On the 16th May, 2016 Tamil Nadu went to polls in what was then apparently a multi-cornered contest. Aside from the AIADMK and DMK led alliances, this time there appeared a third contender in the polls in the form of the PWA-DMDK-TMC(M) alliance[i] led by actor turned politician Vijayakant who was also the then opposition leader in the Tamil Nadu Assembly. All talk and expectations of a three cornered battle started vanishing when the results started trickling in as the AIADMK emerged victorious for the second consecutive time. In all, the AIADMK led alliance secured 134 and the DMK led alliance secured 98 of the 232 seats[ii] that went to polls on the 16th of May, 2016. In sum, the seats of the TN assembly were partitioned between the AIADMK and DMK led fronts with Congress and the Indian Union Muslim league being the only parties with presence in the assembly apart from the DMK and the AIADMK.
Far from a clear and whole-hearted endorsement of the five years rule of AIADMK, this verdict is a partly confused one with less than five lakh votes deciding the fate of the winner. Although the AIADMK alliance has won a simple majority, this mandate indicates that neither is there an overwhelming feeling in the state for the continuation of its rule nor is there a clear signal that its arch-rival DMK is credible enough to rule again. The anatomy of the verdict shows its more intriguing features. When we consider that of the 170 odd seats in which the AIADMK came in direct confrontation with the DMK, the DMK managed to win a majority of 89 seats and the AIADMK managed 81 with the AIADMK more than making up the deficit in areas where DMK allies contested.
This verdict is a result of both the credibility crisis that both these parties have been afflicted with over the last few years and the inability of the alternative forces to powerfully force an advance past these two. Although efforts at forming an alternative to DMK and the AIADMK were resoundingly defeated in the recent assembly polls, there is a high possibility that contrary to fading away, these voices are only going to get stronger and more powerful in the upcoming days despite the electoral setback.
The Credibility Crisis of the DMK and AIADMK
The political climate during the TN assembly elections 2016 was markedly different from the earlier times. Prior to 2016, there has never been an occasion wherein both the parties were going through such a serious and profound credibility crisis. Firstly, the AIADMK whose popularity reached its apogee during the Lok Sabha polls 2014 in which it secured 37 of the 39 seats in the state, had slowly started losing its popularity following the incarceration of its chief Jayalalithaa in the disproportionate assets case. Following this, the period saw a steady decline of its popular support as a consequence of its policy of actively promoting alcohol consumption in the state, its outright support to the plunder of the sand and water mafias etc. Peoples’ anger reached its zenith following the way the incumbent TN government handled the consequences of the disastrous floods in December, 2015 with the incumbent Chief Minister not even visiting the affected area in person even once.
The DMK, which should ideally have capitalized on such anger, was itself recovering from its rout in the Lok Sabha polls in 2014 when it drew a blank. With the top leaders of the DMK and members of its chief M. Karunanidhi’s family implicated in the 2G scam, the DMK’s support to the Congress led UPA on crucial issues such as FDI in retail, the departure of key DMK leaders over the past five years and finally its own corruption tainted track record in the governance of the state meant that the DMK itself had to contend with major political and organizational issues and thus seemed to be not in a position to take advantage of the anti-incumbency all by itself. Even the treasurer of DMK, M. K. Stalin sought apologies from the people of the state for the wrong doings, if any, of the DMK governments of the past in the run up to the elections 2016.[iii]
It was this credibility crisis affecting both the parties that informed the context for the calls for an end to their consecutive stints at the helm of affairs since the last five decades.
The Inability of the Third Alternative to Advance
At least on paper, this would have been the most ideal juncture for an alternative to DMK and the AIADMK to make a concrete and powerful advance in Tamil Nadu’s polity. Both the AIADMK and DMK were cagey towards the approaching election. The AIADMK’s demand that its alliance partners contest in its own symbol rather than the latter’s own symbol was clearly seen as a ploy to enhance its own chances in the eventuality of a hung assembly and the DMK’s desperate wait until the last moment for a tie-up with Vijayakanth’s DMDK in order to bolster its victory chances clearly highlights the challenge a third front was posing to them. But despite such favorable circumstances when major chinks in the armors of both the parties were visible, the third front could not gain enough traction as to make a strong impression in this election. The reasons for these are to be attributed to certain factors internal to the coalition as well as the desperate attempts by both the AIADMK/DMK to actively prevent a third space from opening up in the state.
