H Raja and Pon Radhakrishnan.
Snapshot
  • For the first time, the BJP is in a position to swing results in multiple seats across Tamil Nadu.

A curious electoral churning is taking place in Tamil Nadu. A study of voting patterns indicates that there is a 15 per cent BJP vote embedded in many seats, which manifests itself during general elections. Interestingly, these votes come to the BJP from the DMK, and, intriguingly, return to the DMK during assembly elections.

It appears that the AIADMK joined the NDA because it has very astutely grasped this fact. Fifteen per cent on its own is not enough for the BJP to win more than one seat, but in alliance with the AIADMK and others, this transforms into a force multiplier, with highly beneficial electoral returns for the NDA. This flies in the face of numerous recent opinion polls, which predict a near clean sweep for the UPA in the state.

Unfortunately, this fact has remained unaddressed because, at the best of times, Tamil Nadu politics is confusing and opaque to outside observers. It is a swirl of acronyms which amalgamate and desegregate with the Palk Strait tide: DMK, ADMK, AIADMK, AMMK, PMK, DMDK, MDMK, VCK, IJK, KNMK, KMDK, and on and on.

Thank the gods there is no KKK, or the irony would have been unbearably sublime. It is also beset with a befuddling array of communities with strong identities, whose dominance varies from one part of the state to another: Thevars, Gounders, Vellalars, Adi Dravidars, Dalit Christians, Vanniyars, Iyers, Mukkulathors, etc.

Over the past two decades, many of these caste groups formed their own, successful political parties, and ate into the traditional primacy of the old two — the DMK of M Karunanidhi, and the AIADMK of J Jayalalithaa. In comparison, the national parties were always fringe players in this state’s alphabet wars, with the Congress historically more adept at forging electoral links.

But in 2014, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK swept the state. The result defied credulity because on paper, the lady was up against a seemingly formidable alliance of numerous small local parties banding around the BJP, and with the DMK and the Congress each contesting on their own. Still, she won 37 out of 39 seats on offer.

But a study of the actual electoral data shows that the result was a simple case of vote math. In a three- or four-way contest, the vote share required for victory reduces dramatically, and in seat after seat, it was seen that the ADMK benefited mightily, from a larger number of votes shifting from other parties to the BJP.

That may sound strange, especially when the BJP routinely polled no more than 1 to 2 per cent of the votes (yes, actually!) in the subsequent 2016 assembly elections. But here’s the thing: come general election time, and a significant number of voters in Tamil Nadu have now begun to prefer the BJP and its allies over others (compare 18.5 per cent in 2014 and 2.9 per cent in 2016).

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Indeed, the only two seats the AIADMK lost in 2014 were to the NDA. This is nothing unique. Rather, it is just another manifestation of a routine phenomenon — of voters choosing one party for the assembly, and a very different one for the Lok Sabha. Even in Tamil Nadu itself, by the old MGR formula, the AIADMK contested most of the seats in the assembly, in alliance with the Congress, while the Congress got the bulk of the Lok Sabha candidacies.

What has now changed is that by sheer dint of popular will, it is the provincial parties of Tamil Nadu which are being forced to ally with the BJP. This is why the AIADMK wisely chose to join the NDA in 2019, and this is why BJP president Amit Shah announced that this bond would continue into the 2021 assembly elections. On the other side, the DMK is allied with the Congress, the IUML, the communists, and a few smaller regional parties.

This rise of the BJP is a significant, incipient change in Tamil Nadu politics, which must be studied in detail, and better understood, because it will have major implications in the 2019 general elections and beyond. For this, we shall study those five Lok Sabha seats where the BJP is contesting as the NDA candidate: Kanyakumari, Coimbatore, Sivaganga, Ramanathapuram and Thoothukudi.

Some delightful facts emerge, which contradict a majority of recent opinion polls predicting a sweep for the DMK-Congress. Some heady supra-caste symbolism and dynamics are also uncovered, which will better explain why the BJP is finally beginning to take root in Tamil Nadu, and how.

Coimbatore

Short memories made shorter by the e-blizzard of social media make us forget that the BJP’s C P Radhakrishnan won from here in both the general elections of 1998 and 1999. It is true that in 1998, there was a BJP-AIADMK alliance, and in 1999, it was BJP-DMK.

Still, the vote shares were quite impressive (56 per cent and 49 per cent), indicating a specific preference for the BJP over and above the alliances’ natural worth. After that there was a long hiatus, as the BJP dithered with its strategy in Tamil Nadu.

NDA vote share and alliance status in Coimbatore Lok Sabha constituency. NDA vote share and alliance status in Coimbatore Lok Sabha constituency.

But in 2014, contesting separate from the AIADMK and the DMK, the BJP came a very close second, polling 33 per cent against a winning AIADMK share of 37 per cent. The DMK managed only 18 per cent, and the Congress 5 per cent.

Unlike on earlier occasions, when the BJP either wouldn’t contest, or poll miserably, a part of this trend continued into the 2016 assembly elections, with the BJP getting 21 per cent in one assembly seat, and almost 9 per cent in three others. Indeed, the AIADMK swept five of the six assembly constituencies under this parliamentary seat, but lost in Singanallur because most of the BJP vote went back to the DMK. This was another indicator of the BJP’s growth.

What was interesting was the clearly discernible vote-switch between BJP and DMK, possibly including a section of the Kongu Vellalar (OBC) community: 12 per cent to the BJP in 2014, and roughly the same back in 2016. This is the group which, like in every other community in the country during general elections, rises above traditional set patterns, to vote for the India story.

In electoral terms, one could call it a possible quantification of the Narendra Modi factor. In bald terms, what this means is that the BJP has the ability to attract some votes from parties like the DMK or Congress, which the AIADMK can’t. This is what adds heft to the NDA alliance in Tamil Nadu, and belies forecasts of a Congress-DMK sweep.

In 2019, former MP C P Radhakrishnan of the BJP is back as the joint NDA candidate, supported by the AIADMK and other NDA affiliates. In addition, a return of votes from the DMK to the BJP may be expected. The KMDK, a Kongu Vellalar party, and once an NDA affiliate, is now with the DMK, but only after having suffered internal splits.

Consequently, its iron hold has diminished. On the other hand, the DMDK of actor Vijayakanth, which polled moderately well in two assembly seats, is with the NDA, so those votes can be added to the saffron kitty.

The UPA candidate is, believe it or not, the Marxist P R Natarajan, who won in 2009. How on earth is the optics going to play, that on one day, Rahul Gandhi fights against the communists in nearby Wayanad constituency in Kerala, and then crosses the Palakkad Gap to campaign for a communist UPA candidate in Coimbatore?

This is a political absurdity born of utter desperation, which neither the Congress nor the Left can ever morally reconcile, and one which will lead to their further, joint undoing.

Without an AIADMK candidate as a proper opponent, T T V Dinakaran’s AMMK will cut less NDA votes. Also, the AMMK is allied with the SDPI (a fringe Islamist party, and the political front of the overtly communal PFI, accused by various governments and law enforcement bodies of having links with the banned terrorist outfit, Indian Mujahideen).

Because of this, the AMMK is projected to take a chunk of the Muslim vote from the UPA, in direct contradiction to A K Anthony’s much-vaunted Rahul Gandhi-Wayanad-ripple effect theory.

The combined NDA vote share in 2014 was about 70 per cent, which dropped to 50 per cent in 2016, because a bulk of the BJP votes shifted to the DMK. Even without factoring in a return of those votes to the BJP, an NDA victory in 2019 looks most probable. Conversely, if even a fraction of those votes return, it will be an NDA sweep.

Forecast: C P Radhakrishnan of the BJP wins in Coimbatore.

Ramanathapuram

This coastal constituency is home to both Rameswaram with its jyotirlinga, and the birthplace of India’s beloved, legendary missile man, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam. This time, it is also the stage for that rarest of rare contests — between the BJP and the IUML.

The seat’s demographics are approximately 75 per cent Hindu, 18 per cent Muslim and 7 per cent Christian, with a much higher concentration of minority voters closer to the coast. The DMK won in 2009, but lost in 2014, when the Muslim vote shifted to the AIADMK. With both sides putting up Muslim candidates, the DMK’s multiple scam taints was the clincher.

Very surprisingly, the BJP has polled a steady 17 per cent in the last two general elections, without having a tie-up with either the DMK or the AIADMK. Like in Coimbatore, they lost much of their votes to the DMK in the 2016 assembly elections.

In 2019, the UPA’s candidate is Nawaz Kani of the IUML. The sitting MP is Anwar Raajhaa of the AIADMK, but he has not been renominated. Instead, the NDA candidate is Nainar Nagendran of the BJP, and herein lies the story of the Vaigai coast.

Nagendran is an ex-AIADMK MLA and minister, who left to join the BJP after Jayalalithaa passed away. He is considered to be a strongman of the coastal Tirunelveli belt, and has been active in building up party infrastructure in that area. Reports indicate that it is he who advised the BJP to consolidate candidacies.

That is why three of the seats they are presently contesting border each other — Sivaganga, Ramanathapuram and Thoothukkudi (Tuticorin). This is in tune with the BJP’s stated aim of rising above caste, and with the current structure of the NDA, it could work: the alliance, as currently composed, appears to represent the full caste spectrum.

Now consider the other side of the coin — the IUML. They are presently on a high, after Rahul Gandhi decided to contest from their stronghold of Wayanad in Kerala. P K Kunhalikutty, a senior IUML leader from Kerala, and once an accused in the dubiously-investigated, infamous Ice Cream Parlour sex scandal, was visibly gleeful when he declared that Gandhi would win from Wayanad without any need for campaigning. What does that statement actually mean? In effect, it is confirmation that the age old malaise of vote-banking will once again be employed to ensure a bulk Muslim vote for the UPA.

Once upon a time, that may have done the trick, but in today’s India, such blatant identity politics invites severe backlashes. If in Ramanathapuram, the DMK believes that it will be a tight fight, to be decided by the Muslim vote, then regrettably, this may be taken as proof that some political parties will never change their ways.

The sad truth is that today, because of everything that has changed since 2014, waving a green, Pakistani-looking flag with crescent and star, is not exactly a great vote-catcher among an overwhelmingly preponderant segment of society. India is changing, but some parties refuse to see that.

For them, there is only the ageless, grisly, grimy game of caste equations and the minority vote. Reality doesn’t matter, and neither does the Muslim community’s wearily-resigned sentiment, of once again being insensitively and crudely used for electoral benefit, through a mixture of appeasement and baseless victimhood. That is also why the UPA refuses to see that a good 10-12 per cent of the vote will shift back from the DMK camp to the BJP in 2019.

What does that mean in numbers? Reassigning vote shares to reflect current alliances, the NDA-UPA splits are: 58-35 in 2014, and roughly 44-45 in 2016. The NDA will lose a significant portion of the existing AIADMK Muslim vote to the UPA-IUML.

But remember that just as surely, 10-15 per cent of the UPA non-Muslim vote will shift to the NDA as per a decade-long past trend. In addition, those DMK supporters who do not find it within themselves to vote for the IUML too, will switch to the NDA. It will be a tight contest, but the NDA has an edge.

Forecast: Nainar Nagendran of the BJP wins in Ramanathapuram.

Sivaganga

Readers will find it difficult to recollect the last time there was a high profile Congress-BJP contest in Tamil Nadu. In 2019, Sivaganga constituency offers precisely that, with H Raja of the BJP facing off against senior Congressman P Chidambaram’s son Karti.

For those lost in IPL-land (understandably!), H Raja joined the RSS decades ago, is a national secretary of the BJP, and is one of its few members ever to have been elected to the Tamil Nadu assembly — from Karaikudi in 2001.

P Chidambaram is a local, who won Sivaganga back-to-back in 2004 and 2009. His son Karti, who stood from here and lost badly in 2014, has been accused in a number of big scams, and investigations are ongoing. Wait and watch — the social media spin doctors will position this contest as ‘chowkidar versus chor’.

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In 2014, the AIADMK won with 46 per cent. The DMK followed with 24 per cent, the BJP with 13 per cent and the Congress with 10 per cent. In the subsequent 2016 assembly elections, the BJP vote shifted to the DMK, which surprisingly, swept four of the six assembly seats in Sivaganga.

Once again we see a manifestation of that curious trend, where the vote goes from the DMK to the BJP in general elections, and returns from the BJP to the DMK in assembly elections. Once again, we see that the BJP has the ability to draw votes from the DMK which the AIADMK can’t. Still, aggregating the historical voting patterns to simulate the current NDA, we see that the NDA vote share stayed above 50 per cent in both 2009 and 2014.

In 2019, the NDA-UPA stack up on paper as 59-35 as per 2014 results. Some may argue that this vote split changes to 48-46 if we use 2016 assembly data. Still, the NDA stays in the lead, and don’t forget that in 2016, the BJP didn’t contest in half the assembly seats, and polled barely 1-2 per cent in the rest. What this means, significantly, is that approximately 10-15 per cent of the DMK vote will return to the BJP now.

The impact of T T V Dinakaran’s AMMK on the NDA too, will be muted here because of the nature of the contest. Because it is in alliance with the SDPI, the AMMK will attract Muslim votes from the DMK and AIADMK equally. For the UPA this will be a net loss, but for the NDA, this will be more than offset by the return of votes to the BJP from the DMK.

Qualitatively, Karti Chidambaram is not much of a draw; he has been smeared too badly in the press, and not all the DMK-led caste combinations (including the MDMK, the CPI and VCK), are going to offset the bulk AIADMK-BJP vote. This seat will boil down to simple electoral math, with the NDA projected to get around 50 per cent of the vote.

Forecast: H Raja of the BJP wins in Sivaganga.

Thoothukudi

In the fishery coast, Kanimozhi of the DMK (and Karunanidhi’s daughter) is up against Tamilisai Soundararajan of the BJP. Demographics are approximately 79 per cent Hindu, 17 per cent Christian and per cent Muslim.

