As Tamil Nadu Polls Approach, All Talk is of Alliances

Ahead of the May 2016 assembly elections, the wall space in Chennai was dominated by the current chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s—Amma to her supporters—government. REUTERS/Babu
22 March, 2016

In Tamil Nadu, the first signs of change are visible on the walls of its capital Chennai. The beginning of a political alliance, the emergence of a new campaign or the posturing of an incumbent government—all play out on the graffiti painted on the walls, or the posters that that often cover it.

A couple of weeks before the election commission’s model code of conduct, (which asked the district administration to remove all political posters and banners) was imposed across the state ahead of the May 2016 assembly elections, the wall space was dominated by the achievements of the current chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s—Amma to her supporters—government. Strictly adhering to the brief issued by the chief minister to her party, the walls were painted with details of the various welfare schemes initiated by her government. The only thing punctuating the political propaganda were her pictures, most of which show her handing out freebies under a government scheme.

The “Brand Amma” is clearly the campaign strategy for the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) as it hopes to win the state polls for the seventh time since the late 1970s. From the popular success of the unavagams, the canteens selling wholesome meals at a subsidised cost, to the baby kits for young mothers, cement bags, packaged water bottles, the free laptops distributed to students, bags of salt, seeds, boards outside vegetable shops, pharmacies and movie halls, “Amma” firmly stamped her presence on practically everything.

According to figures released in the 2015-16 state budget, the state government spent 36.8 percent of its annual budget on social welfare programmes. Jayalalithaa is betting on these freebie schemes—some of which are yet to take-off and some of which have found their way into flourishing grey markets— to see her through the 2016 assembly polls.

For most of last year, she had seemed assured of her success, but in December, signs emerged that her confidence had been rattled a bit. Speaking at her party’s general council meeting, held in Chennai on 30 December, Jayalalithaa hinted at the possibility of a coalition partner in the polls. Her address to party workers suggested that she was keeping her options open. “I will take the right decision at the right time,” she said. There is no single strategy that can win all elections.” She reminded her party workers that in both the 2009 parliamentary polls and the 2011 assembly polls, the AIADMK had electoral allies. Her address did not mention that in 2011, she had been confident of winning on her own steam but had formed an alliance with the DMDK under pressure from party men. The 2011 grand alliance included the left parties, Manithanya Makkal Katchi, Puthiya Tamalikam and All India Forward Bloc.

It appears that this time, however, she is not as sure. Many political analysts attributed the open talk of an alliance to the negative publicity her government faced for the handling of the December deluge, which affected six districts in Tamil Nadu.

Jayalalithaa and the AIADMK were not the first in Tamil Nadu to talk of potential poll partners. In the last few months, the state’s politics have been dominated by suggestive hints and numerous rounds of wedding card diplomacy between leaders across the political spectrum.

While talks of alliances continue, the first coalition of the blocks was formed in October 2015: the People’s Welfare Front (PWF), a coming together of Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), Thol Thirumavalan’s Dalit party Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and the left parties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India. Cobbled together as an alternative to the two main Dravidian parties in the state—the AIADMK and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the other leading party, chaired by the former chief minister M Karunanidhi—the PWF slowly attracted leaders from across political ideologies. Initial speculation that the parties may fall out as polls approach is being replaced by the likelihood of the coalition splitting the anti-government votes even if they don’t win many seats. The PWF has already completed the first phase of their election campaign.

The other alliance that has firmly taken shape is between the DMK and Congress. The allies had fallen apart in 2013 over the inaction of the Congress government for the crimes committed against Tamils in Sri Lanka. Though seat sharing is an issue that will probably see many rounds of negotiations in the coming weeks, for now, the two parties have agreed to stick together.

But the most sought-after politician in the state has, without a doubt, been the former actor Vijayakanth, the founder and leader of the Desiya Morpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK). In 2006, when the DMDK contested alone, it had won only one seat. In the 2011 assembly polls, the AIADMK front, a coalition of 11 parties including the DMDK, won 203 of the 234 constituencies in the state. With 151 seats, the AIADMK alone secured a simple majority, and formed the government independently. Vijayakanth’s DMDK won 29 seats, six higher than those won by the DMK, and chose to be the opposition.

