By getting the Tamil Nadu assembly to act on his very imaginative public declaration to keep petro-chemical industries out of the Cauvery delta, which has traditionally been a DMK stronghold, Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami has not only set the ball rolling for the assembly elections due a year later but also sent out a strong message to the BJP government at the Centre, which took a unilateral decision to exempt petro-complexes from environmental clearance, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
As if setting a reception for rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s celebrated poll strategist Prashant Kishor, Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami too has set the ball rolling early on for the much-awaited state assembly elections, which are due by May 2021.
To this end, and responding to the DMK’s intervening taunts, EPS, as he is commonly known, got the assembly to act on his very imaginative public declaration to keep petro-chemical industries out of the Cauvery delta, which has traditionally been a DMK stronghold.
Through the past several decades of elections since the All India Anna DMK broke away from the DMK in 1972, the Cauvery delta districts of pre-partitioned Thanjavur and Tiruchi have remained a DMK stronghold. It may have owed to the fact of party boss Karunanidhi hailing from those parts, but even more so to the veterans who had established a strong political base for the DMK in those parts.
In comparison, the party is weak in the southern and western regions. The AIADMK especially has dominated the electoral scene in the latter all through -- other than ‘sweep polls’ like in 1996, in which the Jayalalithaa-led ruling party had been mauled.
With the completion of three years in office, since he took over in February 2017, EPS has also become the longest-serving ‘Dravidian’ chief minister after party founder MGR, successor Jayalalithaa and DMK rival M Karunanidhi. Others, including party founder C N Annadurai, EPS’s deputy O Panneerselvam (OPS) and MGR’s widow Janakri Ramachandran, come lower in the rung.
The fact of EPS being able to take on the ‘Sasikala onslaught’, even if from a Bengaluru prison, despite owing his chief ministerial seat to her, and also had to tackle his immediate predecessor turned intermittent rival OPS, and has emerged stronger within the party, has made the common man take a closer look at the man than even during the disastrous parliamentary polls last year.
In a state where strong political leaders attract a charisma of their own this is saying a lot, though that may not be the only issue on which the assembly elections would be joined.
Against the AIADMK and EPS, who is now running a more cohesive organisation than ahead of the LS poll defeat -- and is also signalling so – the DMK’s M K Stalin has a better evaluation report. The party’s Congress ally brings in more votes with lesser noise than even in the equally disastrous 2011 assembly polls, which became a ‘2-G poll’ for the party and the alliance.
Given the national reality, the Congress needs the DMK more than otherwise -- and both sides have realised the same, down to the cadre-level.
The avoidable Citizenship (Amendment) Act issue at the national-level has consolidated the ‘minority votes’ in favour of the DMK-Congress combine just now, more than in the LS elections. It may remain so, in the absence of any major policy-deviation by the alliance partners.
Against this, the AIADMK is caught in the web of the BJP ruling the Centre, with even party cadres taunting the leadership on the need to be seen as being strong on its own.
The cadres want not only the leader to emerge strong, but also the party of MGR and Jayalalithaa to be seen as so. They feel that this is also the time for the AIADMK to demonstrate its independence from the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pull and pressures.
To them, the new Cauvery delta protection move is also aimed at sending out a strong message from a public platform to the BJP Centre, which took a unilateral decision to exempt petro-complexes from environmental clearance.
In places like Neduvasal and others along the Cauvery delta in the state, new petro complexes have become a huge public issue.
Going by past Dravidian leadership precedents, the party in power has always flexed its muscle against the party ruling the Centre only when the incumbent leadership had consolidated its position, at least within the party concerned. They have definitely done so without haggling too long is also the point that the cadres are now making.
The question is if the ruling party would have the state assembly, now in session, to pass a resolution against the CAA? If it adopts such a course, it could put the DMK combine again on the defensive, as they would be left with little choice but to vote in favour. A boycott or a procedural walk-out will only lead to greater embarrassment for the DMK leadership.
Yet, it would still amount to only winning a debating point, or a tactical victory. In strategic terms, the AIADMK can forget the ‘minority votes’ for the 2021 elections. Translated, it is enough for the DMK alliance partners to ensure that they retain their traditional vote-share, outside of the minorities, who had displayed an ambivalent electoral stand under Jayalalithaa’s leadership of the AIADMK after identifying almost wholly with the Karunanidhi-led DMK in the previous decades.
The fight thus will be for the ‘swing voters’, who have once again begun to dictate the state’s electoral course, after a break in elections 2011 and 2014.
Ahead of the assembly polls a year later, the BJP at the Centre seems more keen on having the DMK out of the way in Tamil Nadu, more than wanting the rival AIADMK continue in power. This tentativeness is felt by the AIADMK leadership and cadres alike. The party seems to have given up on early hopes of replacing the AIADMK, if not the DMK, in the state, post-Jayalalithaa, post-Karunanidhi.
If the 2019 LS polls ended the BJP dream, its interim plans, hoping for political aspirant in superstar Rajinikanth to float a party of his own, as promised for the assembly polls seems getting increasingly stymied. After making bold statements defending the CAA, Rajinikanth also became the first public face in the country to blame the central government for the Delhi riots.
Over the past weeks and months, the DMK, especially Stalin as the leader, has been focussing excessively on CAA protests and allied issues, more than on any livelihood issue of the voter. The idea seems to be for the DMK wanting to consolidate minority votes independent of the Congress ally, to provide an edge in seat negotiations talks, whenever it came up.
The BJP seems to hope that this could help divide the majority Hindu votes, but the ruling AIADMK is not so sure -- or, so it seems. It will however be left to Prashant Kishor to repackage the DMK and the Stalin leadership for the ‘swing voters’, who are concerned more about their immediate surroundings, as elections through the past 100-plus years have shown.
The inspiration is the way PK is believed to have done in the case of Delhi’s AAP chief minister Arvind Kejriwal more recently and of Prime Minister Modi, in his first national poll outing in 2014.
The AIADMK leadership thus seems wanting to garner those ‘swing voters’ earlier than PK could do it for the DMK, through his innovative and soft campaign the likes of which have not succeeded in the state in the past.
EPS has also become more aggressive against the DMK rival, both inside the assembly and outside, more than during the LS poll campaign, and more than a rout then could justify, otherwise.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.