Back in 2011, when the Congress drove a hard bargain ahead of the assembly polls, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam patriarch M. Karunanidhi turned spiritual. “There are 63 Nayanmars [Tamil Shaivite saints], and you have been given the same number of seats,” the atheist politician reportedly told Congress leaders. “You should accept it with the same amount of bhakti [devotion].”
Five years down the line, Congress leaders may not be expecting Karunanidhi to be as generous, but their devotion knew no bounds as they visited his posh Gopalapuram residence in Chennai on Valentine's Day. The two parties had parted ways before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, with the DMK pulling out of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance accusing the latter of letting down the Sri Lankan Tamils.
Despite the coming together of old friends, the mood wasn't upbeat when senior Congress leader and former Union minister Ghulam Nabi Azad announced the tie-up. The general feeling was that it was a marriage facilitated by the current political climate and the plight both parties found themselves in. While the Congress was hampered by the walking out of former state unit president G.K. Vasan from the party, with a large chunk of its dwindling support base, the DMK was yet to recover from a series of setbacks. The tie-up, both the parties felt, will enthuse the cadres and help them mount a stiff challenge against the ruling AIADMK.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress's vote share had come down to an alarming 4.5 per cent as against an average 10 per cent in previous elections. Besides the arrival of Vasan's Tamil Maanila Congress, which his father, G.K. Moopanar, had floated in 1996 after quitting the Congress, a major reason for the fall in vote share was the faction fights within the party. Having ridiculed Karunanidhi as an 'old man' in 2011, the young Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi found his party orphaned in the state. Only the 'old man', who needed company as much as the young man, was willing to accommodate Congress.
“Our leaders initiated talks with the DMK only after Rahul Gandhi gave the go-ahead,” said a senior Congress leader. But former Union home minister P. Chidambaram, who was instrumental in getting 63 seats for the Congress in 2011, was not even part of the five-member team that held talks this time round.
WHAT SHOULD MAKE Congressmen even more happy is the fact the BJP is yet to find an ally. The saffron party finds itself in isolation ward, as small parties and fringe groups which were part of the National Democratic Alliance in the 2014 elections have walked away. While Vaiko’s MDMK, which was the first to pull out in 2015, has aligned with the Left parties, Dr S. Ramadoss’s PMK is going it alone.
Vijayakanth’s DMDK, which could actually be the deciding factor, is being wooed by both the BJP and the DMK. The BJP’s Subramanian Swamy recently pitched for a DMK-DMDK-BJP alliance, which was opposed by the party's state leaders.
The deal between the Congress and the DMK was clinched within an hour, but things have not moved forward since then. Sources said that both the parties were waiting for Vijayakanth to show his card. “Our Captain [as his fans call him after his title role in the 1991 hit film Captain Prabhakaran] holds the key in this election,” said Malarmannan, DMDK’s South Chennai district secretary. “Every political front in the state wants us to be with them. Only the AIADMK wants us to contest alone, so that we can play spoilsport for other fronts.”
THE AIADMK IS making sure that its one-time ally is not having it easy in the run-up to the polls. Eight rebel DMDK MLAs recently submitted their resignation to the speaker, bringing the party's strength to just 20, behind the DMK's 23. And, Vijayakanth was promptly stripped of the opposition leader's post, because he did not have the support of the minimum 24 legislators.
But he appeared unperturbed on February 22, at a meeting to identify the party's candidates in the elections. “We still don’t know what Captain’s decision would be,” said R. Muthukumar, a cadre from Kancheepuram. When his supporters chanted 'king', Vijayakanth seemed to enjoy it and wanted the assembled media also to take note. He would rather be the king, and not the kingmaker. Vaiko, for one, has sent feelers to Vijayakanth, but said he would wait till he joins them before making any commitment. “We will decide if Vijayakanth can be our CM candidate only after he comes into our alliance,”he said.
