WHY THE TABLES COULD NOT BE TURNED

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By A committed vote bank, strong organization skills, delimitation and caste equations - the DMK's triumph in Tamil Nadu can be attributed to a number of factors, writes Chirosree Basu
  • Published 26.05.09
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Shantha had convinced the mistress of the house she works for to go out and vote on May 13, the day Tamil Nadu went to the hustings. Her ‘madam’, a Punjabi woman, would not have bothered. But in upmarket Chennai, maids matter, and so do their opinions. So ‘madam’ voted for J. Jayalalithaa, which is what Shantha wanted, as did Selvam, the security guard, and Selvam, the auto-driver, who takes the children to school. Shantha had got Rs 2,000 as compensation from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government after the recent flooding of the city, and the two Selvams got their colour television sets from the same source — and yet they aspired for the return of Amma. Shantha told me that free gas-stoves and colour televisions mean nothing when they cannot put vegetables in their sambar. During Amma’s time, the prices were not so bad. Hence the eager wait for her to come back.

As things stand now, the wait could extend to two years or more. By a strange twist of circumstances, the DMK-led alliance trounced the Jayalalithaa brigade in the Lok Sabha polls. Together with the Congress, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and the Indian Union Muslim League, the DMK bagged 28 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats, and managed to arm-twist the new government at the Centre into giving it some plum ministries. What went wrong for Jayalalithaa? She seemed to have had a better cast than the DMK with allies like the invincible Pattali Makkal Katchi, the fire-breathing Vaiko of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the committed Left. Both the Selvams pored over the newspapers for hours, and their disgust was writ large on their faces. They had Manjula to blame. In fact, several lakhs like her.

Manjula, a feisty cook working in the same neighbourhood, did not vote this time. But had she voted, she told me, she would have pressed the button by the side of Amma’s sign of two leaves. She paused mid-sentence and said that she could have also voted for Vijaykanth. To her, it was all the same — a vote against a government which, she believes, gives her free TV and gas stove from the money it has already fleeced by way of the rise in bus fares. Vijaykanth is not only a star, but he also helps the poor.

Panruti S. Ramachandran, the unassuming presidium chairman of Vijaykanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, who had once been Amma’s mentor, was guarded about Vijaykanth’s welfare schemes, but he agreed that the DMDK, with its 10.1 per cent vote-share in these elections, has upset political calculations.

Vijaykanth’s party did not win any seat, but its 30.52 lakh votes, cast by his diehard fans and less discerning voters like Manjula (who, unlike Shantha, could not understand how she would be “wasting” her anti-DMK vote by giving it to a man who refuses to ally with anyone except god), had cut deep into the vote banks of Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the PMK in places where they mattered the most. Since all these were anti-incumbent votes, the division in the vote had cost the Opposition dearly. The AIADMK’s vote share has come down to 22.9 per cent from the 29.8 per cent in 2004, the MDMK’s to 3.7 per cent from 5.9 per cent, the PMK has almost been wiped out and Vaiko has failed to win despite his impassioned pro-Sri Lankan stand. The one message inherent in the poll outcome was that the people of Tamil Nadu did not think the Sri Lankan issue to be more important than those that affected their daily lives.

Had the DMK expected the DMDK to checkmate Amma? To a certain extent, yes. The party’s candidate from Namakkal, a traditional AIADMK constituency, had gone on record saying that the more votes the DMDK polled, the better for the DMK because the former would invariably eat into AIADMK’s vote-share. Amir Ali Jinnah, a DMK functionary who looks after the party’s website, acknowledged that the party did not see Vijaykanth as an “opponent”.

Whom did the DMK target then? Amma, of course. But from all indications, the PMK, its former ally, as also the MDMK, emerged the main targets. The DMK leadership was supposed to have made it clear that it wasn’t Jayalalithaa who was to be the chief bother for partymen. The PMK “had to be taught a lesson” for dumping the alliance. The PMK constituencies were thus systematically singled out for the “treatment” — Dharmapuri, Tiruvannamalai, (where the PMK’s Kaduvetti J. Guru was defeated by a record margin and the polling percentage was an all-time high of 81 per cent), Kancheepuram, Arakkonam, Puducherry and Chidambaram. The DMK alliance worked “extra hard” in all these places to garner Dalit votes for the candidates and trounced the PMK.

