“The loss in R.K. Nagar cannot be ignored. We need to sit down and analyse where we lost.” - T.K.S. Elangovan, DMK spokesperson
Come December, and Tamil Nadu finds itself on the cusp of political change. Last December, the state lost one of its strongest leaders, former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa, and with her its political stability. This year, almost a fortnight after her first death anniversary, Jayalalithaa’s constituency—Dr Radhakrishnan Nagar (R.K. Nagar)—went to the polls. The result of the December 21 byelection could change the political scene in the state, again. For, the ruling AIADMK and the opposition DMK were decimated by independent candidate T.T.V. Dhinakaran, nephew of Jayalalithaa’s jailed aide V.K. Sasikala. While Dhinakaran won by more than 40,000 votes, the DMK candidate lost his deposit. The BJP candidate got only 1,417 votes, fewer than even NOTA.
Both the AIADMK and the DMK were confident of a win. On the same day as the byelection, a special CBI court in Delhi acquitted all the accused in the 2G spectrum scam, including DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi and former telecom minister A. Raja. Soon, polling picked up in R.K. Nagar, and by 6pm the voter turnout was close to 78 per cent—the highest in a bypoll in the state. Owing to the high voter turnout and the infighting within the AIADMK, the bypoll should have been a cakewalk for the DMK. But the party’s candidate Maruthu Ganesh N. bagged only 24,651 votes.
On the other hand, the victory should have come easy for the ruling party as R.K. Nagar is an AIADMK bastion—Jayalalithaa has won twice from here, and had bagged 97,000 votes in the May 2016 assembly election. Also, the two camps, led by Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam, have managed to bring stability, though a tenuous one, in the state. Given the unwritten rule here that the ruling party wins the bypolls, it was believed that its candidate, E. Madhusudhanan, would bag the entire Jayalalithaa votes and help the EPS-OPS camp stake claim to her legacy. But that was not to be, for he managed to win only 48,306 votes. Moreover, more than 50 candidates lost their deposits.
While all the parties accused Dhinakaran of bribing voters with cash, his win cannot be brushed aside. The DMK, indeed, had a chance at victory. Its 2016 candidate, Shimla Muthuchozhan, had won around 57,000 votes, and with the AIADMK vote split between Madhusudhanan and Dhinakaran, the party could have won the bypoll. But, its campaign lacked strategy and it wasn’t clear on who its opponent was—Madhusudhanan, Dhinarakan or the unified AIADMK. Also, the DMK’s working president M.K. Stalin was in the constituency only on the last three days of campaigning, and district secretaries, too, were not vigorous. “The campaign was not as strong as it was in April [when the bypoll was first scheduled and then cancelled following allegations of bribery] or during the 2016 polls. Also, though Ganesh hails from R.K. Nagar, he did not have the popularity Dhinakaran had gained in the last five months owing to the strong opposition against him,” said a DMK leader from R.K. Nagar.
Though Stalin termed the bypoll debacle a Himalayan loss for the Election Commission, the DMK’s defeat raises serious questions over his leadership. This was the first election the party faced under him after Karunanidhi stepped away from active politics. Now with the 2G taint gone, Stalin needs to overhaul his party before the next general elections. “The loss in R.K. Nagar cannot be ignored. We need to sit down and analyse where we lost,” said party spokesperson T.K.S. Elangovan.
But, all eyes are on Dhinakaran, who, with his win, has staked claim to Amma’s legacy. “People in R.K. Nagar have elected Amma’s successor today,” he told the media on the day of the results. It was a do-or-die situation for Dhinakaran, who was sidelined by the AIADMK following his arrest in April on charges of bribing the Election Commission for allotting his faction the party’s Two Leaves symbol. “He knew this victory will make everything possible for him in the near future,” said a supporter.
While the AIADMK and the DMK faltered in their strategies, Dhinakaran’s campaign had a clear focus and was well-organised at the grassroots level. He even chose the Pressure Cooker symbol, keeping the women electorate in mind. A supporter said that he wanted the symbol all along, but kept it to himself. “He knew everyone will ask for the Hat as that was his symbol during the countermanded elections in April,” said the supporter. “Then he asked for the Cricket Bat, knowing that every independent candidate would ask for it. The Pressure Cooker was at the end of the list of symbols given to independents. So, he remained silent and asked the officer to give away whatever others wanted. No one thought he would accept the Pressure Cooker symbol. Even I asked him why he chose that symbol, and he only said that the symbol would bring us victory. And, it happened.”
But, will the AIADMK cadre accept Dhinakaran now? Soon after the results were declared, the party expelled several of his aides for indulging in anti-party activities. It also accused the DMK of having a tacit understanding with Dhinakaran, a charge that was denied by Stalin. But, sources close to Dhinakaran said that he was all set to be elevated in the party and might even take over as chief minister. “It doesn’t matter who has the party’s name and symbol,” Dhinakaran told the media. “Today’s results have shown that we are the true AIADMK. What matters is whom the people and the party workers believe in and go with.” That, only time will tell.