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Tamil Nadu's changing political landscape

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Sanjay Kumar and Yogendra Yadav

The Hindu-CNN-IBN Exit Poll points to a major social churning in the State

New Delhi: The Assembly elections of 2006 could mark the beginning of a new era in Tamil Nadu politics given that no single party is likely to get a clear majority. A coalition government will be the culmination of the alliance politics that began with the Lok Sabha elections of 1998.

The changes could alter the hegemony of the two Dravidian parties and open up the space for new political issues, policies and formations. There are signs that some of the political forces that occupied centre stage in the 1990s are in decline. The Hindu-CNN-IBN Exit Poll, conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, suggests that the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) have lost some political ground. The PMK is likely to do worse than its alliance partners. The MDMK has been able to transfer merely 18 per cent of the votes it got in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections to its new ally, the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK); as much as 71 per cent went to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Similarly, only one-third of those who voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Lok Sabha elections stayed with it; 41 per cent switched to the AIADMK.

The decline of these parties does not mean an end to the growth of political alternatives in the State. The meteoric rise of a third `protest party' in the form of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) is a case in point. Vijayakant's party is unlikely to have a big presence in the new Assembly, but the exit poll shows that it drew supporters from across the political spectrum. Its rise is not at the expense of any one party; if anything the DMDK damaged the DMK more than the AIADMK.

Critical shift

A detailed analysis of The Hindu-CNN-IBN exit poll (published on May 9) reveals a less obvious but critical shift in the State's political geography. The DMK is regarded as being stronger in the North, the AIADMK in the West and the Cauvery Delta area, and the national parties in the Deep South. But electoral waves seem to have neutralised these advantages, with the DMK and the AIADMK performing evenly across regions. While the 2006 elections appear to stress the importance of regions, the regional patterns are different. The exit poll showed that the 10-percentage point lead for the DMK-led alliance is not spread evenly. This is why it may not be a clean sweep for the alliance in terms of seats.

In the South and the Deep South, the DMK alliance leads by nearly 20 percentage points. Such a lead could give the alliance a clean sweep. But as we go North, the contest gets keener. In the Cauvery delta, the DMK front's lead is about 15 percentage points. The alliance is set to dominate the West as well, with a lead of about 10 percentage points. It is in the two northern regions that the alliance will face stiff competition, with its lead cut to four or five percentage points. This could change the established geographical patterns in Tamil Nadu's politics.

This shift in political geography is linked to the changing political sociology of the State. Earlier, the major caste-community groups were identified in terms of their affiliation to one of the two big parties. Communities such as Thevars, Gounders and Arundhathiars were considered `vote banks' of the AIADMK. While Muslims, Christians and a section of the Dalits were known to be with the DMK, the Vanniyars went with the PMK. This pattern appears to have undergone significant changes. It is not that entire groups have shifted loyalties from one party to another. The real change is that the voting preference of different social groups now varies from region to region.

Vanniyars do not appear to be a `vote bank' that the PMK holds and can transfer at will. Even in the so-called `Vanniyar belt' in the North Central region, the DMK-led alliance gets a bare majority of the Vanniyar votes, not the kind of en bloc vote it may have expected. In the Upper North region, the AIADMK alliance gets more Vanniyar votes than the DMK alliance. Similarly, the AIADMK's famous Thevar vote bank appears to be splitting along regional lines. While the community stands by the AIADMK in the South, it leans towards the DMK-led alliance in the West and the Cauvery Delta.

Split in Dalit vote

Muslims and Christians favoured the DMK this time as well, but their support is more marked in the Deep South and the South. The Dalit vote appears to have fragmented along regional and caste lines. The DPI did succeed in bringing one section of the Dalits to the AIADMK alliance, but this shift is greater in the West than elsewhere. The Puthiya Tamizhagam, which kept away from the two major alliances, could not carry the section of Dalits it represents, except in the Deep South. Yet another section of Dalits has shifted from the AIADMK to the DMK alliance in the South.

In short, the established social equations and geographical patterns of Tamil Nadu politics seem to be undergoing a significant churning.

It is not surprising that in this election, the State has recorded a very high turnout. The revised figure of 70.22 per cent makes this the highest turnout for any Assembly election since 1984. This is a reflection of the higher mobilisation by political parties, which believed that the contest was going to be very close. But a high turnout could also be the result of something else: a major social churning.


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