In 1967, the leftist, Periyarist, DMK, stormed to power, dethroning Congress — and Dravidian rule took root in the state. Five years later, the charismatic and incredibly popular actor-politician, MG Ramachandran, who is still looked upon as a demigod, splintered the DMK, taking his followers along with him, to form the AIADMK.

Ever since, elections in Tamil Nadu have been a contest between the two; any other political formation always aligned with one of them. Attempts to form a third force, or a third front, have been feeble, ineffective. Until now.

For the first time since 1967, Tamil Nadu is now expected to see the emergence of a third force — BJP. Therein lies the significance of the 2024 polls in Tamil Nadu. Few expect the party to bag a lot of seats — estimates have varied between zero and mid-single digits. However, the broad expectation is that the party will put up a good show, secure a respectable vote share.

In the 2019 Parliament elections, BJP – then in alliance with AIADMK – polled 3.66 per cent. Touching double digits this time will be considered “respectable”. By all accounts, that appears to be a cinch.

Thus, for the first time in decades, the state is seeing a truly three-cornered fight. Since the Naam Tamizhar Katchi (NTK) has gained some traction, one might even say that the elections will be a four-player game. Four players — DMK, AIADMK, BJP and NTK—fighting for three ideologies, namely, the Periyarist ideology that puts social justice and equality above everything else and followed by DMK and AIADMK, the Hindutva-nationalist ideology of BJP and the Tamil nationalistic philosophy of NTK.

Against this backdrop, it is interesting to see how the 2024 elections matter to each major party in Tamil Nadu.

To Congress, Tamil Nadu is among the handful of places that can get it some seats. It is contesting in nine constituencies, in alliance with DMK, a fellow member in the I.N.D.I.A block.

To DMK, winning many seats is important to grow muscle for the 2026 assembly elections, when it will have to face multiple threats— the inevitable anti-incumbency factor, growing strength of BJP and the emergence of yet another player, Tamizhagha Vetri Katchi of actor Vijay. Having many MPs in the Upper House of Parliament will also increase its heft in the I.N.D.I.A alliance.

To BJP, the 2024 elections will throw its claim that it has grown in Tamil Nadu, into the litmus solution. A good performance, even if only in terms of vote share, will empower the party to face the 2026 assembly polls.

It is to AIADMK that the 2024 polls matter the most. By splitting away from the BJP-led NDA ahead of the elections, against the advice of many party members, the party’s chief, Edappadi Palanisamy (EPS), has played a high-stakes gamble. He had expected that the de-hypenation from BJP would not only get his party a big chunk of minority votes but also many other political formations would detach themselves from the DMK alliance and join him. None of it happened. DMK kept its alliance intact; AIADMK got three politically inconsequential parties – DMDK, Forward Bloc and SDPI. On the other hand, BJP cobbled up a much broader alliance, pulling in PMK, which has a good support base and former AIADMK members, O Pannerselvam (OPS) and TTV Dhinakaran, Tamil Maanila Congress and three others who are strong in their own pocket burroughs — A C Shanmugam, TR Paarivendhar and John Pandian. Shanmugam and Paarivendhar are contesting on BJP’s Lotus symbol.

AIADMK is on the back foot (but of course not out — yet). If it comes up with poor numbers after the elections, a Shiv Sena-like situation could unfold, with two groupings — of OPS and EPS —claiming to be the ‘real’ AIADMK. Notably, OPS would have the blessings of BJP and EPS, its wrath.

Beyond the numbers, the 2024 elections will remembered for two heroes for making the contest interesting – BJP’s state president, K Annamalai, for making BJP a force to reckon with, with his ‘en mann, en makkal’ (my land, my people) yatra, and Chief Minister MK Stalin for showing pragmatism in negotiations and thereby keeping the DMK-led bloc intact.