It’s 4 am on May 23, a few hours before counting of votes commences for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. A few video cameramen and reporters from Tamil TV channels cluster outside the house of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief MK Stalin on Cenotaph Road in Chennai. By 6 am, reporters from English TV channels join the throng.
The DMK and its allies saw a historic win yesterday, winning in 37 out of the 38 constituencies it contested. It was a combination of the anger against the Bharatiya Janata Party, which partnered with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK’s lack of a charismatic leader, the fact that the AIADMK is missing a clear consistent narrative, the failure to address the agrarian crisis and the shootings in Thoothukudi. Yet based on the ramblings of senior BJP leader H Raja, even a single seat victory for the BJP in the state would be a cause for huge celebration.
Tamil Nadu has been a state for landslide victories, alternating between the DMK and AIADMK. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the AIADMK won 37 out of the 39 seats in the state. This election was no different. However, the magnitude of the DMK’s victory, which curtailed the BJP’s reach in the south, cannot be overplayed. In Thoothukudi, the AIADMK, BJP and its allies went all guns blazing during the campaign, with state BJP president Tamilisai Soundararajan contesting and Amit Shah himself coming south to show his solidarity. But the Right-wing party lost with a margin of nearly 3.5 lakh against Karunanidhi’s prodigal daughter Kanimozhi. Across the state, the DMK alliance won with a margin of more than one lakh across 33 constituencies. In 21 constituencies, the difference was more than two lakh. Even A Raja, the prime accused—who was later acquitted—in the 2G scam who shot to national fame for corruption, won with a margin of more than two lakh in the Nilgiris Lok Sabha seat. It should be noted that elections were cancelled in Vellore.
The BJP managed to get a second lead in five constituencies: Coimbatore, Kanyakumari, Ramanathapuram, Sivagangai and Thoothukudi. In Ramanathapuram, the party lost to the Indian Union Muslim League. The situation is summarised by G Gowriamma, a DMK supporter who’s been waiting for nearly six hours outside Stalin’s house to catch a glimpse of him. “When our thalapathy (meaning leader, how Stalin is referred to) is doing well not just to carry Karunanidhi’s legacy forward but also to take care of the poor like us, why should we look out for anyone from outside the state?”
However, celebrations were subdued throughout the day. Cenotaph Road remained empty. Mount Road—or Anna Salai, the prime arterial road where the DMK office is located, that is usually infested with political hoardings—lay bare, unruffled by flex banners or traffic hold-up. Life went on as usual. Even DMK workers and supporters with their troupe of drummers and dancers turned up at the party office only at 4 pm.
Stalin was perhaps the only regional leader to pose his full trust in Rahul Gandhi as a prime ministerial candidate. With the Congress’s rout, the disappointment of allying with a losing side was evident. Stalin came out of his house at 6 pm—a full 14 hours after the first cameraman set up camp. With a quick wave, he made his way to Anna Arivalayam, the party’s headquarters, where he addressed a large crowd consisting of his party workers. Though he accepted the victory, his tone gave away his sense of disappointment. “‘Bittersweet” was the term of the day, thrown around regularly by journalists and political experts.
DMK members played it safe with their reactions. Speaking to reporters minutes after meeting Stalin at his residence, Tiruchi Siva, a Rajya Sabha MP from the DMK, said: “Our leader formed a very strong alliance and we evolved a good strategy. Our intensive campaign brought us victory in Tamil Nadu. As far as the DMK is concerned as a regional party, we are confined to Tamil Nadu where we got cent percent success, and all credit goes to leader.”
When asked if the DMK was concerned about the BJP’s sweeping victory across the country and the Congress’s loss, Siva replied: “We are happy we got a very big sweep in Tamil Nadu. I cannot answer what is beyond our jurisdiction. As far as a regional party’s responsibility [is concerned], we did really well and succeeded. We have proved that we’re the only state in the whole of India that has come up with 100 per cent success against the BJP.”
TKS Elangovan, a well-seasoned politician, and an old-timer at the DMK, primarily sees Stalin’s victory as the people’s mandate post the demise of Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. He told Newslaundry: “Both the top leaders of the state are no more. The question of who is the next leader came up. This victory has proved our leader has emerged as the single top leader in the state.” Elangovan added that Stalin will continue to play an important role in bringing together the Opposition at the Centre. “At the national level while there was cooperation, there was a lack of coordination amongst the Opposition beyond the Vindhyas. Some 22 parties united together against the BJP, but there was no coordination amongst themselves. In each state, there was no coordination like it happened in Tamil Nadu, except in Maharashtra.”
In 2014, the AIADMK emerged as the third biggest party in Parliament. In 2019, the DMK takes the slot. However, Elangovan says Stalin has no national ambitions. “He (Stalin) will continue to be a leader in Tamil Nadu and will not go beyond that. We need the right person in the state. Tamil Nadu is in the forefront only because of its chief ministers. We need somebody to lead the state and develop it on all indicators and parameters.” Elangovan says both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa did not have national ambitions either. “But we will continue our fight and place reasonable demands from the south. If the ruling party does not listen, it is against their own interest.”
This year, there were two new faces in the foray who were seen as an unknown factor: actor Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam and TTV Dhinakaran, who founded the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam. Both failed to win a single seat, not even managing to secure second place in any constituency. According to estimates, Dhinakaran managed to secure five per cent of the vote share. His party’s star candidate Thangatamilsevam justifies their performance by saying, “Basically, people wanted a change in both the central and state governments, and hence voted against the BJP-AIADMK. That was their primary aim.”
The Makkal Needhi Maiam, meanwhile, performed decently in urban areas like Coimbatore where it won 1.45 lakh votes (11.6 per cent of the vote share) and Chennai South with 1.35 lakh votes (12.03 per cent). The party managed to come in third place in 13 constituencies.
But the biggest loser in these elections is the AIADMK. For now, the party takes comfort in the fact that the by-elections in 22 constituencies did not topple their government. A press note signed by chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami and deputy chief minister O Paneerselvam said: “In the state Assembly by-elections, AIADMK won by a large margin, which is a sign that the people of Tamil Nadu have placed their faith on our governance. We will continue our job. People questioned the relevance of the party after Amma’s death but our performance has shown that people still trust us and gave us votes.”