CHENNAI: The dismay of a pre-summer breeze metamorphosed into hot winds of outrage. Perhaps this sums up the colour of the campaign by various political parties for the April 18 Lok Sabha polls and bye-elections to 18 Assembly constituencies, to be followed by four more by-polls on May 19 in Tamil Nadu.
From the date of poll notification on March 19, it was barely four weeks that all players had time for the turf, from the campaign kick-off phase, release of manifestos, road shows and rallies by star campaigners and so on. Thanks to ‘Seshanomics’, this actual campaign phase has been cut even shorter and every rhetorical turn, point and counter-point, finally turns into a big circularity.
However, what we have been witnessing in Tamil Nadu this year is that besides the routine stock of public speeches, manifesto turning ‘hero’, innuendo drawing from the language of the ordinary village folks to disparaging personal attacks, the campaign basket, so to say, actually got substantially heavier only in the final lap.
The clinical, no-nonsense approach of the DMK president M K Stalin who began his party’s election campaign from Tiruvarur, where a bye-poll is also due to fill the seat caused by the demise of his father and DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi, a day after he released the party manifesto in Chennai, set the pace this time. The first issue to strike the voters consciousness was DMK’s pledge to take steps to “scrap NEET”, the qualifying All-India exam for medical admissions, which was a bugbear with rural students, who otherwise did very well at State Board ‘Plus-2’.
The language of ‘one India’ saw its first backlash as the DMK highlighted NEET to win over the young voters in particular. The ruling AIADMK, whose campaign has been a ‘double-barrel gun’ of Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O. Pannerselvam- the domain of this metaphor has now ironically shifted from DK-DMK to the AIADMK turf-, shot back, fine-tuning its position on NEET, saying it will seek an exemption for Tamil Nadu. Its key ally, the BJP, though, has stood rock solid for ‘NEET’. The Congress manifesto has found synergies with the DMK with its party president Rahul Gandhi making it clear States will decide whether ‘NEET’ is needed or not. The Congress also assured to move ‘Education’ to State list from Concurrent list, a big yea for State’s rights
The general perceived “indifference” of the BJP-led Central government towards the state, its lukewarm response to the ‘Gaja’ cyclone that crippled coastal tracts of Cauvery delta districts in particular, and the present AIADMK government “pledging” - as Stalin put it at the start of his campaign, the state’s rights to the Centre, were among the first salvos to raise mercury levels.
The EPS-OPS campaign, on the other hand, through their intense road-shows put national security, development and Tamil Nadu’s economic betterment as two sides of the same coin. They pressed the post-Pulwama and retaliatory air strikes buttons to project Narendra Modi as the only leader who could pull it off and that another term for Modi is needed for the country’s political stability and security.
Drawing huge crowds on both sides is not everything in an election, as the leaders were quick to sense. More so, as non-charisma is in play in the absence of leaders like Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, even as a new, somewhat nuanced informal communication mode was set in motion by two other noted players in the field.
They are the rebel AIADMK MLA and AMMK leader TTV Dhinakaran, nephew of Ms. Sassikala, who wrested the R K Nagar Assembly seat that ‘Amma’ held lending him a partial legitimacy, and film star-turned politician, Kamal Haasan who heads the ‘Makkal Needhi Maiyam (MNM)’, yearning to be an alternative in Tamil Nadu.
TTV Dhinakaran with an equipoise, unhurried body language - he once said he is an admirer of the Philosopher J Krishnamurthy-, has been mainly slamming the ruling AIADMK, those who ‘betrayed’ the spirit of ‘Amma’ and focusing on the bye-elections, punctuated by barbs against DMK for Stalin having taken the lead to project Rahul Gandhi as Prime Minister candidate. Kamal Haasan, though, has preferred the contrarian approach, a plea for clean politics with fresh, daisy looks. Nonetheless, Kamal’s latest video doing well in social media, the actor ‘breaking a TV’, to show the politics of anger against the establishment, looks more a teaser!
