Not a wave, but still a victory: Stalin’s journey to Tamil Nadu’s chief ministership

The AIADMK will spin its 60-odd seats as a success, while the DMK alliance might have hoped for a sweep.

ByR Rangaraj
Not a wave, but still a victory: Stalin’s journey to Tamil Nadu’s chief ministership
Kartik Kakar
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The AIADMK in Tamil Nadu has clearly been hit by an anti-incumbency trend with a swing of nearly 12 percent against the Edappadi Palaniswami government. However, what has saved the party from an utter decimation in this election is that the 12 percent votes that it lost did not transfer to the DMK. Instead, it probably went to the three minor parties: Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam, Seeman's Naam Tamizhar Katchi, and TTV Dhinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam.

In the 2016 assembly poll, the AIADMK secured 41.1 percent of the vote, a mere 1.1 percent lead over the DMK alliance’s 39.9 percent. However, the AIADMK contested in 2016 on its own. This time around, it received additional support from the BJP, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the Tamil Maanila Congress, and a few minor parties whose combined vote share should be close to 12 percent based on their performances in 2016 and 2019.

Thus, the AIADMK alliance’s vote share in the 2021 assembly election should have stood at around 52 percent, going by the vote shares secured by these parties from 2011 to 2016. It ended up with around 40 percent instead.

As for the DMK, it expanded its support base from a vote share of 39.9 percent in 2016 to about 45 percent now (including its alliance partners). This was, of course, largely due to the inclusion of parties like the CPI and CPIM, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. It’s unlikely to have got any votes from the 12 percent drop in the AIADMK kitty. If the DMK had got a slice of this 12 percents swing against the AIADMK, the party should have crossed the 50 percent mark. However, it has remained stuck at the 45 percent level.

And this should be a matter of concern for the DMK. If it had gleaned four or five percent from this section, it could have taken its tally to over three-fourth of the Tamil Nadu assembly strength. It now has to be satisfied with just two-third. It was a normal victory, not a wave election: 159 seats for its front as against the prospect of crossing the 200 mark.

While the DMK made an effort to take in more partners into its alliance beginning with the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, it’s surprising that the AIADMK made no tangible efforts to bring in allies to counter the loss caused by the AMMK, which is a breakaway AIADMK group led by the nephew of Jayalalithaa’s long-time confidante, Sasikala.

Instead, chief minister Palaniswami committed several political follies in the run-up to the election, such as yielding to the PMK demand for a separate Vanniyar quota within the backward classes quota. He might have considered the Vanniyar vote as crucial in his own case, as the Vanniyar-dominant PMK came second in the chief minister’s Edappadi constituency in 2016 while the DMK came third. The PMK’s support would mean that he could romp home.

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However, was Palaniswami unaware of the backlash it would cause in southern districts? Didn’t he know that even in northern districts of Tamil Nadu, where Vanniyars are large in number, other communities would revolt against privileges being conferred on just the Vanniyars? As things turned out, the backlash from the Thevars, Dalits, Mudaliars and other non-Vanniyar communities did hurt the AIADMK-led front, even the PMK.

An AIADMK source pointed out that Palaniswami was well aware that there would be a backlash but thought that it would be his rival within the AIADMK, O Panneerselvam, and his supporters who would suffer, not the Palaniswami camp. It was, perhaps, a case of cutting one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Palaniswami allowed its 2019 ally, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam led by actor Vijayakanth, to leave the front over a petty issue of ticket distribution. The DMDK's exit from the AIADMK alliance at a time when the DMK was consolidating its own alliance by including new parties sent a wrong signal to the electorate.

The AIADMK thought that mere money power would be enough to retain power. Several ministers splurged in their constituencies to overcome the anti-incumbency trend and scrape through in the end. True, money did play a role but the AIADMK managed to convert defeat into victory in only about 30 constituencies.

The AIADMK’s other move, of bringing the BJP into its alliance, did not bring in a major chunk of votes, despite high-profile campaigns by prime minister Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath, and others. On the other hand, it led to a consolidation of minority votes in favour of the DMK alliance in a large number of districts, particularly along the coast from Chennai to Kanyakumari.

Although the BJP did win four seats, this is largely attributable to the AIADMK’s groundwork. The BJP had already won four seats in alliance with the DMK in 2001. Since then, however, it drew a blank, until now. Jayalalithaa, aware of the danger of consolidation of minority votes, kept away from electoral ties with the saffron party. Now, however, Palaniswami couldn’t say no to the BJP, having sought its help in several cases.

Palaniswami also turned down suggestions from the BJP to enable a merger with the Sasikala group, including Dhinakaran's AMMK, with the AIADMK or at least allow the AMMK to be one of the allies in the NDA in Tamil Nadu to prevent a split in the AIADMK votes. In several constituencies where the victory margin was low, the AMMK has clearly hurt the AIADMK.

In the end, this was an election which Palaniswami lost just as much as Stalin won. The question is whether Palaniswami will face grilling by partymen or not. Of course, spin doctors in the AIADMK will hail the success of its 60-odd party candidates as a huge achievement.

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