THE LOK SABHA election has brought about an extraordinary political churning in Tamil Nadu. The confusion on the political scene has given way to a polarisation, leaving only two major fronts in the fray. The national rivals, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, have tied up with the dominant regional players, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Just a few months ago, the DMK, then in the National Democratic Alliance, was carrying on a running battle with the State unit of the BJP. The AIADMK, which was without friends in the State, was searching for an elusive `third front' at the national level. The Congress and the Left parties, competitors for power in other parts of the country, were waiting for a binding force. But everything changed within days of the DMK seizing the initiative by walking out of the NDA. As in a jigsaw puzzle, the smaller political parties took their seemingly pre-ordained places in the two fronts. Both fronts are now beginning to display a notable degree of cohesiveness.

Evidently, the stakes are high for all the regional parties. Arithmetically, that is going by the sum of past vote shares that have held quite stable over successive elections, the DMK-led alliance has a formidable advantage over its rival. If in addition to the alliance factor there is a favourable shift in the popular vote, the multi-party alliance will be hoping to make a clean sweep of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. The other camp will be hoping that chemistry rather than arithmetic will determine the outcome. Electoral arithmetic aside, the DMK, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Pattali Makkal Katchi quit the NDA because they perceived the BJP to be moving closer to the AIADMK. Indeed, unusually for a Lok Sabha election, the campaign of the Opposition front, the Democratic Progressive Alliance, is likely to revolve round the performance of the AIADMK Government in the last three years. The three regional parties were part of the NDA for almost the whole term of the Vajpayee Government and hence cannot be overly critical of the BJP. Their target is the AIADMK, which not only kept up the pressure on the DMK and the MDMK, but also alienated its allies in the 2001 Assembly election — the Congress, the Left parties and the PMK — within months of coming to power. Thus for the regional parties the misuse of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the clearest instance of which was the prolonged detention of the MDMK leader, Vaiko; the action against Government employees who went on strike; the victimisation of Opposition politicians; attacks on freedom of the press; and the increase in prices of essential commodities and tariffs on the services seem to have emerged as the dominant election issues.

In the event of a close contest at the national level, the Tamil Nadu outcome could prove crucial. But for the DMK, the MDMK and the PMK, the coming election is chiefly a rehearsal for the next State Assembly contest, which must come no later than in 2006. In that sense their priorities are very different from those of the Congress and the Left parties. Unseating the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu is the main concern of the regional parties. While a fractured verdict in the Lok Sabha election might provide enough temptation for one or two of the regional parties to pull in different directions, Mission 2006 can be a countervailing force. The DMK, as the leader of the DPA in Tamil Nadu, can be expected to develop the long-term vision of nurturing the alliance till the next Assembly election irrespective of how the rest of the country votes in the coming Lok Sabha poll.