Except for the occasional retorts, the EPS-OPS combine has been virtually nonchalant to the posers of TTV Dhinakaran and Kamal Haasan. Theirs has been a direct, frontal attack mainly on the DMK-Congress combine, Stalin in particular, with AIADMK, at least arithmetically comfortable with a big alliance including the PMK and DMDK. The mood in the AIADMK campaign was recently perkily summed up by State Fisheries Minister Mr. D. Jayakumar, one of the few smiling faces in this campaign and still light-hearted enough to break into an old MGR film song on stage, that, “for us (AIADMK) the Assembly elections are only in 2021; we will be there, both at the Centre and in the State after this (2019) elections.”
In step two, Mr. Stalin as hit a more aggressive plain breathing fire on issues like the Pollachi sex scandal, the Kodanad issue and controversy surrounding Ms Jayalalithaa’s death, it triggered even sharper retorts from Mr. Palaniswami. He made no bones of a possible probe into the mysterious death of Sadiq Batcha, an aide of the former Union Telecom minister A Raja when the 2G case probe was in progress. Stalin and EPS even called each other’s names, throwback to an earlier decade of, unabashed, no-holds-barred linguistic missiles. The DMK’s ‘non-performance’ in the past and the Godavari-Cauvery linkage came as delectable backhands for EPS, even as OPS harped on Stalin’s ‘fear of defeat’.
‘Political opportunism’ on both sides were unwound threadbare, much to the embarrassment of the PMK’s youth wing leader, Dr Anbumani Ramadoss; for PMK had sent a delegation years ago to meet Karnataka Chief Minister to press him to appeal in the assets case against Ms Jayalalithaa and her friend Ms. Sassikala after the Karnataka High court had acquitted them, and PMK also opposed unveiling a portrait of Ms Jayalalithaa in the Assembly chamber, terming her ‘corrupt’.
At one stage, it looked the 2019 parliamentary campaign might get lost in such forest of allegations. But once the Congress manifesto was released on April 2, the new anti-poverty programme, ‘Nyay’, and other features like restoring State’s rights, close to the DMK’s heart, helped to channelize Mr. Stalin’s hard-hitting speeches for the DMK-Congress-Left parties combine into a rounded critique of the politics and polices of the AIADMK-BJP front. This process was further aided by Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram explaining the party manifesto and how it had “rattled” Mr. Modi, and later by Stalin’s joint rallies with Rahul Gandhi.
And these aspects were only to quickly catch the attention of BJP’s star campaigners, Amit Shah and Mr. Narendra Modi himself. If Mr. Shah at Thoothukudi flagged the issue of DMK-Congress fielding candidates involved in corruption cases, Mr. Modi later sought to turn the tables at the NDA rally in Coimbatore. He lashed out at ‘Nyay’ scheme, to turn it into a telling sledge hammer. Modi came up with a new ‘mantra’ saying a vote for DMK-Congress is a “vote for higher taxes” and how they were “planning to burden the middle class”. In Theni, he sharpened it more, saying only a ‘Chowkidar can deliver Nyay’.
Modi even went into a reverie in his south campaign how the BJP has been a champion of the ‘middle class’ and how any disturbance in their income equilibrium through more taxes could lead to “destroying your tradition and customs”. That was typical ‘Modinomics’, though the audience was puzzled how higher taxes was a threat to tradition and how ‘middle class’ could be divorced from other productive classes.
While Mr. Modi assured to simplify the GST, sensing it has hurt a lot of SMEs’ Rahul Gandhi at the Salem rally vowed to ‘completely restructure’ the GST. Then came his one-liner icing on the cake: “Tamil Nadu can’t be run from Nagpur,” alluding to the RSS headquarters there, bringing issues of perils of a singular ideology and religion to the fore. The campaign had then become more than a plate of hot potatoes, with just two more days to go for curtains down....