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Stalin wages lone battle against Oppn full blast

April 01, 2019 20:00 IST

The DMK has Stalin and Stalin alone as the key campaigner. The rest of them all, including half-sister Kanimozhi, are tied down to their own constituencies while those like party treasurer and former minister S Duraimurugan, to those of their children’s constituencies.

Against this, in the rival AIADMK-led alliance, Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, his deputy O Panneerselvam, and a host of other state ministers hit the campaign trail some time back, but only after Stalin.

PMK’s Ramadoss Sr is available to all alliance candidates, and so is DMDK treasurer Premalatha after husband and party boss Vijaykanth became too sick to campaign, that too in the hot summer sun, says N Sathiya Moorthy. 

IMAGE: DMK president MK Stalin hits the campaign trail. Photograph: Courtesy, MK Stalin on Twitter

With the Lok Sabha poll scene heating up alongside the summer temperatures all across Tamil Nadu, political parties, leaders and cadres all look exhausted even at the end of the first round -- ending with the alliance talks, seat-sharing, nominations and allocation of symbols, as was the case with a belated ‘gift box’ for T T V Dhinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam.

Yet, there is no denying that Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s M K Stalin is pitted a loner against the strong band of leaders of various alliance partners on the opposite camp, what with senior DMK leaders with campaign experience and stage presence opting to either contest the polls themselves or sticking to the constituencies of their children for whom they have obtained party nomination.

It is the case with the DMK’s Congress ally, where again party veterans are as much known for quibbling over seat-sharing and electoral nomination as for their branded factionalism on other occasions and through other times. Less said about the campaign value of other allies, including the two communist parties, the better.

The current state-level leaderships of the CPI and CPM took over after the parties had gone under. Contesting elections 2014 on their own, after they shied away from the DMK combine and the ruling AIADMK dumped them without trace, the two contested together and polled a pitiable one per cent.

If yet, the DMK-led combine accommodated them and also allotted them two seats each against a total of 40 at the disposal of the alliance, including the lone one in the Union Territory of Puducherry, it was not without reason. The DMK leader of the coalition was pressured by ‘national compulsions’ of having all anti-BJP parties together on the same side. Two, Stalin, yet to become acceptable as a leader in his own right by the state’s voters long after the DMK cadres had done so, did not want to be told that if only his father Karunanidhi were alive...

This has problems for the DMK-led alliance campaign on the streets. First and foremost, the DMK has Stalin and Stalin alone as the key campaigner. The rest of them all, including half-sister Kanimozhi, are tied down to their own constituencies. Those like party treasurer and former minister S Duraimurugan, to those of their children’s constituencies.

If the DMK convinced MDMK’s Vaiko to be available for state-wide campaign, the latter is yet to be seen or heard. Stalin’s actor-son Udyananidhi, making his poll campaign debut, has become acceptable to the cadres, but not necessarily to the voters at large. If anything, he is making social media news for all the wrong reasons.

Against this, in the rival AIADMK-led alliance, Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, his deputy O Panneerselvam, and a host of other state ministers hit the campaign trail some time back, but only after Stalin. PMK’s Ramadoss Sr is available to all alliance candidates, and so is DMDK treasurer Premalatha after husband and party boss Vijaykanth became too sick to campaign, that too in the hot summer sun. 

However, PMK’s Anbumani Ramadoss, or Ramadoss Jr, is tied down to his Dharmapuri constituency -- but that seems better for the AIADMK and BJP allies, he having come down heavily on the ruling party in the state and also the BJP at the Centre over the past months and years since 2014.

However, most BJP leaders are tied down to their constituencies. State president Thamizhisai Soundararajan is stuck to her southern Thoothukudi seat against DMK strong-woman Kanimozhi. Likewise, BJP’s Union minister Pon Radhakrishnan is working hard to retain his southern-most Kanyakumari seat, against an equally big-time spender H Vasantha Kumar of the Congress.