The AIADMK’s southern bastion was similarly targeted; this time by the systematic poll machinery of M.K. Azhagiri, M. Karunanidhi’s mercurial eldest son, who had come to the forefront as the chief architect of the party’s crucial victory in the assembly by-poll in Thirumangalam only months ago. The DMK was sufficiently emboldened by Azhagiri’s ‘strategy’ to field candidates from four southern constituencies this time. “As organizing secretary, Azhagiri was in charge of 10 constituencies, and he reported victory from nine”, reminds Jinnah. Of course, he did not forget to mention the help rendered by his brother and Chennai mayor, M.K. Stalin.

Together, the brothers toured the areas exhaustively, and reminded people of the scheme to give rice at one rupee per kilogramme, waiver of cooperative farm loans, free colour TVs and gas stoves, enhanced old age pension, unemployment allowance, free house pattas, marriage assistance, free electricity to weavers and so on. Some constituencies like Melur (which was once an AIADMK bastion), where the rice scheme was a big hit, did not need much persuasion. But the other constituencies needed to be convinced. So doubts were sown in people’s minds about the chances of schemes being discontinued, although some, such as the national rural employment guarantee scheme, were bound to survive even if Karunanidhi and his party lost the elections.

To convince the really intransigent, efforts doubled in the last 48 hours before the polls. Although biryani and liquor did not flow as freely as they did immediately before the Thirumangalam polls, the Election Commission was flooded with complaints from all over the state about voters being bribed by the ruling party. The majority of complaints came from the southern constituencies. The DMK front, including the Congressmen fielded in the south, cannot deny that the Azhagiri ‘factor’ — call it his organizational skills — has been crucial to their win. Little wonder the DMK is so cut up with the Congress for not repaying this man, and his party, with the number of cabinet berths that they have demanded.

The persuasive skills of the DMK campaigners — be it Stalin or the Maran brothers — worked better in the urban areas, where caste or party affiliations were less strong among the middleclass voters. Here, the new flyovers, the lifting of the freeze on recruitment of government employees and the last- minute attempt to reduce bus fares did the talking. Price rise, power and the lack of civic amenities reduced margins, and even allowed the AIADMK to sneak into south Chennai and Tiruvallur. But the DMK managed to retain north and central Chennai, and added Sriperumbudur to its tally.

It is not merely a committed vote bank or good organizational skill that has worked the magic for the DMK. The delimitation process helped by carving out new urban constituencies or by de-reserving some, like Sriperumbudur, where a party like the DMK, with its “caste-less” character, clicked. There had also been changes in the voting pattern of some castes that affected the results. The PMK’s washout suggests that the Vanniyars have not gone strictly by caste calculations. The Kongus have supported both the DMK and the AIADMK, given the DMDK a tough fight, and adversely affected the Congress’s fortunes in four constituencies.

In other words, a number of factors served the DMK’s purpose. Some of them were intended — the lure of sops, the strategy to go after the PMK or the strong-arm tactics in the south. But some others were inadvertent. The delimitation process and the castes’ political preferences gave the DMK an advantage over its allies.

And therein lay another twist in the tale. By working against the Congress, the two factors of delimitation and caste, as also the heightened emphasis on the Sri Lankan issue, have put the DMK on a stronger footing in the ruling alliance in the state. The confidence this has given the party was evident in the long impasse over the distribution of ministries. Quite evidently, the DMK was bargaining with the Centre, keeping in mind its improved standing in the state vis-à-vis the Congress.

Where does that leave Shantha’s Amma? For now, Poes Garden is a bit forlorn. But then, the assembly elections in 2011 are still some time away. A lot can happen between now and then. The Karunanidhi clan may fall out over sharing the spoils of war. Or even better, the Shanthas could finally manage to convince the Manjulas that even a two-per cent increase in the vote-share every election would take Vijaykanth another 15 years to bring about his promised revolution. Amma is still their best bet, even though she meant nothing more than a ‘rebellion’.