Tamil Nadu Elections, 2016: The Search for the Pro-peoples’ Alternative Remains Elusive

Viswanathan V

the 16th May, 2016 Tamil Nadu went to polls in what was then
apparently a multi-cornered contest. Aside from the AIADMK and DMK led
alliances, this time there appeared a third contender in the polls in the form
of the PWA-DMDK-TMC(M) alliance[i]
led by actor turned politician Vijayakant who was also the then opposition
leader in the Tamil Nadu Assembly. All talk and expectations of a three
cornered battle started vanishing when the results started trickling in as the
AIADMK emerged victorious for the second consecutive time. In all, the AIADMK
led alliance secured 134 and the DMK led alliance secured 98 of the 232 seats[ii]
that went to polls on the 16th of May, 2016. In sum, the seats of
the TN assembly were partitioned between the AIADMK and DMK led fronts with
Congress and the Indian Union Muslim league being the only parties with
presence in the assembly apart from the DMK and the AIADMK.

from a clear and whole-hearted endorsement of the five years rule of AIADMK,
this verdict is a partly confused one with less than five lakh votes deciding
the fate of the winner. Although the AIADMK alliance has won a simple majority,
this mandate indicates that neither is there an overwhelming feeling in the
state for the continuation of its rule nor is there a clear signal that its
arch-rival DMK is credible enough to rule again. The anatomy of the verdict
shows its more intriguing features. When we consider that of the 170 odd seats
in which the AIADMK came in direct confrontation with the DMK, the DMK managed
to win a majority of 89 seats and the AIADMK managed 81 with the AIADMK more
than making up the deficit in areas where DMK allies contested.

verdict is a result of both the credibility crisis that both these parties have
been afflicted with over the last few years and the inability of the
alternative forces to powerfully force an advance past these two. Although
efforts at forming an alternative to DMK and the AIADMK were resoundingly
defeated in the recent assembly polls, there is a high possibility that
contrary to fading away, these voices are only going to get stronger and more
powerful in the upcoming days despite the electoral setback.

The Credibility Crisis of the
political climate during the TN assembly elections 2016 was markedly different
from the earlier times. Prior to 2016, there has never been an occasion wherein
both the parties were going through such a serious and profound credibility
crisis. Firstly, the AIADMK whose popularity reached its apogee during the Lok
Sabha polls 2014 in which it secured 37 of the 39 seats in the state, had
slowly started losing its popularity following the incarceration of its chief
Jayalalithaa in the disproportionate assets case. Following this, the period
saw a steady decline of its popular support as a consequence of its policy of
actively promoting alcohol consumption in the state, its outright support to
the plunder of the sand and water mafias etc. Peoples’ anger reached its zenith
following the way the incumbent TN government handled the consequences of the
disastrous floods in December, 2015 with the incumbent Chief Minister not even
visiting the affected area in person even once.

DMK, which should ideally have capitalized on such anger, was itself recovering
from its rout in the Lok Sabha polls in 2014 when it drew a blank. With the top
leaders of the DMK and members of its chief M. Karunanidhi’s family implicated
in the 2G scam, the DMK’s support to the Congress led UPA on crucial issues
such as FDI in retail, the departure of key DMK leaders over the past five
years and finally its own corruption tainted track record in the governance of
the state meant that the DMK itself had to contend with major political and
organizational issues and thus seemed to be not in a position to take advantage
of the anti-incumbency all by itself. Even the treasurer of DMK, M. K. Stalin
sought apologies from the people of the state for the wrong doings, if any, of the DMK governments of the
past in the run up to the elections 2016.[iii]  

was this credibility crisis affecting both the parties that informed the
context for the calls for an end to their consecutive stints at the helm of
affairs since the last five decades.

The Inability of the Third
Alternative to Advance
least on paper, this would have been the most ideal juncture for an alternative
to DMK and the AIADMK to make a concrete and powerful advance in Tamil Nadu’s
polity. Both the AIADMK and DMK were cagey towards the approaching election.
The AIADMK’s demand that its alliance partners contest in its own symbol rather
than the latter’s own symbol was clearly seen as a ploy to enhance its own
chances in the eventuality of a hung assembly and the DMK’s desperate wait
until the last moment for a tie-up with Vijayakanth’s DMDK in order to bolster
its victory chances clearly highlights the challenge a third front was posing
to them. But despite such favorable circumstances when major chinks in the
armors of both the parties were visible, the third front could not gain enough
traction as to make a strong impression in this election. The reasons for these
are to be attributed to certain factors internal to the coalition as well as
the desperate attempts by both the AIADMK/DMK to actively prevent a third space
from opening up in the state.