His track record says Vijayakanth is not one to take decisions in a hurry. He believes in playing his cards safe, and would wait for all offers to land on his table before picking one. “Our Captain will decide at the right time,” said a district secretary of his party. “There is more than a month for the election notification. You cannot underestimate him.”
For the DMK, which is still struggling to shed its image as a corrupt party, alliance arithmetic has been the key to its success in the past five decades. Having been reduced to 23 per cent vote share in the 2014 elections, the DMK moved early to stitch together a formidable alliance this time round, though it is not entirely comfortable with Vijayakanth's delaying tactics. “We have decided to go with the Congress,” said Stalin. “Seat sharing and identification of seats for each party would be discussed at later meetings. We have already invited DMDK leader Vijayakanth to join the alliance. This is more than enough and we expect him to join us.” Not if Vijayakanth's wife, Premalatha, has her way. “What do I have to comment?,” she asked, dismissively. “It is already there on social media. The public themselves have indicated that these two parties are the root cause of corruption.”
THE DMK’S ALLIANCE with the Congress was a desperate response to the formation of the Vaiko-led People's Welfare Front, which has, besides the MDMK, Thol Thirumavalavan’s dalit party VCK, the CPI(M) and the CPI. “We are looked at as an alternative to both the Dravidian majors,” Vaiko told THE WEEK. “Both the DMK and the AIADMK have betrayed the people of the state. Our front is gaining in popularity.”
A multi-cornered fight is just what the AIADMK ordered. When Finance Minister O. Panneerselvam presented the interim budget, there were smiles all round. Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, whose public appearances had been limited after a series of setbacks in the form of adverse court verdicts, was also present to add to the cheer. “The coming together of the Congress and the DMK was expected,” AIADMK spokesperson C.R. Saraswathi told THE WEEK. “Corrupt parties have come together, while 2G scam and other scams are still being heard in the court. Nothing has changed since 2011 within the DMK and the Congress. Amma is the only leader preferred by the people of the state.”
In fact, a recent survey done by a leading regional channel, Puthiya Thalaimurai, gives Jayalalithaa an edge. She is the most preferred for chief minister with 32 per cent respondents rooting for her, while Stalin came second with 18 per cent. Karunanidhi was pushed to the third spot. Jayalalithaa would be hoping that her welfare schemes and the affordable Amma brand products launched by her government will see her through. The dismal performance of the administration during the Chennai floods has been the only blot.
That she has no allies could work against her. Five of her allies from 2011 have deserted her. Vijayakanth was the first to part ways, followed by the CPI and the CPI(M), Dr Krishnaswamy's dalit party Puthiya Tamilagam (now with the DMK front) and actor Sarathkumar's Samathuva Makkal Katchi.
THE ANTI-DMK SENTIMENT that was overpowering in 2011 and 2014 seems to have waned. Stalin's outreach programme, 'Namakku Naame', has been hugely successful, and it has helped that the other members from the first family in politics have been more or less sidelined. Unlike other family members', Stalin's name is yet to figure in a major scandal.
All the more reason why Jayalalithaa should be working hard to return to power. “There is no wave against Jayalalithaa, like in 2006 or 1996,” said political analyst Aazhi Senthilnathan. “But then we should also keep in mind that the electorate in Tamil Nadu has always voted for a change in government.” There was no anti-incumbency wave in 2001, but still Karunanidhi lost the polls. The same happened in 2006 for Jayalalithaa, who was doing well with her free bicycle scheme for women. It also remains to be seen whether Jayalalithaa would be touring the state extensively, given the rumours about her health. “One of the major factors of our success has always been Amma’s road shows and her connect with the people,” said a senior AIADMK minister. But he is not sure whether it would happen this time round.
Poll pundits are predicting an AIADMK-BJP alliance, but that is likely to be a last-minute decision since the BJP would also like to wait for Vijayakanth to make a move. Will the Captain play to the gallery by going with the DMK-Congress alliance, or will family ties bind him to the sangh parivar? Tamil Nadu is waiting for an answer.