There was never any doubt about a regime change in Tamil Nadu, where the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) had significantly spoilt its people-friendly image with its inextricable involvement in a trillion-rupee telecom scandal through one of its ministers in the Central government. However, when the results of the April 13 State Assembly elections came out exactly a month later on May 13, political pundits were shocked by the scale of the DMK’s defeat.
The principal opposition, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), led by its temperamental general secretary Jayalalithaa Jayaram, got more than a five-sixth majority in the 234-member legislature, leaving those who had predicted a “close contest” dumbstruck. The DMK had been relegated to the third place in the State, with a mere 23 seats, behind the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), a six-year-old party founded by filmstar-politician Vijayakant, which won 29 seats. Despite being an AIADMK ally, the DMDK, by virtue of not joining the new government, gets the status as the main opposition in the House. The alliance led by the AIADMK’s final tally was 203 out of 234, with Jayalalithaa’s party winning 150 on its own, 32 seats more than the majority mark of 118.
The DMK’s principal ally, the Congress, which is a junior partner in Tamil Nadu despite being the leader of the combine at the Centre, was swept away in the Jayalalithaa wave. The Congress, which elsewhere in the country won control of the legislature in three other States – in Kerala and Assam on its own and as a junior partner in West Bengal – was decimated in Tamil Nadu, winning only five out of the 63 seats it had extracted from the DMK through some hard pre-election bargaining.
The Congress risked the continuance of its alliance with the DMK – and through that the support of 18 members in the Lok Sabha, the lower House of India’s Parliament – by its hostile negotiating stance prior to the elections. Many believed that it wangled 63 seats in the alliance by threatening to walk out of the DMK front if its demand was not met. The DMK was forced to part with the seats demanded by the Congress, as it felt that without its main ally it had no chance of returning to power. In the ultimate analysis, both the DMK and Congress appeared to have caused each other’s downfall, as they could have retained some honour in defeat had they contested separately. The DMK’s prospects were perhaps hit by the steep decline in the image of the Congress, which reeled under revelations about one scandal after another in 2010; on the other hand, the DMK’s own image of being the principal beneficiary of the 2G spectrum allocation scandal cast a shadow on the Congress too.
Two smaller parties that draw their support from socially antagonistic caste groups but are united in their espousal of Tamil nationalism – the Pattali Makkal Katchi led by Dr S. Ramadoss and the Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi of T. Thirumavalavan – were routed, with the former winning three out of the 30 seats it contested in the DMK-led combination, and the latter losing all its 10 seats.
Ms. Jayalalithaa’s front included the two main Left parties in the country – the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) –that together walked away with 19 of the 22 seats they contested. There were some close contests, but by and large candidates of the AIADMK front won by comfortable margins over their nearest rivals in the elections, which are held on the first-past-the-post system.
It was a defeat compounded by ignominy for the DMK and its 86-year-old Dravidian leader, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, who has held the office of Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for a record five times. He won his own seat at his native town of Tiruvarur by a handsome margin of over 50,000 votes, and achieved a personal record of winning a 12th entry into the State Assembly – he has not lost his seat even once in 54 years of electoral politics, but this was small comfort given the extent of his party’s rout. As many as 18 ministers of the outgoing regime were defeated, besides the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the Assembly. The margins of defeat at the hands of the AIADMK mainly ranged from 10,000 votes to 73,000 votes, but there were closer contests wherever candidates of allied parties were in the fray.
The DMK is yet to formally discuss the reasons for its humiliating defeat, but a list of factors is not difficult to compile. The corruption charges faced by key DMK functionaries such as former Union communications minister A. Raja and DMK’s Member of Parliament Kanimozhi, who is also Mr. Karunanidhi’s daughter, principally hit the DMK’s prospects because the investigation is being handled by a Central agency under the supervision of the Supreme Court. Initially seen only as an ‘urban issue’ or a ‘middle class matter’ that would not cut ice with the rural masses of Tamil Nadu, the perception that big time corruption was involved appears to have percolated fairly deep among the entire electorate.
Secondly, the DMK and its government faced popular wrath because of the all-pervasive influence of many of his family members both in the party and in other spheres of activity such as the media and the film industry. In fact, a key beneficiary of alleged bribes paid out by telecom companies in exchange for allocation of spectrum bandwidth was Kalaignar TV, a television channel named after Mr. Karunanidhi and controlled by his family members. Ms. Kanimozhi is now in the dock as a director in the company who was familiar with its day-to-day affairs, as she is charged with getting a payment of Rs 2.14 billion for the TV channel under the smokescreen of a purported investment by a subsidiary of a telecom company that won an operating licence under suspicious circumstances.
A third factor was the perception that the DMK regime had failed to ensure adequate electricity supply to the whole State. Its power management skills were seen as abysmal, as much of rural Tamil Nadu reeled under power cuts and farmers saw the free electricity connections given to their irrigation pump sets as largely useless as there was no power supply most of the time. Electoral history is also a key factor in the DMK’s history as the Tamil Nadu voter has never re-elected the same party in successive elections. Further, the Assembly elections took place at a time when there was a national mood of outrage against corruption in general and other particular grievances such as rising inflation and prices of essential commodities. Few regimes could have survived this combination of negative factors.
Supporters of the Congress are angry that the party leadership did not see the writing on the wall and proceeded to forge an alliance with a losing party. Dark predictions that it would be suicidal for the Congress to remain in the DMK’s company came true.
The national party had earlier given the impression that new generation leaders like Rahul Gandhi would not want it to be associated with ‘tainted’ parties like the DMK, but when it came to the crucial decision of parting company with it, the high command chose to stick to its trusted ally, mainly because the DMK had 18 valuable votes in Parliament.
Another factor that motivated the Congress to remain in the DMK fold was the belief that the great welfare measures adopted by the State government and the freebies the DMK government had both distributed in the last few years and promised in its election manifesto would propel the combination back to power. An added incentive was that this time the DMK would most likely have shared power with the Congress if the two had cobbled up a majority. The DMK regime had distributed 16 million free colour TV sets to the populace, besides selling rice at one rupee a kilogram through ration shops. It had several kinds of allowances and pensions aimed at different sections of society and nearly one-third of its annual budget went into the social sector. Its campaign was rooted in this ‘social safety net’, but the people did not miss the other highlights of its regime, viz., abuse of power and the propensity of individual ministers and legislators to amass wealth.
Also, the DMK began the practice of bribing voters on a massive scale during intervening by-elections. The idea that the same formula of promising sops and distributing cash would stand the party in good stead in the general elections, too, failed miserably. In fact, many voters saw the amount of money being splurged on the voters as convincing proof that the DMK had indeed gained considerably through corruption, especially the telecom scandal.
A small but vocal group of sympathizers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and liberal human rights activists opposed to both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state are also happy at the defeat of the DMK-Congress combine. The two parties are seen as the ‘culprits’ who allowed large scale civilian casualties in the last days of the war in April –May 2009, as they were the ruling parties at the State and the Centre then. India, under the Congress, is seen as complicit in the Sri Lankan army’s military operations, especially aerial bombing of civilian targets, including hospitals and the ‘no-fire’ zones, and a small group campaigned actively against Congress party candidates.
While there is no evidence that the Sri Lankan Tamil issue was ever a factor in Tamil Nadu elections, there is a belief that the AIADMK would raise the need for a political solution in Sri Lanka and accountability for alleged war crimes forcefully with the Union government. The AIADMK has been sharply critical of the DMK for not raising its voice against the Rajapaksa regime and not pulling out of the Central government in 2008-09 at the height of the war. Further, Tamil Nadu fishermen have also felt the heat of the prolonged civil war over the years, and each time, a bullet-riddled body of a fisherman comes back home to Rameswaram or Nagapattinam, there is barely concealed anger against the Sri Lankan government, especially its Navy. Ms. Jayalalithaa, the fishermen hope, will put an end to their travails.
New Delhi’s normally complacent foreign policy establishment may now have to sit up and take notice of the attitude of the new dispensation in Tamil Nadu towards issues concerning Sri Lanka, especially Tamils. With the demise of the LTTE and sections of global opinion slowly turning against the Rajapaksa administration, Ms. Jayalalithaa would hardly feel any discomfiture in adopting an aggressive stance on issues such as the political rights of Tamils and the safety of Indian fishermen.