Photograph: Pappi Sharma / ANI Photo.

Even as counting was closing for US presidential polls in 2004, John Edwards, running mate of Democratic candidate John Kerry, declared, “Every vote counts, and we will make every vote count.”

Within hours, after the all-American media uniformly told their viewers how a tough posturing was not on, Senator Kerry appeared before the media, only to concede the election in favour of incumbent Republican, George Bush, Jr.

Today, in distant south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, political parties will want ‘every vote counted’ in the assembly polls, due by May next. Or, at least until it turns out otherwise.

 

It’s not without reason. In elections 2016, which the ruling AIADMK under late chief minister Jayalalithaa won, the vote-share difference with rival DMK-Congress combine was just one per cent, 41-40.

The recent assembly polls in northern Bihar is a closer call still.

At 0.03-per cent vote-share difference and a total vote-margin of just 12,000 between the victorious NDA incumbent and the Mahagadbandhan (MDG), or Grand Alliance, the rival political formations in Tamil Nadu are even more nervous.

Add to that the RJD’s post-poll charge of errors / fraud in vote counting, including the unilateral EC decision to take up postal votes only at the end, there is another lesson from elections 2016 in TN, too.

In that election again, the DMK alliance claimed mischief in vote-count in a decisive number of constituencies, where they were running neck-and-neck with the ruling party, but all those results went one-sided, some of them in the name of recounting.

In particular, political observers recall the call for suspending voting in the face of AIADMK demand for recount in northern Thiruvannamalai constituency, when their candidate A M Velu was leading by a high 20,000 votes. After then party working president, now president M K Stalin, reportedly took up the matter with the then chief electoral officer (CEO), Rajesh Lakhoni, counting recommenced and the DMK’s Velu won the seat by a very high 50,000-voter margin.

As may also be recalled, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to have predicted the results even as vote-counting was less than half-way through. With only around 20 per cent votes reportedly counted, and the two rivals were close to each other, he congratulated chief minister Jayalalithaa’s return to power.

Not long afterwards, the gates of Jaya’s Poes Garden residence were thrown open, with long queues of her ministerial colleagues, civil servants and business magnates waiting to greet her with flower bouquets and shawls. CEO Lakhani was among the early birds to greet Jayalalithaa, even as counting was still inching towards the halfway-mark.

While this may still sound speculative, there are other lessons that the Dravidian rivals have learnt from the Bihar polls. The relatively obvious question involves seat-sharing and constituency allotment between the DMK and the Congress ally -- and Bihar holds the key.

As the Bihar results showed, the Congress party which contested in 70 seats managed to win only 19, at a 27 per cent hit-rate.  This may have made the DMK wary of yielding more ground to the Congress, only to lose more seats than bargained for in the May polls.

In elections 2016, the Congress contested 41 seats but won only eight. Post-poll, DMK patriarch, the late Karunanidhi, went on record that the alliance lost only because of excessive allotment of seats to the Congress. Though some viewed it as a criticism of Stalin’s negotiations skills, in the 2011 assembly polls, tainted by the 2-G scam against the two allies then sharing power at the Centre, Karunanidhi too could not but yield an even higher 63 seats, only to lose power in the state.

Already, local newspapers have begun speculating how the DMK cannot and will not yield to Congress’s pressures this time, and would allot fewer seats than it may have otherwise been willing to allot pre-Bihar, if only to keep the alliance intact. The DMK is also said to have concluded that the party would be able to reap the ‘minority votes’, for which earlier calculations required the Congress party’s company.

For his part, state Congress president K A Azhagiri is on record that Stalin is ‘generous’ and they will accept whatever is on offer. Independent of such reality checks, the pressure on a weakened high command could mean that the Congress could demand for more seats than it can find suitable candidates for.

State Congress cadres point out how after the estrangement of senior leader Gulam Nabi Azad with the high command, the party may not have the right person to even negotiate seat-sharing with a personal touch, with the DMK leadership. They now count on the likes of Azhagiri and central party observer, Dinesh Gundu Rao from neighbouring Karnataka, to do the trick for them.

If this is an obvious problem for the DMK-Congress combine ahead of the assembly polls, even more so post-Bihar, the ruling party’s problem may be more complex and even more consequential. With the state leadership of the BJP ally from the 2019 Lok Sabha polls going increasingly on a strident note, especially on ‘Hindutva’ issues, there is an increasing cadre expectation for snapping ties for the assembly polls.

Apart from the Hindutva issues, AIADMK strategists thinking about the medium and short terms are already citing the example of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in undivided Andhra Pradesh, one-time JD-S ally in Karnataka, Shiv Sena and Akali Dal, respectively in Maharashtra and Punjab, and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s JD-U in Bihar.

In every state mentioned and some others not mentioned here, the BJP began as a junior partner but has managed to devour the ally’s vote-share, to relegate them into being a junior partner or elbow them out of the alliance. In Bihar now, Nitish Kumar is continuing as chief minister only at the mercy of the BJP, which has emerged as the senior partner in the NDA combine by lengths.

The AIADMK does not seem to foresee such a thing happening in ‘Dravidian’ Tamil Nadu even in the absence of the party’s charismatic leader, the late Jayalalithaa, because the BJP as a ‘one issue’ party has not been able to market Prime Minister Modi in the state, in the two successive Lok Sabha polls of 2014 and 2019. Their problem is not only the distant possibility of the BJP eating into their vote-share, but continue with turning away even the AIADMK’s traditional voters away, as it happened in the LS polls last year.

Their medium and long-term apprehension is that the BJP may have strategised to weaken the AIADMK, if it could not eliminate the common DMK rival, and then step into its shoes, over the next five to 10 years. In the immediate context, the party is upset over a series of episodes involving state BJP leaders, which made the alliance look to the voters as being less serious about larger issues of government administration. 