In native Sivaganga, the BJP’s controversial national secretary H Raja is tied down by Congress rival in Karti Chidambaram, son of former Union minister P Chidambaram. As allies point out, both have made Sivaganga constituency famous or infamous this time, through their past deeds or misdeeds. Father PC, a senior Congress leader with great felicity for spoken Tamil without having to raise his voice, is expected to spend more time either in Delhi or in his son’s constituency.

Stalin also seems to suffer from a wrong campaign strategy. While his public rallies in important towns/constituency headquarters are drawing fairly bigger crowds than that of his political rivals, that is also the only way he is focussing on his campaign. This means that DMK and alliance cadres are forced to spend days preparing for those rallies, deflecting from core campaign works at their level.

In contrast, OPS, EPS and Ramadoss and others on the opposite side seem comfortable travelling by open van, like Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa before they both took ill, and meet voters and cadres in their towns and villages, and street-corners. 

This does not mean that AIADMK ministers do not have their kin contesting the LS polls or in the 18 assembly segments where by-elections are being held simultaneously. OPS’s son Raveendranath Kumar is contesting from native Theni Lok Sabha constituency, so are the son, brother or father of a few other state ministers.

Raveendranath himself is said to be tied down to serious competition from family bête noire Thangatamizh Selvan, now in the breakaway/rival AMMK of Dhinakaran. The DMK combine allotted the seat to the Congress ally, whose former state president E V K S Elangovan, is also an ‘outsider’ in terms of geography and caste identity, in what is predominantly a ‘Mukkulathore area’.

The success for the DMK alliance, it was believed, flowed from the predominant support of the state’s minorities, who account for a substantial 18 percent and also a section of the Dalit communities. The state’s western districts, centred around business and industrial centres like Coimbatore, Tiruppur and Salem, are said to be reeling under recessionary trends set off by demonetisation, GST and consequent dearth of old and new jobs, especially in the unorganised sector.

However, the traditional domination of the AIADMK, and meaningful alliance with the BJP and Salem, in non-overlapping contiguous constituencies (and not the same ones) mean that they may have a substantial margin from the past to protect the ruling party in the state.

For instance, in the Coimbatore constituency, the victorious AIADMK from 2014 and the runner-up BJP together now have a high five-lakh vote lead over the DMK-Congress combine, whose candidates independently could not poll three-lakh votes together.

The same however could not be said of ‘transferability’ of alliance votes in other constituencies. Barring Anbumani Ramadoss’s Dharmapuri constituency, where the BJP does have a substantial vote-share, the latter is of little or no use to the PMK ally in the latter’s six other seats.

In the prestigious Central Madras seat, where te DMK’s controversial Dayanidhi Maran is the candidate, the PMK has fielded Sam Paul, whose family owns a corporate chain. Sam Paul is an outsider not only to the constituency’s voters, but also to the cadres of all parties in the alliance.

With senior leaders of all parties tied down to larger campaigning or to their favourite constituencies, whatever the reason, such candidates as Sam Paul may face daily and hourly issues that they may not be able to handle -- or, even make out, at times.

It is also unclear if the BJP’s ‘Hinduvta voters’ and cadres would be putting their heart and soul into the campaign for the PMK in this constituency, where the former may have more votes than the latter -- but both still requiring the field expertise of the AIADMK, which is relatively weak compared to other constituencies in the region.

However, in the northern districts, the AIADMK and the PMK do share vote banks, and there is substantial transferabililty on the surface. Whether it works on the ground would be another matter, which is as much speculative as the transfer of non-existent Congress vote-share in the region to the DMK alliance-leader.

Not only the cadres of the AIADMK and PMK, but even second-line leaders of the two parties at the sub-regional level, including state ministers, have been exchanging barbs against each other since 2001. That apart, the intra-party rebellion within the PMK, or what passes for one, following the death of one-time second-line strongman and former legislator, ‘Kaduvetti’ Guru, has caused a certain discomfiture to the twin Ramadoss’s leadership.