Widely considered the “kingmaker” of the 2011 polls due to the vote share he brought with him, Vijayakanth has been wooed by many a party in the past few months. Both the PWF and the Bharatiya Janata Party held talks with him. In the last couple of months, Karunanidhi has often spoken of a grand alliance, a DMK-DMDK-Congress combine, with the support from smaller parties such as Krishnasamy’s Puthiya Tamizhagam and the India Union Muslim League.

Well aware that the projected six to nine per cent vote share of the DMDK could be a game changer in an election without margins as clear as 2011, the “Captain”—a moniker Vijayakanth was given after the success of his 1991 film Captain Prabhakaran—kept everyone guessing until 10 March 2016. Speaking at a DMDK women’s rally, Vijayakanth put an end to all speculation. He thanked all the party leaders that had visited him and offered an alliance, but categorically stated that the DMDK would fight these polls under its own steam. He said he was heeding the call from his party workers at a recent meet in Kancheepuram to be the “king and not kingmaker.”

This decision caught many, especially the DMK, off guard.

Since the revered actor and politician MG Ramanchandran, or MGR’s 11-year-tenure ended in 1988, the Tamil Nadu electorate has voted out the incumbent government in every election. The formation of the PWF practically forced the DMK to cement a “grand alliance” to ensure a fair shot at power. Yesterday, Karunanidhi told the press that he is still hopeful of an alliance with the MDMK. Aware of the electoral pattern, the AIADMK is looking to stay ahead with a similar alliance, which, in all probability, will include GK Vasan’s Tamil Manila Congress, and Sarath Kumar’s All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi.

A factor that will come into play now is the BJP.

In the past few months there has been a lot of buzz around the Modi-Jaya bonhomie, and whether it is likely come together in the form of a poll pact. With the final decisions in the disproportionate assets case against Jayalalithaa and the 2G case pending, political analysts have said that sticking with the BJP might give the chief minister some leverage. On the other hand, a number of smaller parties in the state are opposed to the BJP and an association with them might impact the crucial Dalit and Muslim vote bank of the AIADMK, making a BJP-AIADMK alliance unlikely.

With no clear signal from the AIADMK, the BJP also held backdoor talks with the DMK, hoping to enter a pre-poll pact with them. But the party chief Karunanidhi has ruled out the possibility on more than one occasion, isolating the BJP in the state.

The BJP, which had won a mere two percent votes in the 2011 assembly polls, is also trying to revive the now-defunct National Democratic Alliance in the state. The senior BJP leader L Ganesan said that their allies during the previous Lok Sabha polls would remain allies. But Ganesan’s optimism seems to be misplaced. The slide for the BJP in the state has been quite rapid. Almost immediately after the Lok Sabha polls in 2014, Vaiko accused the centre of being “against Tamils,” and quit the NDA. Slowly, the NDA’s other allies, the Pattali Makkal Katchi and the DMDK also dissociated from the BJP.

The one party unlikely to return to a BJP alliance is the PMK. A lone rider, the PMK has projected the former union minister Anbumani Ramadoss as its chief ministerial candidate and has been running a well-planned campaign since July 2015. With a social media-savvy campaign calling for change, the PMK has engaged with voters, promising a manifesto that is made incorporating their suggestions. It is also using the growing call for prohibition in the state as a poll plank.

As is always the case with elections, the last two months have seen a lot of grandstanding and posturing. Barbs exchanged by parties have given way to open attacks. With all parties having already initiated tours of the state, including Karunanidhi’s son and DMK second-in-command Stalin’s recently concluded state-wide tour Nammake Naame (We for Us), the battle lines have been drawn.

With a grand alliance of sorts unlikely now, cadres are waiting for the last minute parlaying between parties to end. As soon as a clear picture of the political alignments emerges, the cadres will launch a high-pitch campaign.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece erroneously stated that the DMDK had won one seat in an election held in 1996. The election was held in 2006. The Caravan regrets the error.