The deaths of Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi within months of each other neutralises any sympathy factor their parties may hope to gain from. What’s more, by removing charismatic leaders from the fray, it also levels the field for others, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
Nature may have removed two towering personalities from the face of Tamil Nadu, but the death of chief minister Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK (in December 2016) and nonagenarian rival in DMK’s Muthuvel Karunanidhi (August 2018 ) in as many years does not necessarily mean that there is an emerging, if not existing, political vacuum in ‘Dravidian politics’, for 12th man-type ‘national players’ or ‘extra players’ of the Rajinikanth/Kamal Hassan kind to try their leadership luck, and hope to win in the first outing.
If anything, Nature has already created a ‘level-playing field’ for the Big Two Dravidian parties, by removing their respective leaders of great political cunning, charisma and determination, almost at a single stroke, and between two elections -- the 2016 state assembly polls and the Lok Sabha elections next year.
Given the timing and circumstances of the death of the two leaders, neither party can hope to obtain any ‘sympathy vote’ of the kind that the Indira Gandhi assassination (1984) or the Rajiv Gandhi killing (1991) brought for the Congress-centric alliances across the nation. In Tamil Nadu, ruling AIADMK under an ailing M G Ramachandran (1984) and his political heir Jayalalithaa, who was tentative and even unsure of continuing in politics (1991) benefited, electorally -- but not this time.
Months down the line, DMK’s M K Stalin too would find it difficult to sustain in electoral terms, any ‘sympathy wave’ caused by Karunanidhi’s death now. However, the avoidable controversy created by the non-allocation of a Marina site for his burial by the post-Jaya AIADMK state government of Chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, may have already set the tone for the 2019 poll campaign.
It’s not over a dead Karunanidhi, but over the political relevance it suddenly has given to the ruling party. The AIADMK needed it the most to stay relevant in the political context despite being in administrative control of the state. The party was losing at least some of its cadre sheen to the breakaway Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam in recent months.
Despite the perceptions of a black-out by the local media, both Tamil and English, AMMK’s second-in-command, T T V Dhinakaran, has been drawing huge crowds for his district-wise rallies in recent months. The party was launched with founding leader V K Sasikala Natarajan already in prison, serving a four-year jail-term in the ‘disproportionate assets case’ against her friend and master, Jayalalithaa, during the latter’s first term as chief minister (1991-96).
‘Usurpers of the Dravidian throne’, as insiders in these two parties see the rest of them, may have been outplayed already as the ‘early’ death of Jayalalithaa and Karunaidhi, long before any impending elections, has also given the state’s voters enough time to adjust to the reality of their exit and re-adjust to polity and politics without them.
Today, Edappadi is seen as chief minister and AIADMK boss (though that part sits uncomfortably on the shoulders of his once-estranged deputy chief minister, O Panneerselvam) still. In DMK, over the past couple of decades especially, and more so since the turn of the current decade, cadres and voters alike have got used to acknowledging Stalin as party boss and chief ministerial candidate.
With the exit of the two leaders, there is also no unequal competition on the issue of charisma of either out-beating the political heir of the other, squarely. There is however the charisma vacuum that may remain for all time to come. At least, it may take time for Tamil Nadu to throw up another charismatic leader, or leaders.
On the question of performance, too, Palaniswami has come to be seen as chief minister, and his performance alone will be now weighed at election time -- not always compared to that of his predecessor but against that of competitor Stalin.
The latter too stands on a relatively strong wicket, at least for a DMK leader for now, what with his mayoralty of Chennai corporation (1996-2001) and a term as deputy chief minister in the DMK regime of 2006-11, giving him the self-confidence that he purportedly lacked, and the voter, the confidence that he is someone who cannot be and should not be written off, without being tested.
For about decade now, and closer to Jaya’s hospitalisation and a simultaneous deterioration in Karunanidhi’s health, some busy-bodies have been hoping and talking about an impending political vacuum in the state after the exit of one, if not both. Be it as it may, by taking them both almost at once, Nature has created a level playing field for the new player in the ‘Dravidian team’, in Dhinakaran and AMMK.
The last time a ‘rival force’ emanated from within the Dravidian scheme in a big way, MGR broke away from the DMK to float the AIADMK. If then Congress leader and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the national-level and Congress-O veteran, K Kamaraj in the state, had anticipated that it would weaken the Dravidian polity to their (collective) advantage later on, it was not to be.
