Tamil Nadu still remains a jigsaw puzzle

Close fight: With kingmaker Vijayakanth deciding to become king himself, stage is set for an edgy contest

Tamil Nadu still remains a jigsaw puzzle

Either way, history will be made in Tamil Nadu on May 19. If J Jayalalithaa retains power, it will be the first time since 1989 that a ruling party would have returned to power as the state’s political pendulum has swung between the AIADMK and the DMK every other election. Jayalalithaa will emulate her mentor M G Ramachandran (MGR), the only one to win back-to-back elections in 1980 and 1984.

If her bete noir M Karunanidhi manages to romp home, it would be a record sixth term as chief minister. His desire for the chair was reiterated in a TV interview when he dismissed suggestions of anointing son M K Stalin. “Stalin will become chief minister if anything happens to me. For now, even Stalin wants me to be chief minister for the sixth time,” said Karunanidhi.

Both leaders have battled health issues and Karunanidhi proved yet again to be the tougher campaigner. Jayalalithaa took to the skies by flying to her campaign meetings, often held in sizzling afternoons that even claimed the lives of five people, while she sat on air conditioned dais and her MLA candidates sat like dolls at a lower level. In contrast, Karunanidhi hit the roads campaigning from his specially designed van and addressed meetings surrounded by his candidates and often wiping sweat from his brow.

Jayalalithaa (68), who had an air of invincibility about her after the 2014 sweep in the Lok Sabha elections (37 out of 39) and even spurned waiting allies after they refused to contest on her party’s “two leaves” symbol, saw the tide slowly turn against her. She had hoped that the plethora of welfare schemes and freebies like mixers, grinders and laptops, and women-oriented schemes like bridal gold and motherhood kits would keep the women voters – the AIADMK’s base – intact. “Not only will I do what I promise, but also what I have not promised,” she repeated ad nauseum.

But the DMK responded to her wooing of the women voters by touting a trump card – prohibition. The sustained campaign against liquor that has been going on for the last two years received the necessary political backing when the DMK, the original sinner which had lifted prohibition in 1972, swore to bring it back the moment its government was sworn in. That struck a chord with mothers, wives, daughters and liquor widows who had seen their families torn apart due to the addiction of their men.

Jayalalithaa could respond only feebly by promising to introduce prohibition gradually. When asked why she had failed to do it during the last five years, she had no answer. She had also been emboldened by the presence of three new political formations – the six-party combine, Peoples Welfare Front (PWF), that announced actor-turned-politician Vijayakanth as its chief ministerial candidate, the PMK fighting on its own but projecting Anbumani Ramadoss as the chief minister hopeful and the state BJP. Jayalalithaa is confident that the PWF and the PMK would split the anti-AIADMK votes that otherwise would have gone to the DMK. So even if her AIADMK polled less than 40% votes, she would end up with an easy majority.

On the other hand, the DMK has been left with a weakened Congress and its open wooing of Vijayakanth came a cropper. But as the campaign progressed, the PWF failed to make the necessary impact. Vijayakanth’s disoriented style of speaking and doubts about his health were the initial stumbling blocks. Then Vaiko, who is the convener of the front, cried off abruptly blaming caste tensions for his withdrawal when the truth was fear of defeat. And opinion polls also established that the 10-15% votes that the PWF was likely to notch up had not dampened the DMK’s efforts to emerge as the main challenger of the AIADMK.

‘Captain is non-serious’

More and more voters started viewing the DMK as the rival which can dislodge Jayalalithaa and the PWF was staring at diminishing returns. “Voters considered a nonagenarian like Karunanidhi to be better suited for the chief minister’s chair than Vijayakanth, who had reduced himself to a joker by his non-serious approach to the campaign,” pointed out Ramu Manivannan, professor at Madras University.

The AIADMK was also suddenly faced with a strong anti-incumbency wave as many MLAs were shooed away by angry voters. The DMK’s advertisement campaign highlighting Jayalalalithaa’s inaccessibility during the Chennai floods and aloofness from her own party leaders also started to hurt the AIADMK. Two other positives that helped the DMK were the party’s pragmatic manifesto, minus freebies, released at an early stage and the robust campaigning by Stalin. With jokes and variations from old songs, many from MGR’s movies, he laid bare the fault lines of the Jayalalithaa government and was able to establish a direct connect with the voters. “It is a new Stalin that people saw. Gone were his reticence and stiffness. Instead they saw someone who spoke and joked like a friend,” said a former DMK minister.

As a last resort, Jayalalithaa had delayed her manifesto raising expectations of goodies that she planned to shower. Instead, a free cellphone and a two-wheeler for women at 50% subsidy failed to make any waves. Moreover, many of the promises, like writing off of farmers’ and students’ educational loans, had already been mentioned by the DMK in its manifesto, and it had gained wider currency and greater credibility. As the race became tighter, Jayalalithaa was compelled to spend more time in her Chennai constituency and dispatched ministers to troubleshoot in weak areas.

“The biggest deficit in the AIADMK campaign was that Jayalalithaa was its sole campaigner. When Jayalalithaa had to go about and flaunt what she had achieved, she was seen like a school girl trumpeting her good looks. When your achievements are encapsulated by someone else, they become more believable,” felt Arun Krishnan, a marketing professional.

In the absence of a wave, either for or against, with at least three other fronts present as spoilers, election 2016 is expected to be, too, hazardous to predict. Even the scorching summer heat and the possibility of a hung Assembly with a handful of MLAs from the other three  fronts calling the shots had been presented as a safe option. But the TN voter has been smarter, voting decisively and is unlikely to waver from the path where the two Dravidian majors are the only serious contestants, rather than a hotchpotch Third Front or a caste-based alternative.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Chennai)

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