the coalition in its final form came into existence in late April barely a
month before the polling day. Although the PWA (Peoples’ Welfare Alliance- a
coalition of CPI, CPM, VCK and MDMK) came into existence in November, 2015 and
made their intent about fighting both the DMK and the AIADMK in the upcoming
elections and started taking their common minimum program to the people, the
seat adjustments with DMDK and TMC (M) materialized only in late April. As a
result, there was very little time available for the alliance to take forward
its campaign more powerfully to the people of the state. Secondly, even if the
arrangement between the PWA and the other two parties were in principle a seat
adjustment, all the three constituents of the alliance had three different
election manifestos with conflicting agendas on certain counts. As a
consequence, there was serious confusion regarding whose agenda will attain
primacy and what parts of the agenda of the Peoples’ Welfare Alliances will be
fulfilled. Apart from three main themes: that of deposing both the DMK and the
AIADMK and forming a coalition government, implementation of complete
prohibition and providing clean government none of the other salient features
of any of the three fronts managed to reach the masses prior to the election. Thirdly,
the DMDK, the principal opposition party between 2011 and 2016, and the senior
partner in the coalition has been suffering from a steady erosion of its base
ever since 2011. It could not function as a serious opposition party to the
AIADMK ( what with AIADMK buying seven of its MLAs within one year after coming
to power) and its truck with the BJP in 2014 Lok Sabha polls had only made the
task of stemming this erosion all the more difficult. Although certain last
ditch efforts to resurrect the party to its previous levels were made towards
the end of the term, these efforts could not restore the credibility that
Vijayakanth once had among the people of the state as the election verdict

these were not the only factors that stunted the advance of the third front in
Tamil Nadu. Right from the day the DMDK- PWA tie-up was announced, the DMK
triggered a exodus of ten district secretaries of the DMDK to prop up a front
called Makkal  DMDK (Peoples’ DMDK) in protest against
the decision of the DMDK leadership to go with PWA and not with DMK. The same
tactic was used against the TMC (M) too with one of its key leaders returning
back to the Congress in protest against the decision to go with the PWA. The
DMK also tried to create caste polarization in certain constituencies where the
key leaders of the PWA were to contest and even forced the withdrawal of one of
its leaders Vaiko, the convener of the PWA. This he was forced to undertake in
order to avoid further escalation of caste conflict in his constituency.

the non-DMK and the non-AIADMK space was itself divided with outfits like the
PMK and BJP staking a claim for their share. The BJP, left to its own means
following the collapse of the NDA in the state within six months of Modi coming
to power, put out an openly communal agenda in front of the Tamil people. Its
ulterior aim in this election was to help AIADMK win so that it has a friendly
government in Tamil Nadu. Therefore, it took upon itself the task of attacking
the DMK and the PWA alliance while mostly sparing the AIADMK. The BJP could
only garner about 2.8% of the votes and has once again established its status
as an “also ran” in the assembly polls. The BJP had to also face the ignominy
of having to cancel its public meetings featuring some central ministers due to
the thin attendance in its venues indicating that the BJP remains in the
margins of Tamil Nadu’s politics. Nevertheless, BJP’s unfulfilled task of
creating an anti-Dalit polarization was taken forward by its former ally PMK (Pattali
Makkal Katchi). Couching its anti-Dalit propaganda behind the idioms of
‘development’ and ‘progress’, the PMK on its own could get about 5.2% of the
vote share. It sought to replicate the methods of Modi with the language of
Kejriwal and it also undertook upon itself the task of attacking the PWA for
obvious reasons- the presence of the Left and Ambedkarite groups.

account of the analysis of Tamil Nadu elections can be complete without
referring to the brazen money power on show during the elections.  Both the AIADMK and the DMK had resorted to
openly bribing the electorate in tandem with each other as a fail-safe to
ensure defeat to all but either the DMK or AIADMK candidates. Indeed this
election once again brought to light the irony that shapes the daily lives of
the people of Tamil Nadu. In a state where even the relief material following
the floods took more than two months to reach the common people, bribe in the
form of cash reached all concerned within a matter of hours come the polling
day. It is from this tendency of all pervading corruption that the people of
Tamil Nadu need to be rescued and the third front could not do it in this

The Way Forward
PWA as a coalition of the two Left Parties, the MDMK and the Ambedkarite outfit
VCK is a novel experiment in Tamil Nadu’s politics. Although in terms of votes
and seats (it got overall 5.9% votes and even if we exclude DMDK and TMC (M) its vote share is around 3.2%), it did not register a powerful presence
in the recent elections, the immense enthusiasm that it generated prior to the
elections for people who were on the side of progressive social change should
not be underestimated. That the PWA was able to widen its ambit with parties
like DMDK preferring the PWA over the DMK although an alliance with the latter
would have definitely yielded a better electoral result is testimony to the
impact the PWA was able to create a month prior to the election.

a unit, the PWA represents the combination of the Left and Ambedkarite forces
and their recent loss is definitely a setback to all the progressive forces in
the country and in the state of Tamil Nadu in particular. At least over the
past two decades both of these forces have had to align with either the DMK or
the AIADMK due to prevailing political circumstances and this was used in the
campaign by the opponents of the alliance to the hilt. This election has all but
obliterated this aspect from the past of these parties and has once again
confirmed their commitment in no uncertain terms to move past the binaries
propped up by the ruling classes of the country. The PWA steeled as it is by
the experience of the elections in 2016, if it takes forward its struggles for
the rights of the oppressed masses in the state, it shall definitely provide
the alternative that the people of Tamil Nadu badly need.  

[i] A six-party alliance comprising of the CPI, CPM, Viduthalai
Chiruthaikal Katchi (VCK), the MDMK ( Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam),
the DMDK ( Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam) and TMC (M) ( Tamil Manila
Congress ( Moopanar))

[ii] Polling was postponed in the remaining two constituencies following
allegations of cash distribution by both the DMK and the ADMK prior to polling
in these constituencies.

[iii] http://www.firstpost.com/politics/the-return-of-stalin-decoding-the-dmk-heirs-massive-makeover-2457212.html

Viswanathan V is doing PhD at Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi