Elections have always excited me. And the one to the Tamil Nadu Assembly, scheduled for May 8, 2006 looks like a difficult one to study. There are no issues and no wave. This at least is the impression from the media and I am not travelling the way I would across the State to feel the mood for myself. Well, good enough reasons to simply fall back and recall history.
April 1, 2006
Assembly Elections: Changing Dynamics in Tamil Nadu
The election scene in Tamil Nadu has changed considerably since Jayalalithaa's debacle in the Lok Sabha polls of 2004. The relative regional strength of constituent parties within the two rival alliances will determine the outcome in 2006.
V Krishna Ananth
Among the states where elections will be held in April-May 2006, the situation seems most complicated in Tamil Nadu. Part of this is due to the ease with which such parties like the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), headed by Vaiko and the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI), headed by Thol Tirumavalavan, walked out of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA) just a few days before the poll schedule was notified. The key to understanding the poll scene in the state, however, lies in analysing the caste andalliance dynamics in each subregion of Tamil Nadu.
While Vaiko’s MDMK had contested the 2001 state assembly polls alone, Thol Tirumavalavan of the DPI had fought and won the May 2001 assembly elections as a DMK candidate. Both Vaiko and Tirumavalavan were seen talking with the DMK even as they were negotiating with J Jayalalithaa’s All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
After Vaiko’s exit from the front, the DMK chief, M Karunanidhi went about dealing with his other allies in real earnest. Karunanidhi was in a hurry because he could not rule out the possibility of further desertion from the DPA. An alliance as broad as possible was an imperative for the DMK, and Karunanidhi could have persisted with the “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude that he had followed with the MDMK only at his own peril.
It is a different matter that the DMK chief had adopted an antagonistic position vis-a-vis Vaiko. The MDMK leader was growing in stature and was buying time to lead the DMK ranks after Karunanidhi. And the DMK supremo knew that his son, M K Stalin did not have it in him to emerge as the natural leader of the party as long as Vaiko too aimed for that position. Vaiko’s exit was something that Karunanidhi then facilitated, even if with reluctance. The DMK chief as well as others in the coalition know well the adverse impact of Vaiko’s switch on their own prospects. They had all hoped that Vaiko would, once again, decide to go it alone and set up a third front. But for the MDMK this would have meant five more years in oblivion. The party had failed to secure a single assembly seat in 1996 and in 2001. The MDMK’s support base is spread across the state and does not exceed a few thousand votes in each constituency. While it is true that it has widened its support base from 2001, it has certainly not grown enough to capture the imagination of the voters. Vaiko’s survival instinct then was behind his decision to strike a deal with Jayalalithaa.
As for Jayalalithaa, the deal with the MDMK and a possible understanding with actor Vijaykanth (whose fledgling party continues to posture that it will field candidates in all the 234 constituencies) will help her widen her support. In a polity where caste and other denominational categories determine the choice of a majority of the voters, the AIADMK deals are significant. The most important development, however, insofar as the AIADMK is concerned, is its alliance with Tirumavalavan’s DPI, which gives the party the space to reinvent itself in north Tamil Nadu, where the AIADMK had become weak after the DPI emerged as a force. This is also the region where the DMK had struck its roots for long and its ally, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), is now a strong force. A brief foray into the past would throw light on the scenario in north Tamil Nadu.
It is possible to identify three distinct stages in the post-independence politics of Tamil Nadu. The first couple of decades (until 1967) were when the Congress remained the natural choice; then there were the years 1967 to 1975 when the DMK appeared invincible. This was followed by what can be called the MGR era (1977-87) during which the Congress reinvented itself to a position from where it could not win on its own but it could influence the poll outcome. It, therefore, became important for the DMK and the AIADMK to build an alliance with the Congress. This phase continued until the 1996 general elections when the DMK managed to sweep the polls in alliance with the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC).
The results of the 1998 general elections marked a watershed in that they established the extent of fragmentation in the polity and its impact on the poll scenario. The 1998 election established the maturing of sorts of a political reality in which outfits that were subregional in the geographical sense and parties that denied any notion of a Tamil national identity came of age. The most important example was the growth of the PMK, which had established itself in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu, filling the vacuum left by the Tamil Nadu Toilers Party (TNTP) of the 1950s. The TNTP, it may be recalled, had arrived on the scene in northern Tamil Nadu representing the aspirations of the vanniyar community which constituted the backward caste population in the region. The party had won 19 seats in the 1951-52 elections to the Madras state assembly and secured three Lok Sabha seats. This brought out very clearly the social base of the nucleus of an anti-Congress political platform in the long run.
While the TNTP (and the Common Wheel Party, another political expression of OBC aspiration) did not last long, the socio-political space came to be occupied by the DMK. In the 1962 assembly elections, the DMK’s success came in the region where the TNTP had held sway since 1952. And in 1967, when the Congress was swept aside, the DMK and its ally, the Swatantra Party, won all the 17 Lok Sabha constituencies in the north Tamil Nadu.1
The point is that in the first decade of the DMK’s existence the party’s social base was constituted by the vanniyars largely because of the community’s animosity towards the Congress after Jawaharlal Nehru foisted C Rajagopalachari as chief minister of Madras even after the Congress had failed to win a clear majority in the assembly. The community detested the Congress machinations against one of their own heading the state government, which would have been the first such non-Congress coalition.2 After the formation of the PMK in the mid-1980s there was a clear and substantial erosion of the DMK’s base among the vanniyar community which had shifted its allegiance to the PMK.
