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National - Elections 2004 Printer Friendly Page   Send this Article to a Friend

The arithmetic of alliance and anti-incumbency

In Tamil Nadu, alliance arithmetic is overwhelmingly in favour of the DMK-led Front, says Yogendra Yadav

In Tamil Nadu, alliance arithmetic takes precedence over other factors usually associated with electoral outcomes: popularity of parties and leaders, peoples' assessment of national and State-level governments, issues and ideology. The current election is being fought between two grand alliances: the NDA represented by the ruling AIADMK and the BJP on the one hand, and the Democratic Progressive Alliance [DPA], a State-level alliance led by the DMK that includes the Congress, the Communist Parties, the PMK, the MDMK and the Muslim League. An assessment of the outcome of the elections depends more on the assessment of the strengths of the two alliances than on any astute reading of the popular mood.

The politics of grand coalitions is still new to Tamil Nadu. Although the late C.N. Annadurai had put up the first grand coalition way back in 1967 and the State has a long history of the Congress' alliance with one of the Dravida Kazhagams, rainbow coalitions have not become a part of the State's political routine. Unlike Kerala, politics in this State has not reached a point of equilibrium where the two alliances are stable and start the electoral race from roughly the same level of votes at their command. In this early phase of coalition politics, elections are being won by simply manufacturing the larger coalition. Faced with the challenge of avenging a humiliating defeat at the hands of the DMK-TMC alliance in the 1996 elections to the Lok Sabha and State Assembly, Jayalalithaa forged the first of these grand alliances in recent times in the Lok Sabha elections held in 1998. She departed from the established practice by inviting into her coalition significant but hitherto marginalised players like the MDMK, the PMK and the BJP that had acquired small yet critical electoral support. She also made room for very small players like the Janata Party led by Subramaniam Swami and the Tamizhaga Rajiv Congress led by K. Ramamurthy. This rainbow alliance won 30 seats out of 39 at a time when the then ruling DMK-TMC alliance was not very unpopular. This was achieved with a mere five-percentage point lead: the AIADMK-led alliance secured 47 per cent votes, as compared to 42 per cent for the DMK-TMC-CPI.

Since then the practice of coalitions has been institutionalised. Next time, following Jayalalithaa's role in the collapse of the BJP Government at the Centre, it was the DMK's turn to tie up with the BJP, PMK and the MDMK. The alliance won 26 seats in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections despite losing its erstwhile partner, the TMC. The AIADMK too created a small alliance with the Congress and the two Communist Parties and managed to win 13 seats. This time too the winning alliance had a five-percentage point lead over the loser. The entire process was reversed once again in the Assembly elections of 2001. After the Lok Sabha elections, the then ruling DMK lost most of the allies that it had acquired in 1999 to its rival, the AIADMK. Jayalalithaa's grand alliance, that included the Congress, the TMC, the Communist parties and the PMK, besides the Muslim League and some Independents, secured 50 per cent votes. The DMK too tried to put up something of an alternative rainbow alliance — basically the DMK and the BJP with many small parties including two major Dalit formations — but this ended up with only 39 per cent votes. The MDMK chose not to join any of the two alliances and secured five per cent votes. The 11-percentage point lead gave the AIADMK-led alliance 195 seats out of 234 seats in the State Assembly.

Alliance politics has completed a full circle this time. All of Jayalalithaa's allies in the Assembly elections are now with the DMK-led DPA. Besides, the TMC has merged with the Congress and the MDMK has also joined the DPA. This makes the current DPA one of the strongest alliances of recent times. The AIADMK is left with only the BJP as its ally and has made no effort to forge a rainbow coalition. It would appear thus that the DPA has started this electoral race with a clear advantage. But it is not easy to put numbers to this advantage, for there is no simple way of calculating what is truly the strength of each of the smaller parties. It would be wrong to take the vote share of each party in the recent elections as an accurate indicator of its real strength, for the vote share of different parties in an alliance situation depends on which party is allotted how many seats and how well the alliance as a whole performs.

A much better indicator of a party's real strength is its vote share in an election that the party may have contested on its own. This is difficult to use for the two big parties, for they have not contested an election entirely on their own in recent years. But it works for others. If we use this method, the AIADMK-BJP alliance is worth 34 per cent, for the BJP secured three per cent votes on its own in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. Using the same method, the DPA is worth about 55 per cent of the popular vote share. That would give the DPA an advantage of about 20 percentage points.

