CHENNAI: Ideals are only an “excuse for the love of power,” wrote Bertrand Russell in his 1938 classic, “Power - A New Social Analysis”. His stinging critique in trying to understand what drives social dynamics, as he saw between two world wars, is still of great relevance and application even decades hence.
The number-crunching that pre-poll surveys do with a representative sample of voters voices is one thing, but to explicate the socio-political framework of a challenging election that Tamil Nadu is faced with is quite another. Both play a complementary role, as 40 seats to the Lok Sabha - including one from the UT of Puducherry - going to the polls on April 18, are at stake. Alongside, there are also the by-elections to 18 Assembly constituencies that give a twist to the tangle.
There are three or four features that define this framework this time. It can be said to be a multiple contest for the Lok Sabha polls with the main players being the AIADMK-led front, DMK-Congress-Left combine spearheaded by M K Stalin, the AMMK led by dissident AIADMK leader and Ms Sassikala’s nephew TTV Dhinakaran, and the newest player on the political stage, actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan headed Makkal Needhi Maiyam (MNM). The contest is, however, basically triangular as MNM is more there to test the waters, first steps in a long haul. However, even the AMMK is technically a “group of Independents with a common symbol”, thanks to the last minute Supreme Court’s intervention, within the bipolarity of a DMK-AIADMK slugfest.
But this is only the start of the contest. What has presupposed the race in Tamil Nadu this year is what one would wish to call an attempt at a deeper realignment of major political forces in the state in the post-Jayalalithaa, post-Karunanidhi era.
A key index of that process is that the AIADMK, which won a maximum of 37 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, going it alone and positioning itself anti-Modi, is now heading the BJP-inclusive NDA in Tamil Nadu. This is a big mirror to what the NDA would look like here, especially where BJP is keen to spread its wings.
The saffron party found its best bet, a ‘natural ally’, as some call it, in an AIADMK sans its charismatic, assertive leadership of Jayalalithaa; now a joint leadership is steered by the Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and the Deputy Chief Minister, O. Pannerselvam, with latter having an upper hand in party affairs.
And by roping in the PMK, one of the most virulent critics of the AIADMK even in the 2016 Assembly polls, the actor Vijayakanth-led DMDK whose health has kept him indoors, the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) of G K Vasan, the Dalit party Puthiya Tamizhagam (PT), which has an influence in some southern districts, and a few other minor parties including New Justice Party (NJP) led by AC Shanmugham, it is the ruling dispensation here that has forged a ‘maha ghatbandhan’, as opposed to the opposition parties doing it at the national level.
A quick look at the Assembly segments-wise performance in the 2016 Assembly elections is revealing: it was a watershed election in recent years as it unfurled a very different profile of contesting parties, with most of them going it alone to test their individual voter-base including the PMK and BJP, though the Congress had rejoined the DMK-front then, after they had parted ways in the 2014 LS polls. The Left parties with the other main Dalit party VCK, then floated a new secular front, ‘People’s Welfare Front’, projecting DMDK leader Vijayakant as their CM candidate, even as PMK had fielded Dr Anbumani Ramadoss as its CM prospect.
The results came as a big blow to the PMK and DMDK-led front. More so for PMK, in North-Northwest Tamil Nadu overlapping the OBC ‘Vanniyar heartland’ up to the Cauvery delta’s tail-end areas in Mayiladuthurai and Poompuhar, it was not able to win a single seat. This belt roughly accounts for 120-plus of the 234 Assembly seats in the State and equivalent to 20 Lok Sabha constituencies, which is roughly half of Tamil Nadu. At the other hand, the 2016 Assembly polls, saw an impressive comeback for the DMK state-wide, much to PMK’s disquiet.
It is in this post-2016 backdrop the new NDA marks a shift in Tamil Nadu; the PMK now has the advantage of riding along with AIADMK, DMDK, BJP and few other parties; the votes individually polled in 2016 Assembly polls add up for NDA a comfortable sum, ahead of the 2019 polls. The DMK also expanded its front, has now the other main Dalit party, VCK led by Thol Thirumavalavan on its side, which along with Congress, CPI, CPM, MDMK headed by Vaiko and the Kongu outfit, KMDK, could help offset the NDA numbers. But the eventual seats won in this belt would hinge on the ‘chemistry’ of the AIADMK-led alliance in transferring votes among its allies, as much on Dhinakaran’s bid to shape his political base.
Interestingly, in this belt, the BJP allotted five seats in the alliance, is not contesting a single constituency in this extended north-north-western belt, leaving the AIADMK and PMK to largely fight it out with DMK, Congress and VCK. The stakes are even higher in the Assembly by-polls, wherein DMK and AIADMK got their partners to agree not to contest for them, making it a mini general-election for the Dravidian majors.
This brings us to the second aspect of the political tangle. As the arithmetic of the 2016 votes though on paper are very attractive, on ground it is yet fluid; hence the chemistry of the alliance would be good deal influenced by some hard issues facing the electorate, like fallout of demonetization and a hasty GST of the BJP regime and NEET row among others. But both EPS and OPS are, in their whirlwind campaigns, are harping more on national security and stability under Modi.
The third aspect relates to the caste factor, as EPS-OPS combine have come to symbolize a balance between two major OBC communities, the ‘Vellala Goundars’ in the western belt where AIADMK won a chunk of seats even in the 2016 polls, and the ‘Mukkulathors’ or ‘Thevars’ in the South (in other parts of the state they are referred to as ‘Kallars’, ‘Agamudaiyars’, ‘Maravars’ or ‘Servais’) who have been AIADMK’s mainstay south of Tiruchy since its founding leader MGR’s days.
If the AIADMK-led ‘Mahagatbandhan’ had now factored in the power-sharing concerns of the third major OBC community, the ‘Vanniyars’ in Tamil Nadu (there are still other smaller BC communities like ‘Muthurajas’ and ‘Yadvas’ and Minorities who feel they are kept outside this grand equation), in the southern districts in particular, the AIADMK’s ‘Thevar’ voter-base is in for its testing moment. The extent to which the Dhinakaran-led AMMK could cut into that AIADMK vote-bank would be a crucial factor in deciding seat outcomes there. The AMMK may be a ‘bunch of independents’ now, but Dhinakaran, wherever he goes, says the poll results will show ‘who are the real AIADMK’, hinting at the churning within ‘Mukkulathors’.
Of late, EPS-OPS have evoked camaraderie in campaigning, each freely going to the other’s customary territory to canvass for votes for their alliance. This has even prompted one of the AIADMK ministers Sellur Raju to compare them to the ‘Marudhapandiyar brothers’ - Chinna Marudhu and Periya Marudhu, kings of Sivaganga who rebelled against the British. But Raju comparing EPS-OPS to those revolutionary brothers during poll time, looks more an appeal to their ‘Thevar’ caste background, which may not go down well with other major OBCs’ and Dalits and work against the alliance logic. Political observers have also referred to the fourth dimension to this political tussle, namely the persistence of ‘dynastic’ politics among all the major players including the DMK, AIADMK, Congress and BJP. That is again best explained by Bertrand Russell himself: ‘Traditional power’, that “has on its side the force of habit and custom does not have to justify itself at every moment.” Like all social institutions, it is more comfortable with sons and daughters! Yet, from all these four points of view, it is a bumpy ride till results are declared on May 23....