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Why the DMK lost

DMK president M. Karunanidhi with party treasurer and son M.K. Stalin in Chennai. File photo  

Analysing why the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) lost must be a strange way to explore what is a truly historic victory for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). According to poll pundits, power should alternate between the two parties. The DMK should have won. That it did not is cause enough to look at its defeat closely.



A. R. Venkatachalapathy
Evidently this was a swing factor-free election. The bogies of prohibition, corruption, freebies all fell by the wayside as no party could claim the moral right to cast the first stone. How then did anti-incumbency fail to be the prime mover? It is not that there was no resentment. How else could one explain the fact that the AIADMK lost 10 of the 16 Chennai constituencies — evidence that the flood-affected wanted to punish a callous administration — including those of at least three ministers? That it did not result in a tsunami speaks to the fact that it was not the ruling party that overcame anti-incumbency but the primary — now the sole — opposition formation, the DMK front, that failed to capitalise on it.

The burden of the DMK’s past

By any reckoning the last two years of the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK government was a new nadir in the failure of administration and governance. The >tragic suicide of the Agriculture Department’s engineer, S. Muthukumarasamy , in February 2015 marked the beginning of the slide. After >Ms. Jayalalithaa’s incarceration in Parappana Agrahara jail in Bengaluru, it was never clear if anyone was in charge. The suppression of the prohibition agitation and the slapping of >sedition charges on the folk singer Kovan were not exactly popular. The >series of honour killings and the hounding of the >Tamil writer Perumal Murugan showed Tamil society in a poor light to the outside world. Topping all this, the cataclysmic rains and the apathetic handling of the situation should have been the last straw. Yet the DMK finds itself on the opposition benches!

The DMK, uncharacteristically, started from a defensive position. In the (some say staged) Namakku Name walk, the forever heir apparent of the DMK, M.K. Stalin, launched as a precursor to the election campaign, and in the well-attended and enthusiastic campaign meetings he addressed, he was hard-pressed to defend the DMK’s track record in its earlier term: the party’s years in office during 2006-2011 can compare only with Ms. Jayalalithaa’s first term in government during 1991-1996, which is saying a lot. The ghosts of 2G, family rule, the daylight murder of Dinakaran’s employees remain to be exorcised. Despite not being articulated in this election, the memory of the DMK’s dubious, if not treacherous, role in the final days of the Sri Lankan civil war still rankles. On some issues public memory, it seems, is not short — and the alliance with the Congress surely revived uncomfortable memories.

The DMK’s self-perceived weakness was manifest in its defensiveness. At the beginning of the election year, it stood alone with no alliance partners to speak of. The ambitious Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) was becoming too big for its boots. The Dalit tag of the ever-reliable Thol. Thirumavalavan’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) was seen as a liability, and therefore kept at a distance. With the so-called Captain Vijayakant playing an unfathomable game, in desperation, M. Karunanidhi initiated an alliance with the Congress. This came not without the swallowing of some pride. Barely two years ago he had described his party’s association with it as “ kooda natpu kedai mudiyum” (a bad friendship causes utter ruin) — and this was not the first time that Mr. Karunanidhi’s smart lines returned to haunt him.

The Congress drag

Despite being weakened by the exit of G.K. Vasan’s faction, if the Congress could still wrest 41 seats, it speaks for the DMK’s desperation. In 2011, the Congress bargained for 63 seats. But then it was heading the United Progressive Alliance-2 and it had a “caged bird” in the Central Bureau of Investigation. Over the last decade the Congress has become the proverbial albatross for the DMK ship. The Congress has now won only eight of its 41 seats, a strike rate of less than 20 per cent. If one takes away the three that it won in Kanyakumari (the result of an anti-Bharatiya Janata Party consolidation) the rate would be further dismal. Except for its voluble State president, E.V.K.S. Elangovan, the faction-ridden Congress brought little to the table. By failing to get a ticket for its promising candidate in Aravakurichi, S. Jothimani, the Congress put faction over its overall interests.

The wooing of Mr. Vijayakant, and the apparent differences between Mr. Karunanidhi and Mr. Stalin on roping in the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) contributed to the perception that the DMK was jittery. And when so much was staked on such an alliance, when it fell through, it dampened the spirit of the cadres. That said, in retrospect, it can be plausibly argued that an alliance with the DMDK, rather than winning votes for DMK, would have sunk it.

A combination of reasons — the proliferation of electronic and social media, the strict enforcement of Election Commission guidelines — has contributed over the years to lacklustre electioneering. This was a particularly glum election. Manorama and Vadivelu of yesteryear were missed. If the DMK campaign shone at all, it was in contrast to the admittedly jaded campaign of Ms. Jayalalithaa. Mr. Stalin campaigned as if with his hands tied. With aspiration for chief ministership but not the official candidate, his voice lacked conviction. When Mr. Stalin was making half-hearted apologies for earlier errors of omission and commission, surely the faces of the personalities flanking his father on his campaign vehicle must have flashed in the minds of the audience. A bigger handicap was the reliance on old faces, and the addition of their kinsfolk to the candidates list to boot. Mr. Karunanidhi’s interview to a television channel days before polling that he would be Chief Minister “unless nature willed otherwise” could have enthused neither the scion nor the electorate.

The missing third front

But not all went wrong. In the two weeks leading to the polls, the third front rapidly lost steam, cohesion, and purpose. The lack of resources was particularly telling as even the PMK, not to speak of the two major parties, pumped in advertisements and won disproportionate print space. The coordinated campaign against Mr. Thirumavalavan in Kattumannarkoil tied the star speaker to his own constituency. (That he and Dr. K. Krishnaswamy, the two prominent Dalit leaders, have lost cannot be a good augury.) But ultimately, if the third front was routed, the blame will lie squarely on the shoulders of Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Vaiko, and Vijayakant. Their antics have probably set back future third front efforts by at least another decade.

Ninety-eight seats on the opposition benches is creditable. Despite being unable to unseat the AIADMK, the DMK has surely scored a few points. First, it has demonstrated that it will live to fight another day, a force to reckon with in 2019 and 2021. By routing the third front (that the number of opposition MLAs outside the DMK alliance is zero, marks this spectacularly, though whether it is good for future alternative politics is a moot question), it has demonstrated that it is the only viable alternative before the electorate. To return to history, if the DMK made a comeback in 1989 after 13 years in the wilderness, it was because it always positioned itself as the prime opposition ready to displace the ruling dispensation.

Finally, what won was a dependable vote bank, not-blinking-first variety of strategising, strong organisational network, and an effective delivery system (of we-know-what!). Offered a choice between a rock and a hard place, the Tamil electorate has preferred to stay put on the rock.

(A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a historian of the Dravidian movement)

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 5:47:46 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/tamil-nadu-election-why-the-dmk-lost/article8626714.ece

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