The DMK won this seat for the UPA in 2009 with a large 12 per cent margin. But in 2014, when there were no major alliances in the state, and everyone fought separately, the AIADMK won. The DMK lost a whopping 21 per cent of its vote share, with 16 per cent going to the NDA’s Joel S of the MDMK (who polled 20 per cent). 2014 vote shares: AIADMK 40 per cent, DMK 26 per cent, NDA 20 per cent and Congress 7 per cent.

Some analysts might argue that since the MDMK is with the UPA in 2019, these votes should be counted in the UPA kitty, but that is not a correct assessment. In the 2016 assembly elections, an average 15 per cent of the vote share shifted from the NDA to the DMK.

If these had been purely MDMK votes, then they would have stayed with that party and its partners, the DMDK and the TMC. Ergo, these are BJP votes which shifted back to the DMK — a phenomenon encountered routinely across the state.

In 2019, it is expected that the minority vote will move in bulk to the DMK, along with the MDMK vote, since this region is a centre for evangelical activities. This will be offset in part by the switch of the latent BJP vote, along with that of two NDA partners, TMC and DMDK (both of whom polled well in 2016 without winning).

The element of personality will also enter the equation, with Kanimozhi’s candidacy making Thoothukudi a prestige seat for the DMK. The NDA will campaign hard, the Nainar Nagendran factor will be employed, and the BJP will benefit logistically from this seat being adjacent to two others they are contesting from.

Forecast: Kanimozhi of the DMK might win with a small majority, although, very frankly, no one knows what impact the Modi factor will have.

Kanyakumari

This seat is very different from nearly all others in the state because of its demographics — the population is almost equally Christian or Hindu (47 and 49 per cent respectively).

This is a BJP stronghold, with Pon Radhakrishnan winning in 2014. Vote share: BJP 38 per cent, Congress 25 per cent, AIADMK 18 per cent, DMK 12 per cent. We also see this in the results of the 2016 assembly elections, where the expected BJP vote decline took place, but to a lesser degree, and in a different manner. Here, the votes went variously to the AIADMK, the DMK, and to the Congress (which is relatively strong in this region).

So, unlike the rest of the state, the BJP’s popularity continued into 2016, with the party polling 20-25 per cent in five of the six assembly seats. What is also interesting in 2014 is that the BJP managed to retain first spot even in sub-districts like Vilavancode, where the minority is 58 per cent. So a Christian vote for the BJP, no matter what the press will have you believe, cannot be discounted.

This is a key difference because this is also where the hate-preacher and evangelist Mohan C Lazarus says openly that temples are camps of Satan. UPA silence on such zealotry and demagoguery tells us whose vote is more valued by whom. Consequently, demographics will have a much greater say in Kanyakumari’s result, than alphabet wars or election math.

The Congress party knows this, which is why they have put up a Hindu candidate with high recall value, designed to attract the Hindu vote — retail chain magnate H Vasanthkumar, chairman of Vasanth & Co, and Vasanth TV.

Will it work? Unlike in other seats in the state, here, one may not expect to see around 15 per cent of the DMK assembly vote shifting to the BJP, because that shift already took place some general elections ago, and the core DMK Lok Sabha vote is down to 10 per cent.

What this means is that the BJP’s 2014 vote share would remain largely intact, and be bolstered by that from the AIADMK, the DMDK and the TMC. As a result, one may expect a highly polarised contest, with victory also dependent on voter turnout.

Forecast: Pon Radhakrishnan of the BJP will win with a small margin.

So, we see that the probability exists that the BJP may win four of the five seats it is contesting in Tamil Nadu.

It is seen that the BJP has the ability to attract 10-15 per cent votes from the DMK during general elections, which the AIADMK can’t. Because of this, the NDA could do much better in Tamil Nadu than opinion polls presently suggest.

There is a Modi factor at work during general elections, which is absent during assembly elections.

The Congress’ alliance with the communists in Tamil Nadu, and their nomination of a Marxist candidate for Coimbatore seat will work to their detriment in Kerala, especially in Wayanad, where Rahul Gandhi is contesting against the Left. This will have an electoral impact, as it is an irreconcilable contradiction which cannot be explained away.

For the first time, the BJP is in a position to swing results in multiple seats across the state. The AIADMK recognises this, and hope to use it to counter the threat of the AMMK and T T V Dinakaran. That is why they have joined the NDA.

Smaller parties like the PMK, DMDK and TMC also believe that their political fortunes will be better served by aligning with both the BJP and the AIADMK — a mistake they made in the 2014 and 2016 elections.

The AMMK’s alliance with the SDPI will cut Muslim votes from the UPA in key seats.

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