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Multi-cornered contests likely in TN

Multi-cornered contests likely in TN
Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) leader Vijaykant’s decision to contest this year’s Tamil Nadu Assembly elections on his own has created flutters within the State’s political circles. This decision has upset the electoral calculations of anti-AIADMK parties, chiefly Karunanidhi’s DMK, which was banking on coaxing him into the DMK-Congress alliance.

The BJP had also tried to enroll him into the NDA but in vain. He rebuffed the saffron party’s overtures, including the efforts of its special envoy to Tamil Nadu, Union Minister Prakash Javadekar. Not losing hope, despite weeks of despair, Karunanidhi had assumed the DMDK would join his camp.

In the evolving pre-poll scene, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK appears set to scramble through for a second successive term. Even the People’s Welfare Front (PWF), comprising of the MDMK, VCK, CPI (M), and CPI, sought to rope in the Vijayakanth-led party into their fold. It is an alliance of marginal players lined up equally against both Dravidian majors.

Vijaykanth’s DMDK, which is considered the third largest party in the State, has plans to contest all the 234 seats. The party’s involvement has the potential to radically alter voting patterns and even cause some major upsets for the two Dravidian majors though power may elude him. Already, with the poll scene cluttered up with smaller parties and “bit” players, Tamil Nadu may go through multi-cornered contests.

But has Vijaykanth said the last word, or keeping the door open for other parties, barring the detested ruling AIADMK as well as DMK, to hitch themselves to a DMDK-led alliance? He made it clear that he was going to “contest alone”, following up his earlier assertions that his party wanted him to be “king”, not “king-maker”.

His politically-minded wife Premalatha, who spoke after Vijaykanth at the party’s women’s wing conference, hinted that “like-minded parties” (equally opposed to AIADMK and DMK) could still approach the DMDK leader whose forthright announcement implies his claim to be the next Chief Minister.

First reactions according to a spokesman of both the Dravidian majors vary. The AIADMK, feeling confident, regards it positive for itself as Vijaykanth has ruled out joining the DMK-Congress alliance. The DMK leaders, unmistakably disappointed, however, calculate that all anti-incumbency votes against AIADMK and the split votes from other contestants would go in DMK’s favour, as a logical alternative to AIADMK rule, as in the past.

DMDK’s projection of itself as the third force is welcomed by leaders of the four-party alliance, People’s Welfare Front, (comprising Vaiko’s MDMK, CPI (M), CPI and the VCK leader Thirunavalavan). It was promoted by Vaiko to end the hegemony and “misrule” of the two Dravidian parties.  But It remains to be seen whether DMDK and PWF could come together on agreed basis so as to augment their limited poll percentages at present.

The other well-established party, PMK of Ramadoss, which had in the past allied itself with one or the other of the two Dravidian majors, is now contesting on its own, and its Chief Ministerial candidate, Anbumani Ramadoss, son of the party founder, has toured all districts as an advocate of “change” in Tamil Nadu.  Total prohibition is listed as one of its top priorities besides education and quality healthcare but there would be no freebies.

Both PMK and DMDK were with NDA in the Lok Sabha poll 2014 but have since kept themselves out.  But the leaders of both these parties aspire to head the next Government of Tamil Nadu. While PMK has commanded influence among Vanniyars, the predominant community in Northern and some western and southern districts, neither Dr Ramadoss nor Vijaykant are likely to be able to lead a majority party. BJP’s hopes to emerge a major force in Tamil Nadu have turned sour, after a poll campaign launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in February in the wake of a massive membership drive worked out by party president Amit Shah and a series of visits of BJP Ministers to make announcements and build support.

Having turned down the idea of Vijaykant leading a DMDK alliance with BJP in it, the central leadership is reconciled to going alone and, according to BJP state president, Dr Tamilisai Soundararajan, Tamil Nadu will be free of corruption and liquor only “if lotus blooms”.

Both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa have interviewed candidates out of several thousand applications for all the 234 constituencies and are yet to come out with their manifestoes. But Jayalalithaa asked her party men to take the “achievements” of her five-year term to the people, highlighting the “people’s welfare schemes”.

Freebies have dominated the poll agenda of both parties, Jayalalithaa aggressively following up in 2011 what Karunanidhi had initiated with consumer durables in 2006. Both parties have realised that development, urban and rural, jobs and better governance have to regain greater ascendancy on their agenda.  Food and rural power subsidy apart, other stops had cost tens of thousands of crores of rupees over five years.

DMDK won 29 seats in 2011 as a partner in the ADMK-led alliance. Dissensions developing with Jayalalithaa later, Vijaykant distanced himself from AIADMK. Karunanidhi was expecting he could persuade the DMDK to join a DMK-led alliance in 2016 but was unwilling to make any prior commitments on a number of seats and power-sharing.

The Congress has again preferred to be part of DMK-led alliance virtually with no pre-conditions. The DMK leader and his son M K Stalin, who confidently campaigned for months, have made it clear to all parties that they do not favour any coalition government. In 2006-11, Karunanidhi ran a minority government with only the Congress supporting from outside.

The breakaway Congress group, Tamil Manila Congress led by G K Vasan has not spelt out its options but seems willing to work with an alliance focused on both development and welfare of the people. With nearly two months left for polls, the political scene in Tamil Nadu can still witness some dynamic shifts. For Vijaykant, who floated his party in 2006 and has made waves in its first decade, it is  a gamble to decide to do it alone. “I have no confusion, I am going to contest alone”, he declared repeatedly. Karunanidhi could make it a formidable anti-Jayalalithaa alliance if DMDK joined the DMK-Congress-led alliance.  

While the two Dravidian majors have commanded a vote share of over 60 percent (2011), all other parties and outfits have found viable spaces for themselves. Essentially, it still remains a battle between the two Dravidian majors though it may not seem as straight as it looked at one time if other parties begin to make electoral adjustments. 

For the present, DMDK, PMK, and PWF committed to seeing the end of the AIADMK-DMK rule of fifty years are on their own, and with BJP desperately trying to become a strong force, multi-cornered contests are on the horizon.

(The author is a senior commentator on political and economic affairs. Views expressed are strictly personal.)
S Sethuraman

S Sethuraman

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