Can Jayalalithaa break the anti-incumbency jinx?

R Balaji Chennai | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on May 15, 2016

Uphill task Election officials carry Electronic Voting Machines to a polling booth in Jarugumalai hills, in Veerapandi constituency of Salem district in Tamil Nadu, on Sunday. E LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

bl16_New TN poll.eps

Or can DMK pull it off? These are the big questions as Tamil Nadu votes today

It has been an unprecedented run-up to the elections in Tamil Nadu, which votes on Monday.

Although much like the polls since 1977 the fight this time is between arch-rivals DMK and the AIADMK, all major regional parties that have so far hung on to the coat-tails of either Dravidian party have chosen to unite under a third front.

And even if most poll predictions do not see them playing a significant role, it is for the first time that there is the recognition that people need to look beyond both the frontline Dravidian parties.

The players

The third front is a six-party combine headed by the Vijayakant-led DMDK and also comprising the People’s Welfare Front (PWF) and the Tamil Manila Congress, a breakaway faction of the Congress. The PWF is itself a coalition of Vaiko’s MDMK, Thol Thirumavalavan’s VCK and the two Communist parties, the CPI and the CPI(M).

The AIADMK has tied up with half a dozen small players and allocated them seven seats, but all of them will contest under the ruling party’s two-leaf symbol. This is the first time that the AIADMK is contesting in all 234 Assembly constituencies in the State.

The PMK, originally floated as a caste-based outfit, and had previously partnered with the AIADMK or the DMK, is going it alone.

The Congress has its fortunes tied to the DMK’s.

The BJP, which is in power at the Centre, has a marginal presence in Tamil Nadu, and is going it alone, except for its alliance with the newly-formed IJK, founded by TR Pachaimuthu (who is better known as the founder of SRM academic institutions).

Corruption relegated

Tamil Nadu has alternated between the AIADMK and the DMK rule in the last three decades, and the State’s voters have earned a reputation for an anti-incumbency swing driven by sympathy or anger against corruption. But this time around, there has been no major sentiment against the ruling party.

Even corruption, the most common factor to power an anti-incumbency wave here, has been a subsidiary issue this time as both the Dravidian parties are capable of tarring each other equally.

For the AIADMK, its General-Secretary and outgoing State Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa faces charges of disproportionate assets, while graft is an equal embarrassment for the DMK, which was voted out of power in 2011 following the 2G spectrum scam in which its leaders stand accused.

This resulted in the DMK picking on another chink in Jayalalithaa’s armour – her accessibility.

DMK Treasurer MK Stalin, who spearheaded the campaign highlighted Jayalalithaa’s stand-offish style and her campaign using helicopters, while contrasting it with his own street-level interactions with the people. The DMK topped it off with a front-page advertisement in national newspapers on Sunday wherein DMK candidates promised to remain in touch and accessible to the voters.

However, the other players in the fray – the DMDK, the PMK and the BJP – made corruption a central issue in Tamil Nadu, urging voters to do away with both Dravidian parties and vote for change.

Prohibition in limelight

If there was one all-encompassing election plank this time, it was the demand for Prohibition.

Alcohol took centre-stage with all Opposition parties demanding that Tamil Nadu get off the wagon, even assuring Prohibition from Day 1 of their reigns.

With the State Government in total control of the procurement and marketing of liquor for over a decade now, levies on alcohol have emerged a major revenue source, contributing about an annual ₹30,000 crore to the exchequer, about one-third of the State’s revenue. This also helped fund the huge freebies that the AIADMK came to be known – free cycles, laptops, household appliances.

But Jayalalithaa partially deflected the issue by agreeing to phased prohibition if brought back to power.

Acid test

The AIADMK-DMK clash apart, the outcome of voting on May 16 will also serve as an acid test of the level of public support popularity some of the leaders lay claim to.

Voters may shore up or dent Jayalalithaa’s confidence in going it alone and fielding contestants under the AIADMK’s two-leaf symbol in every constituency; or they may help the nonagenarian Karunanidhi create history by anointing him chief minister for the sixth time, giving him his 13th straight win to the Assembly or by putting him out to pasture.

But for two people – DMDK’s Vijayakant and the DMK’s heir apparent MK Stalin – this will be a critical test.

The DMDK made quite a splash in the 2011 elections when it allied with the AIADMK and rode the crest of an anti-incumbency wave powered by the 2G scam that ousted the then ruling DMK. Vijayakant broke ranks with the ruling party to emerge the Leader of Opposition, as his party had come in second after the AIADMK, even relegating the DMK to third position.

In 2016 too, it was for Vijayakant to choose a partner. But he has chosen to break his own trail with visions of becoming a chief minister of change.

For Stalin, who is hoping to come out of the shadow of his father and DMK President Karunanidhi, this is a test because he will take credit or blame for the outcome as he was the party’s star campaigner and chief strategist. If anything, Stalin’s intensive State-wide campaigning over the last several months will have to be credited with bringing about a change.

The 2014 Lok Sabha elections, in which he had led the DMK campaign to a disastrous result – the party won none of the 41 seats – is not likely to have been forgotten.

But beyond these results, the 2016 Assembly elections will be remembered for one factor – this is the first election when there was widespread recognition, cutting across segments, that people need to look beyond the Dravidian parties.

Close call

For now, the overall sentiment is that either Dravidian party could come to power. Over half a dozen opinion polls by the media and other agencies put one or the other in the lead, while some say the numbers are too close to predict.

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Published on May 15, 2016
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