If anti-incumbency worked in Tamil Nadu, and of course it’s the anti-incumbency of a decade, and brought in the Dravida Munnetral Kazhagam (DMK) in the company of the Congress and the Communists back to power, the same rule didn’t apply in neighbouring Kerala and in Assam in the Northeast. India is one country, one nation, but the political choices of its people in the states differ, confirming — if confirmation was ever needed — that India refuses to be a “one nation, one party” land. The masterminds behind the “one nation, one party” slogan should know they cannot hope to win across the entire country. Though much effort is being expended by the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi to increase the domination of the Centre and undermine the powers of the states, the people in the states that had gone to the polls last month in the shadow of Covid-19 have sent a loud and clear message -- that each state has its own priorities, and they won’t heed the diktat of a pan-Indian nationalist party. It also showed that the BJP’s strategy of fighting Assembly elections in the name of Prime Minister Modi seems to be going awry. It does not seem to strike a chord among voters. The party may have to go beyond its Modi fixation, and evolve state-specific strategies, and also allow for the emergence of leaders with local roots.
Again, each state followed its own peculiar trajectory. From 1977 onwards, Tamil Nadu’s politics has been dominated by larger-than-life charismatic leaders like M.G. Ramachandran and J. Jayalalithaa for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and M. Karunanidhi for the DMK. M.K. Stalin, Karunanidhi’s son, has been in politics from the days of the 1975 Emergency and he has been the man behind the throne, though the same cannot be said of Jayalalithaa’s lieutenants-turned-successors, Edappadi K. Palaniswami and O. Panneerselvam.
Tamil Nadu politics then remains within the Dravidian orbit, but the victories of either of the two Dravidian parties won’t be the overwhelming ones that they had been under M.G. Ramachandran and J. Jayaalithaa on the one hand and Karunanidhi on the other. This time around the two parties remain quite poised, and there will be a credible Opposition in the state Assembly. This became evident even in the 2016 election, the last one fought by Jayalalithaa. The state then settles into a two-party all-Dravidian system, which would also keep the party in power on its toes.
This time around, the DMK and the AIADMK had to fight the election on their own, and not invoke the memory of the dead leaders with their halos. For a long time, M.G. Ramachandran, Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi had invoked the populism of C.N. Annadurai, the first DMK chief minister. Mr Stalin on the one hand and Mr Palaniswami on the other fought their battle on their own promises. It would be debatable if the AIADMK had paid a price for associating with the North Indian Hindi-based Hindutva BJP, the popular projection of the party by its critics in the state. The fact that the AIADMK has retained a substantial number of seats shows that the people had rejected the party on grounds other than that of its association with the BJP. The BJP has not been a negative factor in the neighbouring Union territory of Puducherry as well, where it will be part of the new government with the Congress NR. It can be said that the BJP could as well be finding some acceptance in Tamil territory.
The victory of Pinarayi Vijayan’s Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala breaks the pattern of 40 years where no party ever retained power for a second term. The reason for his victory seems to be his image of a man-in-charge of things, the man who exudes a sense of leadership though his critics feel that he has a Stalinist grip over his own party, the CPI(M). But more than that, Mr Vijayan has shown he is not old-fashioned hidebound Communist, that he is pragmatic when it comes to handling economic policy, a feature that was displayed by fellow-Marxists Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in West Bengal, before Mamata Banerjee had stormed into power in the state a decade ago.
The BJP’s victory for a second time in Assam need not raise eyebrows as it has played the Hindu card with greater tact, where the “outsider” was seen to be the illegal Bangladesh Muslim immigrant, and it had managed the apprehension of the Assamese about Bangladeshi Hindu migrants. And it was also the case that in Assam the party had a seasoned local leader, tactician, and manager in Himanta Biswa Sarma, something that it did not have in West Bengal and the other states which had gone to the polls.
The weakness of the Congress in this round of elections has become more conspicuous than ever. The party had hoped to win in Kerala and in Assam, and in both the states it has managed to survive but missed victory by a big margin. This emphasises more than ever that the party appears to be rudderless ever since it had lost the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The critics would of course blame former party president Rahul Gandhi as a sign of his ineffective leadership. It is not yet clear which is the principal weak link in the party — the leadership at the top or the factional feuds in the ranks.