There is only one chair on the stage despite the presence of a bunch of leaders. But then that is the norm in AIADMK meetings, as no other leader sits when party chief J. Jayalalithaa is around. Sitting in the chair, she waves to the crowd. The people's response is muted, and, ironically, there are plenty of vacant seats among them. She narrates in a stern voice her government’s achievements in the past five years and the misdeeds of her arch rival, DMK chief M. Karunanidhi. “I have delivered whatever I have promised,” she says. “Only a mother knows what her children need.”
Nobody knows his audience better than Karunanidhi. The 92-year-old master orator gets a thunderous response at the DMK headquarters in Annasalai when he says he will bring prohibition. “It will be implemented and a separate law will be introduced,” he says.
In Tamil Nadu, which is going to the polls on May 16, the battle lines have been drawn. And, there is a slight change from the usual two-horse contest. The People's Welfare Alliance, led by Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam and comprising Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Thol. Thirumavalavan’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, the left parties and G.K. Vasan's Tamil Maanila Congress, is taking on the two major Dravidian parties. “This is not a war. It is a battle. Battle fought to save the state from the corrupt leaders. It is in your hands. You will have to vote out the corrupt,” says Vijayakanth at a meeting. His alliance, it seems, is all set to split the poll pie.
“The voters alternated between the AIADMK and DMK. But they have an option now,” says D. Ravikumar, general secretary of the VCK. The PWA was floated last year, when the DMK did not heed to the requests from the VCK and MDMK to form an alliance. Vijaykanth joined it later.
As the small parties redrew their strategy to take on the big two, Karunanidhi dropped his retirement plans and came up with a new strategy for the DMK. Thanks to his son, party treasurer M.K. Stalin, the party produced a clever, development-oriented manifesto. In fact, Stalin went a step ahead of his father, meeting the people through his outreach programme Namakku Nammey and apologising for all the earlier mistakes of the party.
The DMK is in alliance with the Congress, some Muslim outfits and P. Krishnasamy’s Puthiya Tamilagam, which controls the dalit votes in southern Tamil Nadu. But the DMK’s failure to woo Vijayakanth had made it lose the perception war. Splitting of anti-incumbency votes had cost the party dear in the Lok Sabha elections. To make things worse, Vijayakanth joined the PWA, changing his initial decision to fight on his own.
Though the DMK was shaken, it got some relief on April 5, when a splinter group led by V.C. Chandrakumar left the DMDK and joined the DMK-led alliance. Karunanidhi has allotted three seats for them.
The divided opposition, however, does not seem to have enthused the AIADMK or its leadership. “Jayalalithaa insisted that all the alliance partners should contest under her party's two leaves symbol. Vasan opted out only because of this. The lack of alliance is reflecting in her campaigns,” says A. Shankar, RTI activist and blogger.
The AIADMK's dependence on Jayalalithaa could be the party's biggest challenge. Though a crowd puller, she has chosen to skip her road shows this time and be content with public meetings and video speeches. At her second meeting in Virudhachalam on April 12, four people died of sun stroke. “The beginning itself is tragic for the AIADMK,” says Ravikumar.
While Jayalalithaa wanted to focus on her government's welfare schemes, the DMK's promise of prohibition dragged her to the issue. And her offer of prohibition in a phased manner revealed her vulnerability. “Amma has announced this only after serious consultations,” says K. Pandiarajan, AIADMK spokesperson. “The DMK is trying to hoodwink the people. Karunanidhi talking about prohibition is the height of hypocrisy.”
Going by the voting percentage in 2014, it should have been a cakewalk for the AIADMK. The party won 37 of 39 Lok Sabha constituencies in the state. The DMK was pushed to the third position, behind the DMDK, in six constituencies. But things have changed since. “We will give a tough fight,” says Ravikumar.
Vijayakanth is struggling to keep his flock intact. In the last five years, his party lost 11 of its MLAs to the AIADMK and the DMK. But the captain continues to attract crowd. He is not an orator like Jayalalithaa or Karunanidhi, or articulate like his wife, Premalatha, but his charm as a movie star still works. His failure to deliver as the opposition leader, however, has dented his image, and his theatrics have many detractors. “His gestures in the public have not gone down well with the people,” says senior journalist R. Ramasubramanian.
Both Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi ignore the third front. But the alliance is making the right noises and it has jumped on the prohibition bandwagon. In fact, prohibition has become the biggest poll plank this time. “This is the result of our anti-liquor campaign,” says activist Senthil Arumugam. “It is out of pressure and the fear of being routed that Jayalaithaa, who was opposing prohibition till a month ago, has chosen to talk about it.”
On the other side, the Pattali Makkal Katchi's Anbumani Ramadoss is making some impact. Though his influence is limited to some pockets, analysts expect him to influence results in a few seats. The BJP is struggling to find its place among all these parties. It seems people have all forgotten Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public rally in Coimbatore early this year.
Despite the presence of so many parties, the real contest is between the two Dravidian parties. It is a straight fight between the two in 174 constituencies. The one who gets an upper hand in these will rule Tamil Nadu.