Instead, with Emergency and attendant issues that make it necessary for her, Indira Gandhi did not have time and energy to focus on Tamil Nadu as she might have thought. The death of Kamaraj and the increasing alienation of the non-committed voters that had cast their lot with the DMK in 1967 and 1971 elections veered towards MGR with his ‘corruption-free’ personal image and ‘do-gooder’ image that he imported to his political personality from his screen presence. The rest, as they say, is history.
The next possibility occurred in two instalments, almost around the same time. First, post-MGR, the AIADMK split but rejoined after the two factions lost out to a re-emergent DMK under the waiting hawk in Karunanidhi. That was in elections 89 to the state assembly, but then the party and the leader lost the initiative after the Rajiv Gandhi assassination to a re-united AIADMK under Jayalalithaa in elections ’91.
The other was the second DMK split in 1993, when Vaiko, then V Gopalswamy, broke away to float the MDMK, but today the party is a shadow of its original self, and the common man has no time for the party or its leader.
When the Congress alternative from the national-level thought that they were ready to fill the non-existent ‘vacuum’, Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao’s unclear approach to an ‘arrogant’ Jayalalithaa regime led to the late G K Moopanar walking out of the party and forming the Tamil Maanila Congress, only to align with the DMK rival from the ’60s on. The DMK won this time because of the Moopanar’s ‘good certificate’ for Karunanidhi, but then the Congress lost the 20 per cent vote-share from elections ’89 for good, some of it to the emerging BJP rival from the national-level.
In more recent decades and elections, following in the footpath of the Congress rival, the BJP too ‘compromised’ the party’s Tamil Nadu interests for alternating electoral alliances with the AIADMK (1998) and the DMK (1999), with a higher voter-contribution going up to 5-7 per cent, only to fall to the standard 2-3 per cent later on. If in 2014 and 2016 the BJP had to go on its own, in the company of either of the two major Dravidian parties as local allies, it was their decision, and not that of the Modi-Shah leadership. The results showed that it was also the truth.
In between, for a decade between 1996 and 2006 or thereabouts, both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa as chief ministers kept the focus near-exclusively on their traditional, local rivals by having them arrested and arraigned on corruption charges. Court proceedings and convictions apart, this was enough to keep the other person staying back and fighting with his or her back to the wall, and for survival. Any third party or leader that tried to walk in between the two ferocious political animals was smothered electorally.
It is this part of history that the new competition should consider while evaluating the current situation or the positioning / re-positioning of Dhinakaran and AMMK. By creating a new ‘Dravidian political entity’ without the original ‘Dravidian ideological identity’ post-Karunanidhi, Dhinakaran may have kindled interest in other pan-Tamil segments, which have been the backbone of peaceful protests of the pro-Jallikattu kind.
Today, DMK, AIADMK and AMMK may not talk pan-Tamil politics per se, but these are sections that would not trust a ‘national party’ of the BJP/ Congress kind or market-centred film star-politicians of the Rajini-Kamal kind, if they are really looking for an electoral alternative -- for reasons that are more real than in the ideological past. It may not be a ‘positive vote’ for the ‘Dravidian polity’, but it may continue to be a ‘negative vote’ against the rest, the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi included.
There is a lesson thus in the Jaya-led AIADMK’s near clean sweep in the parliamentary polls of 2014. While the ‘Modi wave’ swept across the rest of the country, it had weakened and dissipated when it crossed into ‘Dravidian’ Tamil Nadu at land’s end.
Jaya’s “Modi-ya, Lady-ya?” campaign call to the voters worked not because the Tamil Nadu voters loved her, but because they had decided to vote against Modi and the BJP one more time, and had only to choose between the Dravidian rivals, namely the AIADMK and the DMK, more charismatic Jayalalithaa and less charismatic Stalin (what with Karunanidhi going slower than already on the political and electoral fronts).
But then in elections 2016, Stalin had come to be accepted as the right foil for Jayalalithaa, who was also the incumbent chief minister, with the result the DMK-led alliance with Congress as an ally won the highest number of 98 seats in the 234-member assembly for the ‘loser’, with the lowest-ever vote-share margin of one per cent (41-40 per cent).
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.