For Tamil Nadu’s Big Two Dravidian parties, the AIADMK (All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), managing their poll allies’ demand for seats is turning out to be a tough ask. The difficulty in imposing their will on much smaller allies also gives away the apprehensions of these parties about the 2021 election.
DMK chief M.K. Stalin (centre) with the other SPA leaders at a rally in Madurai
The DMK and AIADMK have together polled over 70 per cent of the votes in every election since 1996, but they have had to rely on minor players of late to give them the decisive edge in several constituencies. The 2016 poll was an exception when an ailing Jayalalithaa decided to go it alone to prove her strength, the AIADMK bagged 135 of the total 234 seats even though its vote share was a slender 1 percentage point more than that of the DMK alliance. Both parties have a 25 per cent support base each and a well-organised network in most constituencies, making it difficult for other parties, including the Congress and the BJP, to make inroads. The two parties also believe that they need to contest from at least 170 seats this time (leaving only 50-odd to partners) to improve their chances of forming the next Tamil Nadu government on their own. Neither group wants to head a coalition or allow piggy-backing allies to be in a position to dictate terms in the event of a close result. The smaller parties have played hard to get, forcing the AIADMK and the DMK to send out teams for several rounds of negotiations. Other than their pocket boroughs, there are 140 constituencies where the votes of these smaller parties could make a difference.
For the AIADMK, other than the loss of their ‘Puratchi Thalaivi’ J. Jayalalithaa, there’s also the problem of two internal factions, one led by chief minister E.K. Palaniswami (EPS) and the other by his predecessor and current deputy chief minister O. Panneerselvam (OPS). Prospects of a third front steered by V.K. Sasikala, the long-time shadow of Jayalalithaa, throwing a spanner in the works have dimmed with her declaration on March 3 that she wasn’t interested in electoral politics (she is anyway debarred for another six years following her conviction for financial misdemeanours).
EPS and OPS, realising the daunting task ahead in countering the anti-incumbency of two terms, have been working overtime to keep the central government in good humour. The beating the AIADMK alliance took in the 2019 Lok Sabha election also weighs heavy. The AIADMK has in the past few years ‘enabled’ the BJP to expand its presence in Tamil Nadu and ties have now been cemented in what EPS calls a “natural alliance”.
The AIADMK’s other allies, too, have been driving a hard bargain. The PMK (Pattali Makkal Katchi), for one, insisted that it should be given more seats than any other ally and also got EPS to fulfil a long-standing demand, 10.5 per cent internal reservation for the Vanniyar community (which the PMK represents) in the 20 per cent quota for the Most Backward Classes and Denotified Communities. To facilitate this, EPS got the assembly to adopt new legislation on the penultimate day of its last session. The constitutional validity of this law (the state government gave its assent and a gazette notification was issued within hours) is being challenged in court. On March 9, the Madras High Court declined to issue a stay order on the bill but asked the state for a response within eight weeks. The PMK agreed to join seat-sharing talks only after the bill came through. The party was flexing its muscles, citing the five per cent vote share it commands in the state though when it contested independently in 2016, it did not win a single seat. When the seat discussions closed, the PMK had 23 seats, the largest number among the AIADMK allies.
The BJP, too, tried to play hardball in initial parleys, but settled for 20 seats after the AIADMK put its foot down. It’s still pushing for select constituencies (especially the temple towns) for the party and its actor-supporters Khushboo and Gautami. Meanwhile, another ally, Capt. Vijayakanth’s DMDK (Desiya Murpoku Dravida Kazhagam), has broken ranks and decided to go it alone while G.K. Vasan’s Tamil Manila Congress (TMC) has conceded that it can only demand so much. The DMDK, a much sought-after ally for the Dravidian majors during the 2011 and 2016 assembly election, has lost much of its sheen. In 2011, Vijayakant even went on to become the leader of the opposition after his party won 29 of the 41 assembly seats it contested. But since the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the party’s vote share has been crashing and, more importantly, it has not won a single seat. The allies have still asked for seats held by the AIADMK, which has said that no seat held by an incumbent minister will be released. Still unsure of its prospects, the AIADMK alliance has brought on board a string of smaller parties and caste groups. They will not get seats, but have been offered other assurances. There are at least 13 such parties who have pledged support.