The shift followed a long drawn-out agitation, violent in form, demanding that the vanniyars be classified as most backward classes for state government jobs. The agitation gave S Ramdoss the necessary space to arrive on the Tamil Nadu political scene in much the same manner as Charan Singh had emerged in Uttar Pradesh in the 1960s and Mayawati in the 1990s. Like Charan Singh and Mayawati, the core of the PMK leader’s strategy was to become a strong (marginal) player through consolidation of an exclusive vote-bank and use this status to negotiate a larger role for himself in the political establishment as well as the mainstream. The results of the elections after 1998, when the PMK proved its worth as an ally of both the AIADMK and the DMK, cannot be ignored.3 This, however, seems to be changing. The fact that the PMK has agreed to remain in the DMK-led alliance with only 31 seats cannot but be seen as an indication of the party supremo, Ramdoss, realising his weakness. The PMK agreed to such a deal even when the Congress, which cannot claim a monopoly over any social group, was given 48 assembly constituencies in the DMK-led alliance.
The PMK’s social base, consisting of the vanniyar community, was built on an agenda that sought the exclusion of the dalits in north Tamil Nadu and this was consolidated through a violent campaign. Dalit assertion was represented by the DPI, whose strategy too was built on the idea of exclusion. This, however, underwent a change in the past couple of years after Ramdoss and Tirumavalavan attempted an alliance between them under the banner of the Tamil Protection Movement. They were bound by an empathy with the liberation movement in Sri Lanka and the LTTE. As a result, there seems to have been a shift, at least among a section of the vanniyars, towards the DMK. After Tirumavalavan struck the recent deal with the AIADMK, Ramdoss was reduced to a situation of accepting whatever the DMK was willing to concede to it. As for the AIADMK, with Tirumavalavan in its fold, it can hope to revive its vote-bank among the dalits in the region. The dalit votes were the mainstay of the AIADMK in north Tamil Nadu during the MGR era and are now with the DPI.
In south Tamil Nadu, there is a different kind of dynamics at play. It is in the districts of Madurai, Virudhunagar and Theni that the AIADMK is the strongest. The position of Sasikala Natarajan, Jayalalithaa’s close friend, in the AIADMK has drawn the thevar community, the most numerous backward castes, in the region into its fold. It is true that the dalits in this region – predominantly the pallar community – are alienated from the party. But the DMK-led front may not gain because the dalits here are still with the independent Puthiya Tamizhagham, led by K Krishnasamy. Vaiko’s influence is strongest in south Tamil Nadu and so, the AIADMK front can look forward to a rich harvest in this region. Further south, in the Tirunelveli and the Kanyakumari districts, the Congress and the Left can claim their presence and this perhaps is where the DMK-led combine can look forward to a relatively good performance. In western Tamil Nadu consisting of the Coimbatore, Erode and Dindigul districts, the social divisions are not as clearly pronounced as they are elsewhere in Tamil Nadu. The dalits – the arunthathiyars – are yet to organise themselves in a political sense and with the feudal shackles still in place, they remain a subservient lot allowing the gounders, the predominant backward caste group, to determine their political choice. In political terms, the west has been an AIADMK bastion and there is little indication of a change in that direction.
Given all these factors, the outcome of the May 8, 2006 polls in Tamil Nadu is difficult to predict with any certainty. While the exit of the MDMK from the DMK-led front has demoralised the parties in the DPA combine, the AIADMK, after being swept aside in the May 2004 general elections, appears to have regained a lot of strength. The Jayalalithaa government has retrieved some ground with its welfare schemes; one of them being the distribution of bicycles to children from the socially backward classes. Similarly, the state government’s response to the 2004 tsunami and the floods that lashed the state during November-December 2005 appear to have earned the AIADMK some goodwill. Jayalalithaa had also revoked the harsh decisions taken against the state government employees after the July 2003 strike. It remains to be seen if all this will have any impact on the polls.
Meanwhile, the DMK, contesting in only 129 of the 234 assembly seats will have to come to terms with the idea of a coalition government, for it is indeed impossible in the given situation for the party to win as many as 118 assembly seats out of the 129 it is contesting. The PMK and the Congress are bound to insist on a coalition if the front manages to win a majority. All this reflects the extent to which the polity has been fragmented in Tamil Nadu and signifies the strength of the marginal players in the state political arena.
1 While the Swatantra Party won from Karur, all the other 16 Lok Sabha seats in north Tamil Nadu went to the DMK. The DMK had won 25 Lok Sabha seats in 1967. 2 In 1952, the Congress Party had won only 150 of the 375 assembly seats in the then Madras state (consisting of the Malabar district of present- day Kerala, large tracts from present day Andhra Pradesh and some parts of Karnataka) and a coalition consisting of the CPI (with 62 MLAs), the Praja Socialist Party (with 35 seats), the TNTP (19 MLAs) and a majority of the 64 independent MLAs was attempted under the leadership of T Prakasam at that time. Nehru’s Congress Party scuttled this by appointing Rajagopalachari as chief minister. He then “managed’’ a majority by splitting some of the smaller groups and enlisting them as Congress Party MLAs. 3 The alliance with the PMK helped the AIADMK gain in a big way in 1998. After the humiliating loss it suffered in 1996, when the AIADMK was wiped out and Jayalalithaa herself lost at the elections, the results of the 1998 Lok Sabha elections were stunning. The AIADMK emerged as a force that propped up the BJP-led NDA and also brought it down in 1999. The PMK’s worth was established again in 1999 when the party went with the DMK-BJP combine. In 2001, the PMK was an ally of the AIADMK and helped Jayalalithaa’s return as chief minister before it returned to the DMK-led alliance in 2004 and when the front managed to sweep the Lok Sabha polls from Tamil Nadu.