Is Dravidian Party Dominance In Tamil Nadu Set To End? And Will BJP Be Able To Fill The Void?

Is Dravidian Party Dominance In Tamil Nadu Set To End? And Will BJP Be Able To Fill The Void?

by Ramakrishna Upadhya - Tuesday, January 19, 2021 10:12 PM IST
Is Dravidian Party Dominance In Tamil Nadu Set  To End? And Will BJP Be Able To Fill The Void?Tamil Nadu DMK. (DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Between them, the DMK and AIADMK have consistently logged over 50 percent of the votes since the past five decades.

Are the citadels of the two Dravidian parties, DMK and AIADMK, which have held sway over Tamil Nadu’s politics for an unbroken 53 years, likely to crack open when the Assembly elections are held in the summer of 2021?

Will the Tamil film industry’s superstar, Rajinikanth, even after dropping the idea of launching a political party of his own due to health reasons after “listening to a warning from God,” play the role of a catalyst in bringing bring about the change the state has been craving for?

Having made several false starts, will the BJP finally be able to find a foothold in a southern state other than Karnataka?

These and other questions will be answered when Tamil Nadu goes to the polls along with three other states and one Union Territory – West Bengal, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry – perhaps simultaneously during April-May 2021.

Among them, the BJP is in pole position only in Assam, where it is reasonably confident of retaining power, having won a first-ever, historic mandate in 2016.

It is also quite certain that this time around the BJP is targeting West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

The two states are as different as chalk and cheese, with one uniting factor: both states had voters who, till recently, shied away from the BJP. But in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, the BJP was able to break the jinx in West Bengal, winning 18 out of 42 seats.

With less than four months to go for the assembly elections, the way Union Home Minister Amit Shah and others are having a go at Mamata Didi’s fortress and causing considerable tremors in the Trinamool Congress, the BJP believes that the Bengal fruit is within reach.

The politics of Tamil Nadu, however, is much more complex and riddled with uncertainties.

For two decades after Independence, the most towering national leader from Tamil Nadu (then Madras) was Kamaraj Nadar. His charisma combined with that of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi made the Congress party’s position unassailable.

The ‘self-respect’ movement launched by EV Ramaswamy Naicker (Periyar) in the mid-1960s against “north Indian domination” and the threat of Hindi imposition led to the birth of Dravidian parties which captured power in that decade.

After 1967, the DMK, led by M Karunanidhi, and its mutant version, the AIADMK led by MG Ramachandran and later J Jayalalithaa, have dominated the political scene.

The rivalry between Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa was so bitter that for two decades between 1991 and 2011, they replaced each other as chief minister in five consecutive elections.

But in 2016 Jayalalithaa broke the chain and retained power. But battling ill-health and court cases, she passed away within months of that electoral victory, even as Karunanidhi too followed suit in 2018 at the ripe old age of 94.

With these two stalwarts gone and national politics itself undergoing tumultuous changes, speculation is ripe that the Dravidian spell over the people of Tamil Nadu may be weakening and the state could be on the cusp of witnessing radically different politics.

On the surface, DMK and AIADMK are still dominant forces. Edappadi Palaniswami, who succeeded Jayalalithaa, is still running the AIADMK government overcoming many odds, while DMK under MK Stalin swept the Lok Sabha polls in May 2019, winning 38 out of 39 seats in alliance with the Congress, something similar to what Jayalalithaa had done in 2014.

After Jayalalithaa’s demise, the AIADMK had tended to get closer to the BJP as the Modi government not only helped Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam to patch up their differences, but also periodically warded off potential threats of destabilisation from former Jayalalithaa loyalists, VK Sasikala and TTV Dhinakaran.

In return, a grateful AIADMK extended tactical support to the BJP government in the Rajya Sabha while passing crucial legislation on Triple Talaq, the abolition of Article 370, the agriculture reforms bills, et al.

Though the BJP and AIADMK have announced plans to contest the Assembly elections as formal allies, there is an undercurrent of tension between the two.

For instance, the EPS government vehemently opposed the BJP’s ‘Vetrivel yatra’ (Vetrivel is the son of goddess Parvati and the other name of Lord Murugan, who is extremely popular in Tamil Nadu) taken out in six abodes of Murugan across the state.

It was led by the charismatic former IPS officer K Annamalai, who recently joined the BJP and has been made a vice president. The rally was not only blocked by the police in many places but Annamalai was detained 17 times.

Annamalai believes that several welfare measures introduced by the Modi government, including direct fund transfers into the accounts of farmers through the Kisan Samman Yojana, have brought a lot of goodwill to the BJP. This may enable the saffron party to make a mark this time.

“Women voters are playing a more decisive role in elections than ever before, as witnessed in the recent Bihar elections. In the absence of Jayalalithaa, they have begun to look up to Modi as their saviour,” he says.

It is no secret that Rajinikanth’s “spiritual roots” are with the BJP and he has openly expressed his admiration for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.

Speaking in Chennai at a book release function last year after the abrogation of Article 370, he had described Amit Shah’s speech in Parliament as “fantastic” and likened Modi and Shah to “Arjuna and Krishna.”

After dilly-dallying for months, if not years, Rajinikanth’s formal announcement in the first week of December 2020 that his party “will contest all 234 seats” in the coming elections, was music to the ears of BJP leaders as they knew that he alone was capable of breaking the hold of the Dravidian parties in the state.

Between them, the DMK and AIADMK have consistently logged over 50 percent of the votes, turning every new player and old – including the once-mighty Congress – into minor satellites who were forced to pick up the crumbs.

DMK and AIADMK leaders are surely heaving a sigh of relief after Rajinikanth’s ‘painful’ announcement that he won’t, after all, be entering the electoral fray directly. But some kind of indirect participation cannot be ruled out.

Now that he will be under no pressure to campaign extensively to demonstrate he can win elections, the BJP will be hoping that Rajinikanth will whole-heartedly throw his weight behind the party, giving it a necessary boost.

With Rajinikanth out of the way, DMK and AIADMK will begin playing their familiar politics of alliances.

There are a number of ‘bit players’ with pockets of influence in Tamil Nadu and striking the right alliance is vital for stitching together a majority.

Apart from the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) of Dr S Ramadoss, there are the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) of Vijayakanth, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) of Vaiko, Tamil Manila Congress of GK Vasan, Congress and the Communist parties, not to speak of the brand new entrant in Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) of actor Kamal Haasan.

Haasan made an electoral debut in the last Lok Sabha elections, garnering about 4 percent of the popular votes.

Haasan doesn’t have the same statewide fan-following as Rajinikanth and if the voting pattern in 2019 is any indication, his voters are mostly urbanites.

Haasan has already indicated that he will soon be meeting Rajinikanth and seeking his support, but he is unlikely to get any, as their political ideologies are diametrically different.

In a recent development, the BJP has even indicated that it would like to be a ‘partner’ in the future government. This has certainly not gone down well with AIADMK, sparking tensions within the alliance.

Such is the mercurial nature of Tamil Nadu politics that who will go to bed with whom is unlikely to be known until the elections are announced. It is a pot-boiler worth waiting for.

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