In a void left by Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa

It is going to be an acid test for DMK’s M.K. Stalin and AIADMK’s Edappadi Palaniswami and O. Panneerselvam

Having seen intense electoral battles between two strong personalities — M. Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and M.G. Ramachandran and later Jayalalithaa of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) — for over 40 years, Tamil Nadu is going into a major election on April 18 for the first time without a towering figure.

This has triggered talk that the upcoming Lok Sabha poll may turn out to be a tame affair.

But, the situation does not appear to be so, as there will be byelection to 18 Assembly constituencies which will take place simultaneously. The outcome of the byelection will decide the fate of the AIADMK government led by Edappadi K. Palaniswami. In the present strength of 214 members in the Assembly that has 21 vacant seats, the government is surviving by a margin of 17 members over the DMK-led front.

Naturally, the State’s principal political forces, the DMK and the AIADMK, are leaving no stone unturned to come up trumps. After putting in considerable efforts, they have stitched up alliances of diverse parties and gone out of the way in accommodating their allies in allocation of seats.

Conscious that voters of the State do notice whether the major players have included the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in their alliances or not, the two Dravidian majors have ensured the inclusion of the national parties. This was in stark contrast to the 2014 situation when the DMK and the AIADMK chose to ignore the national parties. But, then, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa were there at the helm of the two Dravidian parties.

This time, the two parties are fielding their core members in an equal number of constituencies – 20, even though they are allowing a few of their allies to use symbols of their parties in some constituencies. And what has not gone unnoticed is that the current elections are going to be an acid test, both for the DMK’s M.K. Stalin and AIADMK’s Edappadi Palaniswami and O. Panneerselvam, as they are under pressure to prove their mettle. Should they put up a poor show, there is a possibility of a breakout of power struggle inside their organisations. However, for the common man, the elections present an opportunity to make his or her choice, depending upon a number of factors such as social, political, local and livelihood issues.

In the predominantly rural Harur Assembly seat (where a bypoll will be held) of the Dharmapuri parliamentary constituency in the western region where there has been a history of tense equations between the intermediary Vanniyars and Scheduled Castes, caste appears to hold sway. Scars left behind by the organised violence against the SCs in a few villages in November 2012, falling under the neighbouring Pappireddipatti Assembly segment, are yet to heal. Interestingly, Pappireddipatti too is facing a byelection.

If the alliance between the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the AIADMK factors in their cadre base, it may also mean losing out on the AIADMK’s significant Dalit voter base, given the perception among sections of the Dalits in Harur that the PMK represents essentially the interests of the Vanniyars. This election, the average AIADMK Dalit voter may shift his loyalty.

Cuddalore is another area where the ruling party’s alliance with the PMK plus the BJP has disturbed many a section. Needless to say, that is not the only issue. Sections of voters in this district, known for an intricate demographic mosaic of Vanniyars, Dalits, fishermen and minorities, have a long list of grievances against the AIADMK regime over a range of issues.

K. Vallathan, a fisherman of Devanampattinam, one of the largest coastal hamlets in the State, recalls with a sense of hurt that at the time of the Gaja cyclone in November last year, “no one from the ruling dispensation even bothered to visit us. The community is only used as a vote bank and the political leaders forget us after the election.” To make matters worse for the AIADMK, there are signs of lack of cohesion within the party.

Caste alone does not decide everything in the Thanjavur parliamentary constituency, known as the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu. Mukkulathors or Thevars, a social coalition of three sub-castes – Kallars, Maravars and Agamudiayars, constitute the major section of society. Yet, “it all depends on the contesting candidates,” says Palani of Peravurani in Thanjavur. The Maravars and the Agamudaiyars live in equal numbers and are known for their allegiance to the two different Dravidian parties. But when it comes to elections, individual profile of the candidate becomes the governing factor.

V.R. Muthu Peyandi, a marginal farmer from Pullaneri village in the Madurai constituency of southern Tamil Nadu, captures the mood of agriculturists in his village. Shortage of money circulation since demonetisation and the introduction of a ₹6,000-a-year scheme in lieu of durable efforts to increase the income of farmers have caused him dissatisfaction against the Centre. Yet, “we are yet to decide whether we need a change,” Muthu Peyandi says.

Pervasive Dhinakaran

About 150 km further south lies Tirunelveli, where the factor of the AIADMK’s rebel and Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK)’s founder, T.T.V. Dhinakaran, has become all pervasive. Almost every youth from the Mukkolathor community seems to be a vociferous Dhinakaran supporter.

According to the youth, the rebel alone can provide the “much-needed political space” to their community.

The situation is perceptibly different in the western region’s Coimbatore, once famous as the centre of textiles in southern India, where people are more concerned about economic aspects than others. Infrastructure development, closure of power loom units, joblessness, the apparently sagging economy and the efficacy of Ayushman Bharat, a health insurance scheme of the Central government, are among the issues that are bothering the people there with no clear tilt, as yet, in favour or against any major political formation.

Having achieved stunning success in the only byelection (R.K. Nagar Assembly constituency in December 2017) held in the State since Jayalalithaa’s death in December 2016, Mr. Dhinakaran, as a third force, is widely expected to cut into AIADMK votes across constituencies. But, he does not seem to be content with that. He has begun assiduously wooing Muslims, who account for 5.86% of the State’s population and have been favouring the DMK generally. He has allotted the Central Chennai Lok Sabha seat to the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI). Though the DMK has also not named any Muslim nominee, its ally, Indian Union Muslim League, will put up one in Ramanathapuram. As of now, there is no Muslim contestant from the AIADMK-led front.

The presence of the nascent Makkal Needhi Maiam, a party floated by veteran film actor Kamal Hassan, may also upset the calculations of the principal players in some constituencies.

Given the poll arithmetic and the Dhinakaran factor, the DMK-led front appears to be enjoying an edge over the AIADMK’s “mega alliance.” But, one should also not forget that Tamil Nadu, known for giving decisive verdicts, has sprung a surprise even on seasoned pollsters on more than one occasion in the past 20 years.

(With additional inputs from S. Prasad in Cuddalore, M. Soundariya Preetha and Karthik Madhavan in Coimbatore, P.V. Srividya in Harur, Pon Vasanth B.A. in Madurai, V. Venkatasubramanian in Thanjavur and P. Sudhakar in Tirunelveli)

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