April 18 will be a watershed day for both the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) as the Dravidian majors face their biggest test for the first time after their leading lights faded away from the world. The elections to 39 Lok Sabha seats and by-elections to 18 Assembly constituencies could determine the future of both parties, which are currently being helmed by a new leadership.
DMK’s Karunanidhi and AIADMK’s Jayalalithaa dominated the political landscape for decades together and after their deaths both parties are finding it enormously difficult to fill the void left by them.
Though the leadership issue in the party is settled firmly in his favour, DMK President MK Stalin will face an acid test this election. While he has everything on the platter to pull off a remarkable show – a state government that wakes up to a crisis every day; visible anti-incumbency against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a rejuvenated DMK cadre – there is no denying that this election will be seen as a test of his political mettle.
That said, it is also Stalin’s best opportunity to convince people that he is the right person to administer the state, irrespective of when Assembly elections are held (they are scheduled for 2021 but the 18 Assembly by-elections could have a bearing on the future of the Tamil Nadu government). Moreover, if the DMK wins a ‘respectable’ number of seats in the Lok Sabha polls, the party could play a major role in case of a hung parliament.
For now, Stalin has ensured that there are no rumblings in the alliance led by the DMK. He took a leaf out of his father’s political playbook as far as handing alliance partners goes and satisfied them with the number of seats they wanted from him. DMK’s promise to do away with NEET and ensure the release of Rajiv Gandhi’s killers would certainly cut ice with the people, though the AIADMK has also pledged to do exactly the same (the latter could not achieve these objectives despite being ‘friendly’ with the BJP, however.)
Stalin seems to be banking heavily on the ‘failures’ of the Modi and Edappadi administrations at the Centre and in the state respectively, and an expected split of AIADMK votes by rebel leader, TTV Dhinakaran, to turn the tide in the DMK alliance’s favour. If the DMK wins big this election, it would help the party build momentum for 2021 and capture power after a gap of 10 years. However, a defeat or loss of a majority of seats would take the sheen off him and would dampen the spirits of the cadre.
The AIADMK, for its part, looks bruised two years after its charismatic leader J Jayalalithaa’s death but on the face of it, CM, Edappadi K Palaniswami, and Deputy CM, O Panneerselvam, seem to be firm in their saddle having governed for more than two years. The fight for Jayalalithaa’s legacy continues since her death and the election results might resolve the debate, albeit for now.
Facing anti-incumbency, the AIADMK has stitched up a formidable alliance with the BJP, PMK, DMDK and a few other parties. More than the Lok Sabha polls, the AIADMK seems to be interested in saving its government in the state and is pulling all stops to win the maximum number of Assembly seats in the by-polls.
This is a tough election for the AIADMK – the party badly misses Jayalalithaa’s charisma and is at pains to explain its new-found love towards the BJP, which is still seen as an outsider in Tamil Nadu. The election will also serve as a referendum on the government’s moves, like the laying of an eight-way lane from Chennai to Salem; closure of the Sterlite Plant protests against which saw 13 people die in police firing.
Though the AIADMK seems to be in a crisis, Palaniswami has proved his mettle by firming up an alliance and ensuring that he faces no opposition from within. He has restricted the BJP to five seats – it got seven under Jayalalithaa in 2004 – and ensured that tough bargainers like the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) fall in line. He has also deftly elicited the support of all alliance partners for the by-elections to the 18 Assembly constituencies.
The AIADMK’s biggest challenge comes Dhinakaran, whose family carries influence with the dominant Thevar vote bank, which had propelled the party to power. The rebel leader has taken both the AIADMK and BJP leadership head-on, drawing a sizeable number of party cadre to his side.
Though Dhinakaran’s outfit does not have a common symbol for all contestants, he is confident of a good showing in the elections and has already made inroads into several areas. For example, the Dhinakaran faction is expected to do well in Southern Tamil Nadu, which accounts for 10 Lok Sabha seats, and in parts of Northern Tamil Nadu. Whatever the results may be, the fight for Jayalalithaa’s legacy is likely to continue dominating the politics in Tamil Nadu for a few more years.