Firstly, the coalition in its final form came into existence in late April barely a month before the polling day. Although the PWA (Peoples’ Welfare Alliance- a coalition of CPI, CPM, VCK and MDMK) came into existence in November, 2015 and made their intent about fighting both the DMK and the AIADMK in the upcoming elections and started taking their common minimum program to the people, the seat adjustments with DMDK and TMC (M) materialized only in late April. As a result, there was very little time available for the alliance to take forward its campaign more powerfully to the people of the state. Secondly, even if the arrangement between the PWA and the other two parties were in principle a seat adjustment, all the three constituents of the alliance had three different election manifestos with conflicting agendas on certain counts. As a consequence, there was serious confusion regarding whose agenda will attain primacy and what parts of the agenda of the Peoples’ Welfare Alliances will be fulfilled. Apart from three main themes: that of deposing both the DMK and the AIADMK and forming a coalition government, implementation of complete prohibition and providing clean government none of the other salient features of any of the three fronts managed to reach the masses prior to the election. Thirdly, the DMDK, the principal opposition party between 2011 and 2016, and the senior partner in the coalition has been suffering from a steady erosion of its base ever since 2011. It could not function as a serious opposition party to the AIADMK ( what with AIADMK buying seven of its MLAs within one year after coming to power) and its truck with the BJP in 2014 Lok Sabha polls had only made the task of stemming this erosion all the more difficult. Although certain last ditch efforts to resurrect the party to its previous levels were made towards the end of the term, these efforts could not restore the credibility that Vijayakanth once had among the people of the state as the election verdict indicates.
But these were not the only factors that stunted the advance of the third front in Tamil Nadu. Right from the day the DMDK- PWA tie-up was announced, the DMK triggered a exodus of ten district secretaries of the DMDK to prop up a front called Makkal DMDK (Peoples’ DMDK) in protest against the decision of the DMDK leadership to go with PWA and not with DMK. The same tactic was used against the TMC (M) too with one of its key leaders returning back to the Congress in protest against the decision to go with the PWA. The DMK also tried to create caste polarization in certain constituencies where the key leaders of the PWA were to contest and even forced the withdrawal of one of its leaders Vaiko, the convener of the PWA. This he was forced to undertake in order to avoid further escalation of caste conflict in his constituency.
Furthermore, the non-DMK and the non-AIADMK space was itself divided with outfits like the PMK and BJP staking a claim for their share. The BJP, left to its own means following the collapse of the NDA in the state within six months of Modi coming to power, put out an openly communal agenda in front of the Tamil people. Its ulterior aim in this election was to help AIADMK win so that it has a friendly government in Tamil Nadu. Therefore, it took upon itself the task of attacking the DMK and the PWA alliance while mostly sparing the AIADMK. The BJP could only garner about 2.8% of the votes and has once again established its status as an “also ran” in the assembly polls. The BJP had to also face the ignominy of having to cancel its public meetings featuring some central ministers due to the thin attendance in its venues indicating that the BJP remains in the margins of Tamil Nadu’s politics. Nevertheless, BJP’s unfulfilled task of creating an anti-Dalit polarization was taken forward by its former ally PMK (Pattali Makkal Katchi). Couching its anti-Dalit propaganda behind the idioms of ‘development’ and ‘progress’, the PMK on its own could get about 5.2% of the vote share. It sought to replicate the methods of Modi with the language of Kejriwal and it also undertook upon itself the task of attacking the PWA for obvious reasons- the presence of the Left and Ambedkarite groups.
No account of the analysis of Tamil Nadu elections can be complete without referring to the brazen money power on show during the elections. Both the AIADMK and the DMK had resorted to openly bribing the electorate in tandem with each other as a fail-safe to ensure defeat to all but either the DMK or AIADMK candidates. Indeed this election once again brought to light the irony that shapes the daily lives of the people of Tamil Nadu. In a state where even the relief material following the floods took more than two months to reach the common people, bribe in the form of cash reached all concerned within a matter of hours come the polling day. It is from this tendency of all pervading corruption that the people of Tamil Nadu need to be rescued and the third front could not do it in this election.
The Way Forward
The PWA as a coalition of the two Left Parties, the MDMK and the Ambedkarite outfit VCK is a novel experiment in Tamil Nadu’s politics. Although in terms of votes and seats (it got overall 5.9% votes and even if we exclude DMDK and TMC (M) its vote share is around 3.2%), it did not register a powerful presence in the recent elections, the immense enthusiasm that it generated prior to the elections for people who were on the side of progressive social change should not be underestimated. That the PWA was able to widen its ambit with parties like DMDK preferring the PWA over the DMK although an alliance with the latter would have definitely yielded a better electoral result is testimony to the impact the PWA was able to create a month prior to the election.
As a unit, the PWA represents the combination of the Left and Ambedkarite forces and their recent loss is definitely a setback to all the progressive forces in the country and in the state of Tamil Nadu in particular. At least over the past two decades both of these forces have had to align with either the DMK or the AIADMK due to prevailing political circumstances and this was used in the campaign by the opponents of the alliance to the hilt. This election has all but obliterated this aspect from the past of these parties and has once again confirmed their commitment in no uncertain terms to move past the binaries propped up by the ruling classes of the country. The PWA steeled as it is by the experience of the elections in 2016, if it takes forward its struggles for the rights of the oppressed masses in the state, it shall definitely provide the alternative that the people of Tamil Nadu badly need.
[i] A six-party alliance comprising of the CPI, CPM, Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi (VCK), the MDMK ( Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), the DMDK ( Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam) and TMC (M) ( Tamil Manila Congress ( Moopanar))
[ii] Polling was postponed in the remaining two constituencies following allegations of cash distribution by both the DMK and the ADMK prior to polling in these constituencies.
Viswanathan V is doing PhD at Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
Viswanathan V is doing PhD at Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi