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Poll battle turns volatile

Poll battle turns volatile
Tamil Nadu’s multi-party battle for power has risen to a crescendo, with just a week left for polling on May 16. The outcome remains unpredictable amidst accusations of corruption held out against both Dravidian majors and calls for healthy governance.

The politics of Tamil Nadu has witnessed a 50-year history of dominance by either the DMK led by M Karunanidhi (93) or the ruling AIADMK with its charismatic Chief Minister Jayalalithaa.

The portents now carry a different tale for the Dravidian majors. Firstly, there are five formations fighting for space with some saner voices. Secondly, far too many candidates are likely, crowding out expectations of lead players of arch-rivals in several constituencies. Thirdly, the new young voters will assert themselves with their own aspirations in mind. 

No doubt, the stakes involved in 2016 are so high. A rejuvenated Karunanidhi is determined to deny his AIADMK rival a second successive run in office, undertaking a  high-risk campaign. The outcome will be known when the votes are counted on May 19.

Into this battleground landed Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on May 6 to give a leg-up to the BJP. The party is trying to carve a strong base for itself anew but without any local ally, telling the people of Tamil Nadu they had not known for 50 years what a “good government” is. That could come only if they voted out the two parties to save the state from a “cesspool” of corruption.

Modi avoided taking names of the two Dravidian leaders but was unmistakably acerbic against them. Embarrassingly for Jayalalithaa, he claimed that it was the Centre that first reached out to the deluge affected citizens of Chennai last December with relief and rehabilitation measures including ships and helicopters.

The weekend of Modi’s visit proved too harsh for  Jayalalithaa as Congress leaders are in alliance with DMK.  Sonia Gandhi, and Rahul Gandhi, also campaigned against the AIADMK charging it with failure to  rescue flood victims in Chennai. But significantly, neither the Congress President nor Karunanidhi with whom she shared the dais, spoke about corruption, given DMK’s record with 2G scam and other deals.

On governance, Rahul Gandhi said that Tamil Nadu has suffered a setback in the industrial sector under AIADMK. Investors have reportedly shied away from the state which was now steeped in Rs. four lakh crore debt. The Congress, with 41 seats to contest, will have its own upsets but still Karunanidhi counts for life-support and some likely cross-overs in the event of a hung verdict.
The national party, a divided house at the state level, has to save itself from oblivion. The Vasan faction (Tamil Maanila Congress), tied up its fortunes with the six-party Third Front.

The smaller parties of this Front including VCK of Dalit leader Thirumavalavan count on support judging from “a silent wave among people yearning for change”. Much would depend on for the Front - which includes Left parties with their established pockets of influence - on how far its film star leader, Vijaykant of DMDK, is able to build on his popularity and proven voter strength in the past.
Desperate appeals for support are going out from parties in the last week of the campaign (May 9-14)  and Jayalalithaa, seeking another chance to serve again, assured Chennai voters she would, if returned, would build a flood-free city. Taking her campaign into the Cauvery Delta districts, she asserted it was her government which saved the Cauvery for delta farmers.

Indeed the AIADMK leader has widened her appeal to the poor and women on March 5 with an enlarged list of freebies including free cell phones, subsidy to women to buy scooters and one sovereign gold for brides as well as 100 units electricity free every two months - all designed to improve upon an earlier DMK Manifesto with its commitment to total prohibition and “clean governance”.
These electoral pledges would involve massive fiscal slippages for the budget, estimated at some Rs. 70,000 crores in DMK’s promises and some Rs. 50,000 crores on AIADMK’s. These would be on top of revenue loss of the order of Rs. 30,000 crores from total prohibition (from day one if Karunanidhi, who sees power within grasp,  takes over for the sixth time) while Ms. Jayalalithaa has talked of “phased implementation”.

The Chief Minister has reiterated that she stood by her promises which would be implemented as she did on her 2011 commitments if returned to power. But Karunanidhi repeatedly asserts that none could prevent DMK-led alliance from coming to power after the poll.

It may be far-fetched to assume that the state would, at any rate in the current election, bring to an end the stability, for good or bad, that accrued from the dominance of one or the other of the Dravidian majors. However, a large body of public opinion expressed through media seems to favor at least a strong beginning in the direction of change from the politics of caste, reservation and freebies neglecting the basic needs of people in the matter of quality education, health, sanitation, water, and roads. Infrastructure has taken precedence in the choice of voters in the predominantly urban Tamil Nadu.

Tamil Nadu needs a corruption-free and development-oriented administration which should focus on jobs and development of its water resources with robust harvesting systems, says CPI(M) leader Mr Sitaram Yechury, who commended the choice of VCK candidate Ms. V Vasanth Devi, a former Vice-Chancellor, in Ms. Jayalalithaa’s R K Nagar constituency in the city. Ms. Devi said she represented the People’s Welfare Front (PWF) which stood not for freebies but for rights to free education, health and other entitlements in a true welfare state.

The PMK, regarded as a party of Vanniyars a dominant community in northern parts of the state, is no longer casteist and it is inclusive, says its Chief Ministerial candidate Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, a former Union Health Minister, who has over months of campaigning called for change for a government which gives quality education and employment and health care reflecting the urges of the youth.

State BJP leaders are now full of confidence, after Prime Minister Modi’s call to the people to vote out “this or that alliance” and join the mainstream of development availing of the “good” schemes of his government and change for better future of Tamil Nadu. Besides Modi, other BJP Ministers are also taking part in the last days of the campaign seeking support to make BJP a key player in Tamil Nadu.
The post-poll scenario in Tamil Nadu will probably reveal whether the state is beginning to lift itself out of traditional Dravidian politics and what new equations emerge among castes and communities under the influence of development winds.
 IPA
(The views expressed 
are strictly personal.)
S Sethuraman

S Sethuraman

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