Power corrupts. That may be broadly true but it does not follow in the least that corruption can be the basis and guarantor of power. That is the main message from the Tamil Nadu Assembly election of 2011. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam badly underestimated the political sagacity of the electorate and sought once again to buy up its loyalty. Defying predictions of a close contest, the voters turned out in unprecedented numbers in town and country and vented their accumulated anger against unrestrained corruption, against what was perceived as the inexorable movement towards one-family rule through the appropriation of the State's wealth, power, and resources by various members of the ruling family, against the failure of the government to manage a major power crisis and contain the price spiral, and against flagrant contempt for the rule of law. Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi seems to have laboured under the belief that his regime's welfare schemes and wide social safety net were enough to offset the negative perceptions about these issues. Its positive record in delivering welfare and health services and implementing infrastructure projects was besmirched by its incompetence in dealing with the State's electricity shortage. Incidents such as the tragic killing of three employees of a Tamil newspaper in Madurai as a result of a feud within the DMK leader's family, and the virtual immunity that accompanied the crime, contributed in no small measure to the perception that the rule of law was undermined by political interference and that power flowed from extra-constitutional sources.
But that is only one part of the story. The alliance with a faction-ridden and demoralised Congress, which fought above its weight and has been reduced to a single digit presence in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, proved to be a fatal weakness for the DMK. Voters realised during the campaign that the 2G spectrum allocation scam was a co-production, where the venality of the DMK actors — who had planned, executed, and benefitted from India's biggest corruption scandal – was enabled by the amoral attitude and actions of the Congress leadership of the central government. Alliance arithmetic has always been a factor in Tamil Nadu elections. Ms Jayalalithaa — a strong leader who returns to power for a third substantive term as Chief Minister backed by a four-fifths majority in the Legislative Assembly — got the alliance arithmetic absolutely right. But this election was essentially not about arithmetic. It was a powerful rejection of a regime that, unable to distinguish right from wrong, went down in an akratic haze.