On the other side, the DMK has faced fewer problems in playing big brother to the Secular Progress Alliance (SPA). All the partners who enabled the alliance sweep the 2019 Lok Sabha election asked for more seats, but the DMK wasn’t having any of it. The Congress, which won just eight of the 41 seats it contested in the 2016 assembly election, finally accepted 25 seats after protracted negotiations. At one stage, the distraught Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president K.S. Azhagiri found the negotiation so painful that he broke down in public. The Congress had to depend on word from Delhi to DMK president M.K. Stalin to open up final discussions. Stalin’s telephonic conversation with Sonia Gandhi included a bonus offer to back a Congress candidate from Tamil Nadu to the Rajya Sabha. “Our alliance is a secular partnership that will oppose the BJP and its dictatorial ways,” said Dinesh Gundu Rao, Congress leader in charge of Tamil Nadu, after the deal was finalised.
The MDMK (Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), a Vaiko-led faction of the DMK that broke away in 1994 opposing Stalin’s ‘dynastic’ succession, has now even agreed to contest on the latter’s ‘Rising Sun’ party symbol, abandoning its own ‘spinning top’. It is a major comedown since contesting on their own poll symbols is to notch up vote share and ensure they remain a recognised registered political party in the state. “A party needs to contest in 12 assembly constituencies if it wants a symbol of its own, and it needs to garner five per cent of the vote,” Vaiko had said earlier. The MDMK finally got six seats.
The DMK also allotted six seats each to VCK (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi) and the Left parties CPI and CPI(M), three each to the IUML (Indian Union Muslim League) and the KMDK (Kongunadu Makkal Desiya Katchi), and five more seats to other minor parties. Of the 60 seats allocated to alliance partners, the MDMK and five other minor parties will contest under the DMK’s ‘Rising Sun’ symbol.
Another party, the TPDK (Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam), is also extending outside support to the SPA. “The AIADMK has become subservient to the BJP and frittered away our hard-fought social justice gains. A DMK win is imperative to stop the BJP juggernaut in the state and ensure social justice,” says TPDK general secretary K. Ramakrishnan. He calls the 20 seats allotted to the BJP by the AIADMK a betrayal of party founder M.G. Ramachandran’s ideals and reminds the party that Jayalalithaa, in her last election, had asked the people to choose either the “lady or Modi”. The slate has since been wiped clean, and both sides have now realigned themselves. n
Amma in Waiting
The mercurial Sasikala has announced that she is backing off, but for how long?
At around 9.30 pm on March 3, V.K. Sasikala, 66, the long-time confidante of the late J. Jayalalithaa, released a two-page statement to journalists waiting outside her T Nagar home in Chennai. In a dramatic turnaround, Chinnamma (younger mother), as she was reverentially called by her former colleagues at the AIADMK, announced that she was ‘staying away’ from politics. ‘To ensure the continuation of the golden rule of the AIADMK for more than 100 years, just as my sister (Jayalalithaa) wishedthe true cadre of Amma should stay united and work together for the upcoming polls, as they are the children of one mother,’ said the statement.
She appealed to party loyalists to unite against ‘the evil force that is the DMK’. Predictably, it sent some in the ruling AIADMK into paroxysms of ecstasy. “Her decision shows that the souls of MGR (party founder M.G. Ramachandran) and Amma are protecting the AIADMK,” said party coordinator K.P. Munuswamy.
During the grand welcome on her release from a Bengaluru prison (on February 8) and the 23-hour journey back to Chennai, Sasikala had vowed to continue in politics though she is barred from contesting polls till 2027 (including the next assembly poll in 2026). Sources say a BJP interlocutor along with a member of the cabal that she steered to amass huge assets during Jayalalithaa’s reign (assets worth more than Rs 2,000 crore have been attached by the income tax authorities) ‘counseled’ Sasikala to withdraw for now. While welcoming the decision “that will help fulfil Amma’s dream”, BJP national general secretary in charge of Tamil Nadu, C.T. Ravi, denied that his party had any role in influencing it.
Ramu Manivannan, head, department of politics and public administration, Madras University, feels that “the core pressure” came from the BJP. “Sasikala has only one way forward, wait and watch while working silently for the defeat of the AIADMK. Her future is inextricably linked to the defeat and dissolution of the present AIADMK leadership,” he says.
Recently, she filed a petition in a Chennai civil court seeking to expedite her plea challenging the decision by an AIADMK general council in September 2017 that removed her as the party interim general secretary (a post she assumed following the passing of Jayalalithaa). The case comes up for hearing next on March 15. Her dramatic declaration to stay away from politics is hard to take at face value until, and if, she withdraws that petition.