Sankarankoil by-election points to a trend

As the ruling AIADMK retained the Sankarankoil (reserved) Assembly constituency with a massive victory margin of 68,557 votes, there is a clear pattern in the by-election outcome: political parties, seeking to project themselves as an alternative to the two Dravidian majors, AIADMK and the DMK, are far behind in their pursuit.

The outcome of the local body polls in October 2011 pointed to the trend. Sankarankoil has now confirmed it.

The DMK came second in Sankarankoil, proving that its organisational strength and vote share is still too much for the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), led by actor Vijayakant, to match. The DMDK had forged an alliance with the AIADMK in the 2011 Assembly elections and managed to emerge as the principal opposition party in legislature. The DMK was relegated to third position.

A few months ago, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa challenged Mr. Vijayakant and the DMDK on the floor of the Assembly to contest on its own in the Sankarankoil by-poll and prove its strength, if he was under the impression that his party was instrumental in bringing the AIADMK to power.

The actor-turned-politician was reluctant. He tried to duck her challenge, saying his party would contest only if the election was held under President's rule.

Later, however, he picked up the gauntlet and fielded his candidate. The party has lost its deposit but the votes polled by it can make a perceptible difference to an alliance in general elections.

One party whose performance has come as a big disappointment is the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) led by Vaiko. Two factors – Sankarankovil being his home constituency and the decent performance by his party in the local body polls – gave the impression that the MDMK was likely to spring a surprise with an unprecedented electoral performance.

The party secured the third place. But it is not clear whether it can do a similar performance and move ahead of the DMDK in other constituencies.

By-elections, barring a few exceptions, have always gone in favour of the ruling party in the State. It appears that nothing can turn the voters against the ruling party in the early phase of a new regime. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was proved right as she had declared earlier that her party would romp home in Sankarankovil, despite the increase in the price of milk and bus fares. Voters in all constituencies seem to think that voting against a ruling party candidate might prove disadvantageous to themselves, as it might affect development activities in the constituency.

The outcome of by-elections, however, need not reflect the political trend in the State. This is best exemplified by the by-election to the Pennagaram Assembly constituency in Dharmapuri district in March 2010. The ruling DMK retained the constituency by a margin of over 36,000 votes. The PMK secured the second position and all parties, including the AIADMK and the DMDK, could not retain their deposit. But in the 2011 Assembly elections, the AIADMK-led front emerged triumphantly in Pennagaram as it did in most of the constituencies. This demolishes the theory that by-elections are relevant because they help in gauging the mood of the people.

Yet, political parties in the State attach much importance to by-election, largely because the ruling party of the day deems winning it a matter of prestige. Allegations of misuse of official machinery have been raised at every by-election in the last decade. During the previous DMK regime, Union Minister M.K. Alagiri ushered in a trend in which increasing the victory margin substantially became the ruling party's objective.

As the DMK's organising secretary in-charge of the south zone, he wanted to build his image as an invincible manager of elections, and his tactics in winning the Thirumangalam by-election continues to symbolise the political management of by-polls in the State.