The latest one is the ‘Vetri Vel Yatra’, or a rally in the name of the ‘victorious divine spear’ of Lord Murugan. This followed the excessive publicity given to a six-month old YouTube post of a peripheral group, ‘Karuppar Koottam’, or ‘Black Group’, with blasphemous references to the Tamil hymn, ‘Kanda Sashti Kavacham’ in praise of Lord Murugan, also known as Karthikeya. The BJP saw a sinister and non-existent hand of the DMK behind the little known blasphemous campaign.

Trouble started when state party president L Murugan, with an eye on the election, began taking out pre-publicised rallies from and at different abodes of Lord Murugan in the state, and defying the police ban, to culminate in the southern shore shrine of Tiruchendur. It was here, according to the puranas, that Lord Murugan had slayed demon king Suran, with the divine spear given to him by his mother, goddess Parvati.

The state BJP’s political logic was simple. While the Ayodhya issue and Lord Ram have not stirred the same kind of emotions as in north India, they seemed to have hoped that Tamil Nadu, Dravidian or not, would react strongly, and electorally so, if they could link the DMK to such blasphemous campaign involving a ‘Tamil god’, worshipped by most non-Vaishnaviite non-Brahmin communities across the state.  Lord Murugan fitted the bill.

The state BJP had earlier attempted the tactic at least once earlier, when they took up the cause of Sri Andal, a Vaishnaviite saint-composer from the 12th century. Sri Andal is the only woman among the 12 Azhwars, or divine saint-poets in Tamil belonging to the ‘Bhakti era’ of Hindu revivalism, from the eighth century on.

Charging poet and film popular lyricist Vairamuthu with blaspheming Sri Andal in a speech delivered in her honour at the Srivilliputtur temple connected with her, the BJP-RSS combine sought to make a public issue of the same, but with less than expected impact. As it turned out, most participants in the periodic rallies that went up, say, for over a month, were Brahmin women and men, with little or no participation from other communities.

Now, in the case of the ‘Vetri Vel Yatra’, the participants, though limited by Covid protocol, are mostly BJP cadres cutting across caste lines, yes, but there is no visible enthusiasm among the masses. In between, the party also took on VCK founder and LS member, Thol Thirumavalavan, for his claims that the ancient Hindu code, ‘Manu Smriti’, belittled women.

While the state BJP’s protest against Thirumavalavan did not really take off, party chief Murugan is determined to keep the Vel Yatra in the news as long as possible – or, so it seems. But the AIADMK is not amused. While the ruling party has no hesitation in identifying with liberal Hindu practices, they are not for the saffronisation of state politics, going beyond Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian political heritage. 

In between, Murugan has also been talking about Union ministers like V Muraleedharan and at times party chief J P Nadda participating in the yatra at different venues. However, some aides of his have gone on record that it may not be appropriate for national leaders, especially Union ministers, to attend the rally, pending a final decision in the Madras high court, where the party has contested the AIADMK government’s ban on the same.

The state government told the high court that it was not a pilgrimage as claimed but was a political rally, good and proper, with which Covid protocols intervened. The implication was if it was only a pilgrimage to six renown abodes of Lord Muruga, the BJP leaders could have done so quietly and on their own, without any pre-publicity of the kind now being witnessed.

In between, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who continues to be Prime Minister Modi’s chief strategist, is scheduled to visit Chennai on November 21, for some government function. He is also scheduled to meet with state BJP leaders, from the district level up, possibly also to seek their views on assembly poll strategy.

There is also speculation that Amit Shah will use the occasion to call on Tamil super-star Rajinikanth, who seems to have put his decision for entry on hold, owing to Covid-related medical advice and his compromised kidney. Some AIADMK leaders, citing past instances of the kind, feel that the BJP is using the ‘Rajini card’ only to make their party ‘behave’ in terms of poll alliance and seat-sharing -- and that they needed to put an end to such ‘open blackmail’.

In the electoral context, the AIADMK seems to have concluded -- and not wrongly so – that by identifying Hindutva causes of the ‘Vel Yatra’ kind that are not electorally relevant in Tamil Nadu ever, the BJP may only succeed in alienating the minorities from their party even more without being able to find new supporters, especially from the rival DMK fold  or from among the ‘swing voters’.

The AIADMK also seems to feel that the decisive ‘swing voters’ may not be impressed at all by such tactics. As is known, neither has such demonstrative anti-god protests of the Periyar kind been an election issue even in his time.

However, now with the BJP in power at the Centre for an indeterminable future, the minorities in the state may feel completely alienated from the AIADMK, and for ever, if the party continues to be seen as being soft towards the blatant Hindutva agenda of the state BJP, which has no reference whatsoever to bread-and-butter issues in this Covid times.

Independent of the ‘saffronisation efforts’ in the state, which included robing the statues of Dravidian, anti-god ideologue Periyar and AIADMK founder MGR in that colour, AIADMK leaders feel that Murugan’s persistent demand for a substantially high share of seats for the BJP in the assembly elections could be a further dampener.

While the party counts on the Vanniar-centric PMK’s five per cent vote-share, too, in an alliance formation, the BJP’s ‘saffronisation’ campaign could put off party cadres and leadership, under founder S Ramadoss, even more. According to them, an over-enthusiastic state BJP leadership has already done enough damage for the alliance, especially the ruling party and the government run by it, for one election.

If the trend continued and if the BJP’s national leadership did not rein in the state unit, there is a distinct chance of the AIADMK being forced to reconsider the alliance.

This is because the BJP has a proven 2-3 per cent vote-share on a good day, and up to five per cent on a better day -- but the votes that the party could lose for the AIADMK, and permanently so, that too in favour of the rival DMK, could make an one-time alliance permanently unprofitable for the party.

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

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