Guru’s supporters, including family members, have publicly complained against the party leadership ignoring him after he fell seriously ill, though when he was active, Ramadoss Sr had publicly declared him to be like a son to him.

It is also a problem that the DMK-led combine may face as the polling day approaches. Already, anti-DMK social media is pointing out how none of the allies have fielded a minority candidate in any of the constituencies, barring Ramanathapuram which was allotted to the Indian Union Muslim League.

In southern-most Kanyakumari constituency with a ‘majority’ of minority votes (read: Christians), the Congress ally of the DMK has fielded Vasantha Kumar, a Hindu-Nadar like BJP’s Pon Radhakrishnan. This, when the local Christian community leaders, including some priests, were reported to have written to Congress president Rahul Gandhi to field a ‘minority’ candidate.

The DMK and Stalin are getting from both ends on the ‘communal card’. On the one hand, perceived Hindutva social media campaigners are running down the DMK’s ‘past track record’ on religion, Hinduism and Hindu gods. Allies like DK leader K Veeramani are not helping matters even at this late hour, by their frontal attacks on Hinduism and Hindu gods.

On the other, not-so-Hindutva campaigners, as may have to be assumed, have started attacking Stalin for not talking pro-minority after hitting the campaign trail. The claim is that the DMK does not want to lose ‘Hindu votes’, of which there are said to be apprehensions of losing some from within traditional party supporters of generations.

This may have already opened a piquant situation for the DMK and allies, especially the former, in some constituencies with a strong ‘minority base’, too. Here, the presence of a strong AMMK candidate could upset the apple cart for the DMK combine, as happened in the post-Jaya R K Nagar assembly by-poll.

In the suburban Chennai constituency, which holds a mirror to the caste and urban-rural composition of the state as a whole, not only did Dhinakaran won the seat by a huge margin, the DMK came a poor third after the ruling AIADMK, losing security deposit.

The DMK’s post-mortem examination of R K Nagar blamed it on the minorities in the constituency voting Dhinakaran after Stalin received prime minister Narendra Modi, who out of the blue came calling on Karunanidhi to enquire about his health, though the DMK patriarch was then maintaining a relatively stable health condition. The DMK could not convince the minority voters and also the cadres at the time that they were not looking at the BJP option then or later. Hence, also the later-day unilateral Stalin declaration, projecting Rahul Gandhi as their prime ministerial candidate -- if only to send out a clear message to the anti-BJP, anti-Modi minority voters all across the state. 

Today, Stalin has been left with holding the stick at the wrong end, all over again, but to what avail, only the results could say, considering that Dhinakaran is considered to be the shrewdest of all campaigners in the state and also as far as individual constituencies are concerned.

This does not mean that the DMK combine is not doing well. The party continues to have a strong base and cadre presence, strengthened by Stalin’s ‘Namakku Naamey’ walkathon across the state in the months ahead of the assembly polls of 2016. Despite the strategy serving its purpose and bringing down the vote-share difference with the victorious AIADMK, which was also the ruling party at the time, to just one per cent (41-40), he has shied away from cultivating the first-generation voters of 2019 likewise.

Yet, DMK insiders claim that twin anti-incumbency against the ruling BJP and AIADMK in the state are seen to be believed, and it would work for their alliance this time -- or, will it?

If the poll discourse has left out Makkal Needhi Maiiyam of actor-politician Kamalahassan, the new chip in the block, it is not without reason. The increasingly polarised campaign, where the late entry of Dhinakaran and AMMK with their ‘Gift Box’ symbol, may have filled the space for a third and emerging force outside of the ‘Dravidian family’, has added to the disheartening of MNM and other peripheral party cadres, including those of the pan-Tamil variety.

It is also Dhinakaran’s presence and his party’s possible performance that the DMK campaign managers are hoping for the polls to do the trick for them -- as much in the LS segment as in the assembly by-poll segment, where the AIADMK state government’s future is hanging by a thin thread just now.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.

N Sathiya Moorthy