Perhaps this method, used often by political analysts, over-estimates the DPA's strength. These estimates draw upon different elections for different parties and tend to represent their best performance. Besides, a party may not bring to an alliance all the votes that it could win if it fought separately. A much better way is to use estimates generated by the CSDS survey after the Assembly elections of 1999. In this post-poll survey the voters were given a ballot paper with symbols of all the major parties and asked to indicate whom they would have voted for if there were no alliances and they could choose from all the parties. The survey estimates are unlikely to have under-estimated the AIADMK, for it was the winning party in that election. The results show that both the big parties have a support base of around 34 per cent, larger than their own vote share. The BJP's real worth is about three per cent, less than half of what it got in the last Lok Sabha elections, for it contested a larger number of seats. The Congress too commands much smaller support than its vote share: the Congress and the TMC put together have the support of about seven per cent of the State's electorate, much smaller than their combined vote share of 12 per cent in the Assembly elections. The Communist Parties, especially the CPI, also command smaller support than their vote share. But regional formations like the MDMK and the PMK do command the support indicated by their vote share. Using this method, the current DPA has a support of 52 per cent of the voters. In other words, if voters' loyalties stood as they were in Assembly elections 2001, the DMK-led alliance would secure 52 per cent votes to 37 per cent for the AIADMK-BJP alliance. The change in alliances itself has swung the fortunes in favour of the DPA and given it a clear lead of 15 percentage points.

These conclusions — made from purely deductive reasoning — are supported by the available evidence from pre-election surveys. The first round of the NDTV-Indian Express opinion polls found the DPA decisively ahead. Another and more recent opinion poll conducted jointly by the Culture and Communications and the Visual Communications Department of Chennai's Loyola College reports the exact vote share figures as 62.1 per cent for the DPA and 31.7 per cent for the NDA. But this survey under-sampled women, who are reported here to favour the AIADMK-led alliance. If this bias is corrected by giving more weightage to women's responses, the adjusted figures should read 57 per cent for the DPA and 35 per cent for the NDA. The information on vote share revealed by other surveys also confirms that the DPA's lead over the NDA may be larger than that indicated by alliance arithmetic.

Political indicators from the ground suggest that the swing factor may be supporting the alliance effect in favour of the DPA. In the last year or so, Jayalalithaa has consistently been rated as one of the poorest Chief Ministers in terms of popular rating. The NDTV-Indian Express opinion poll shows that many of her major decisions have not found favour with her electorate. A clear majority of 53 per cent disagreed with her controversial law making conversions more difficult. As many as 61 per cent of the State's electorate, including 38 per cent of those who intended voting for her party, thought that using POTA against leaders like Vaiko was wrong. A majority of all respondents and her own party's voters agreed that she takes decisions in undemocratic ways. And what is worse, 58 per cent of the respondents thought that she had failed to defend the interests of the State in the Cauvery river water dispute. Unless things have changed dramatically since this survey took place in March, she appears headed for a drubbing.

That leaves the final question of what a double-digit lead could mean in terms of seats. A quick look at the electoral history of Tamil Nadu will be instructive here. The State has had a history of electoral waves. In fact the last two Lok Sabha elections were the only exceptions in the State's history when the winner did not take all or nearly all the seats. The DMK-TMC alliance won all the 39 seats in 1996; the same was the tally for the Congress-AIADMK alliance in 1991. All the elections between 1971 and 1989 too saw a clean or near clean sweep for whichever Dravida party had the Congress as its ally. This is the outcome of a very high degree of political homogeneity. It is not that there are no regional differences. The DMK is stronger in the north, while the AIADMK is stronger in the south. The PMK has its influence in a clear Vanniyar belt in the north. But notwithstanding these regional differences, the State experiences uniform swings.

On this assumption of an uniform swing, the picture does not look good for the NDA. If the DPA simply retains its own estimated vote share indicated by the survey in 2001, its 15-point lead over the NDA would translate into a clean sweep. If the Jayalalithaa regime has become more unpopular in the meanwhile, the DPA can win all the seats by a larger margin. The AIADMK-BJP alliance needs to improve its popularity over the level achieved in 2001 to begin to win any seats in Tamil Nadu. It would need to win a five-percentage point vote from the DMK and its own erstwhile allies, and reduce the gap to merely five points, to reach the tally of 13 seats that it secured last time. That appears a very tall order indeed unless something has happened during the campaign that upsets all arithmetic and polls.

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