Tamil Nadu polls: Desperate Gambit – Nation News

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In the upcoming April 6 Tamil Nadu assembly election, Chief Minister E.K. Palaniswami is faced with a somewhat Herculean task, winning a third consecutive term for the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Achieving this will match the record of party founder M.G. Ramachandran, the actor-turned-politician whose radiating charisma and zeal for people’s welfare won his party the assembly polls in 1977, 1980 and 1984. The party currently holds 124 seats in the 235-member house. The chief minister’s poll strategy has focused on promoting the AIADMK’s achievements in the past decade while relying on his allies, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), to target the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). In early March, the AIADMK signed a pact with the BJP, assigning it 20 seats for the assembly election.

Since December 19 last year, the chief minister has been campaigning tirelessly, as of March 23, he had addressed over 200 meetings, rallies and roadshows, covering more than 100 of the state’s 234 constituencies, beginning with his native Edappadi in Salem district. He has taken pains to present himself as a doer, highlighting initiatives such as farm loan waivers for 1.64 million farmers, Rs 1,300 crore spent on the Kudimaramathu scheme for improved water management, Rs 2,247 crore in relief payments to farmers affected by natural disasters and Rs 9,300 crore disbursed to farmers through the state’s crop insurance scheme. The AIADMK’s poll promises include land and houses for landless farmers, higher education scholarships for Scheduled Caste families, six free cooking gas cylinders per household per year, loan waivers for women’s self-help groups and an increase in Haj travel subsidies, among others. The party has also been making somewhat unbelievable promises, on March 21, campaigning in Tiruvannamalai’s Arani constituency, the chief minister announced that a new district would be created, headquartered at Arani. On March 24, he announced that another new district would be created, with Palani as its headquarters. This is despite the fact that Tamil Nadu’s 13 original districts have already been carved up into a total of 38 so far.

The AIADMK’s allies have also been making tall promises. The BJP has promised to create 5 million new jobs and bring back total prohibition, a ban on the open sale and consumption of liquor. It has also ramped up attacks on the DMK, publishing a booklet of ‘100 reasons to reject the DMK’. These include accusations of ‘anti-national activity’, pointing out that in 2018, DMK chief M.K. Stalin had said that he would welcome a situation in which India’s southern states came together to demand the creation of ‘Dravida Nadu’. Describing this as a secessionist demand, the BJP has also targeted the DMK for opposing the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and said that a video released by Stalin’s son and DMK youth wing leader Udhayanidhi contained a map of India that did not show Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as part of Indian territory. The saffron party has also accused the DMK of being against development in the state, citing its opposition to the Chennai-Salem expressway project. (However, the PMK, part of the AIADMK alliance, has also opposed this project.) For its part, the PMK has also been combative. “[A third term for] the AIADMK will ensure democracy, while DMK rule would be a monarchy,” says PMK youth leader Anbumani Ramadoss. “This is the case not only with [state level] leadership, but in every district.”

A question that many ask is if these efforts will be enough to address anti-incumbency. Alliance partners do not think it will be a problem. G.K. Vasan, chief of the Tamil Maanila Congress (Moopanar), says, “Even after 10 years in power, anti-incumbency against the AIADMK is quite low. [The benefits] of welfare schemes and development projects have reached the people.” Others say the AIADMK will have its hands full dealing with this problem, especially in the roughly 30 constituencies where it is contesting against both the DMK and the T.T.V. Dhinakaran-led breakaway faction, the AMMK (Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam). They also point to the polarisation within the AIADMK as another factor the chief minister must grapple with. Ramu Manivannan, head of the department of politics and public administration at the University of Madras, says, “More than the perception of the DMK as ‘the enemy’, the real challenges for the chief minister are V.K. Sasikala, Dhinakaran and O. Panneerselvam, who he can neither ignore nor acknowledge [as opponents]. His only hope is to buy votes, play up public fears about the DMK coming to power and hope that the BJP’s political-institutional manoeuvres [will do the job].”

On this last point, there is one more problem, the AIADMK and the BJP are not on the same page on the controversial CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act). While the AIADMK had initially voted for it in Parliament, the party’s poll manifesto, released in mid-March, says that it will press the Centre to scrap the law, a point that chief minister Palaniswami reiterated after filing his nomination papers. In response, the BJP’s state IT chief, C.T.R. Nirmal Kumar, was reported as saying, “Knowing the Centre’s stand on [the CAA], AIADMK leadership should not [bring this up], it is an embarrassment to us.”

The intensity of the poll battle appears to have led several senior AIADMK ministers like D. Jayakumar, S.P. Velumani, K.A. Sengottaiyan, K.T. Rajenthra Bhalaji and R.B. Udhayakumar to confine their poll outreach to the constituencies they are contesting from. This is uncharacteristic of leaders who also hold party posts as district secretaries, Bhalaji, for instance, has been seen only doing the rounds in Rajapalayam, where he is contesting, without stepping into Sivakasi constituency, where he is the sitting MLA. Only Chief Minister Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam have been seen campaigning in districts across the state. In several constituencies, AIADMK cadre have also been reluctant to campaign alongside BJP activists, and in constituencies where the BJP is contesting, AIADMK cadre have been staying away. Analysts point out that this is a hurdle to the potential transfer of votes between the AIADMK and its allies.

Political commentator N. Sathiya Moorthy says, “Even if the AIADMK wins, it will face serious challenges. Similar to the experience of Nitish Kumar in Bihar, the chief minister will have to manage the BJP deftly, without losing his party’s vote base and his own clout in state affairs. On the administrative front, he will have to find ways to raise huge funds to make good on his poll promises, in the face of mounting state debt, which now stands at Rs 5 lakh crore, against the Rs 1 lakh crore when his party came to power in 2011.”

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