Sometimes, it is the small battles that decide the fate of a war. The 2011 Assembly election in Tamil Nadu is likely to be fought most intensely at the level of the polling booth. Local political equations and field-level dynamics could have a greater bearing on the outcome than any one State-level issue.

While there is no dearth of talking points in the poll campaign, with everything from the 2G scam to promises of freebies thrown in, the election scene betrays no sign of a wave building up in favour of one or the other of the two major parties, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and the principal opposition, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

The DMK, led by Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, is counting on the freebies and subsidies it handed out while in government to counteract the ill-effects of perceived corruption and abuse of power, especially on the law and order front, that have added up over the last five years. The AIADMK, with Jayalalithaa at the head, is hoping to whip up the latent anti-incumbency factors to nullify any benefit that the ruling party might derive from drawing attention to welfare measures.

In such a situation, election management at the local level is crucial. Alliance-coordination on the ground, caste affiliation, candidate selection, cadre mobilisation – such variables could have a critical bearing on the big picture. Other things being equal, many seats could be won or lost because of any one of these factors.

In forging their alliances with other parties, both the DMK and the AIADMK have factored in the need to make up for the perceived shortfall in votes in specific regions of the State. The DMK, which covered its bases by tying up with the Vanniyar caste-based Pattali Makkal Katchi and the Dalit-based Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi in the northern districts, brought in the Kongu Nadu Munnetra Kazhagam to bolster its chances in the western districts, where the AIADMK did very well in the 2009 Lok Sabha election.

According to the DMK's calculations, the KNMK, which polled nearly two per cent of the total vote in the State in 12 of the 39 Lok Sabha constituencies, could make a big difference in at least 20 Assembly constituencies. The KNMK got seven seats in the DMK front.

Similarly the PMK, with a Statewide vote share of about five per cent, is expected to lend critical support to the DMK-led front in at least 50 constituencies; the party has been allotted 30 seats. The VCK, which has a base in the north like the PMK, got 10 seats in recognition of its two per cent vote share. In the districts in the deep south (especially Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli, Tuticorin and Virudhanagar) as well as in the central areas and the delta, the DMK hopes the support of the Congress will be enough to see the alliance through. But the biggest advantage of the Congress, whose strength is estimated at between 12 and 15 per cent of the vote, is that it can boast of some support in almost all parts of Tamil Nadu.

In the AIADMK front, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam led by actor-turned politician Vijayakant, with a 10 per cent vote share, fulfils the role of the Congress in the DMK-led front with a more or less uniform spread of support across the State. The Left parties have their pockets of support, with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) strong in several urban constituencies, and the Communist Party of India enjoying support in some rural constituencies. Together, the parties have a vote share of about five per cent. The DMDK is contesting in 41 seats, the CPI (M) in 12 and the CPI in 10.

Smaller parties

Interestingly, both fronts include a large number of small parties, which serve two purposes. First, they help the front, if only in a small way, in a few constituencies. More importantly, some of them are brought in because of the community identity they invoke.

Even though the polity is becoming increasingly fragmented with the emergence of several small parties, the electoral contest is getting polarised between the DMK and the AIADMK. While there is no space for a third front, the dominance of the main parties within their fronts is weakening.

No party outside the two fronts is likely to win a seat in the 2011 Assembly election. At the same time, neither the DMK nor the AIADMK can be sure of being able to form a government without the support of the smaller allies. The DMK is contesting in only 119 of 234 constituencies; in another five, smaller allies are contesting on the DMK symbol. The party will find it next to impossible to win 118 seats for a simple majority. A strike rate of more than 95 per cent is what is required of the DMK in this election if it does not want to share power with its allies.

In this regard, the AIADMK is in a better position. The party is fielding candidates in 160 constituencies, leaving 74 to its allies. But, during the course of tough negotiations, Ms. Jayalalithaa had to part with several winnable constituencies. What the party gained in terms of quantity, it lost in terms of quality as the allies bargained jointly for a better deal in the parcelling out of constituencies.

Coalition government

This means the 2011 election could open up possibilities of a coalition government for the first time in Tamil Nadu. Even in 2006, the DMK fell short of a majority, winning only 96 seats. But the Congress and the other allies did not press for a share in power. Now of course, the situation is very different with the Congress having tried to wrest a pre-election commitment from the DMK on power-sharing in the event of a victory for the front.

Within the AIADMK alliance, the Left parties are not interested in being part of a coalition government: they view the alliance as a seat-sharing arrangement, no more than an electoral understanding. However, the DMDK views the issue very differently. After having lost two elections in a row (the 2006 Assembly polls and the 2009 Lok Sabha polls) since its inception, the party is hoping to be able to have a say in the formation of the next government.

What is driving the smaller parties into one or the other camp is the first-past-the-post system. After having proved their electoral worth by contesting alone, the minor parties end up gravitating towards one of the two fronts. Besides the DMDK and the Left parties, the AIADMK front includes the Puthiya Tamizhagam, a party with some support among Dalits in the southern districts and the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, the political arm of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam. The All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi (AISMK) led by actor Sarath Kumar, which claims to represent the Nadar community, the All India Moovendar Munnani Kazhagam (AIMMK), which invokes the Thevar community, a faction of the Republican Party of India and the Kongu Ilaignar Peravai, a little-known group that will be a poor second to the KNMK in the race for the votes of the Gounder community, were roped in because of the perceived spin-off from their strong caste identity and not their strength, which is miniscule.

Political churning

In the DMK front, the Moovendar Munnetra Kazhagam (political rival of the AIMMK) and the Perunthalaivar Makkal Katchi (rival of the AISMK) were brought in for the same reason. This election will also witness the consequences of some political churning over the last few years. The DMK, originally a party with a strong urban bias is reaching out to the rural areas.

Having enjoyed a traditional support among the organised workforce and upwardly mobile sections, it is now portraying itself as a champion of the unorganised sections. The distribution of freebies and the extension of subsidies has the backing of sections that had traditionally voted for the AIADMK.

The AIADMK, on the other hand, has encroached on the space vacated by the DMK in several urban areas, most notably, Chennai. Indeed, many of the DMK stalwarts, including Mr. Karunanidhi and his son M.K. Stalin, have moved out of their constituencies in central Chennai. While Mr. Karunanidhi chose his home town, Tiruvarur, with substantial rural votes, Mr. Stalin shifted to the sub-urban Kolathur.

However, if the AIADMK loses out in its traditional strongholds in the southern parts of Tamil Nadu, especially Madurai, Theni, Dindigul, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram, the party will not have adequate recompense in other areas. Vote transferability is another issue: it is doubtful whether the DMDK (AIADMK-led front) and the KNMK (DMK front) which contested on their own in 2009 can transfer all their votes to an alliance.

While the alliance arithmetic may show a slight edge for the DMK front, especially with the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, formerly a part of the AIADMK front, deciding to boycott the polls, the anti-incumbency and voter fatigue could restore the political equilibrium. After 1984, when M.G. Ramachandran was voted in as Chief Minister for the third time, no party has been able to retain power.

The contests in many places are evenly matched and minor, local issues could tilt the balance. Much will depend on how the campaign is run: on how the cadres are motivated and how much they enthuse the voters. The dots and the dashes, not the broad strokes, will make up the big picture in the 2011 election.

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