Situated as they are in the peninsula, the southernmost states of India — Tamil Nadu and Kerala — go to the polls on Tuesday (April 6) to face another litmus test of their political insularity that has been instrumental in keeping national parties out or largely marginalised their roles in alliances dominated by powerful regional forces. While the Congress, facing an existential threat, is hoping to be a force to be reckoned with in Kerala while leading the LDF against the UDF, the BJP is piggybacking on the remnants of Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK with the hope of gaining a foothold in the deep south.
The smaller Union Territory of Puducherry, till recently ruled by the Congress before it was displaced by defections engineered from the national capital, might still be the exception to the formidable image of a southern bulwark against the national ruling party since the BJP has aligned with N. Rangasamy’s AINRC and AIADMK. The former CM may be riding a wave of popular support in the wake of a near five-year misrule marked by innumerable governance issues in an awkward fight with Raj Nivas, invariably seen as a symbol of the capital’s control freak nature.
In the absence of a conspicuous anti-incumbency wave in Tamil Nadu, the ruling AIADMK, led by CM Edappadi Palaniswami who has performed as an efficient administrator, including in the battle against Covid-19, may have begun to feel the campaign burden of carrying the BJP on its shoulders. It is the absence of the charismatic leader Jayalalithaa, who had foresworn allies in 2016 to emulate her mentor MGR in scoring a second successive victory to a “Lady versus Modi” campaign theme, which may weigh heavily against AIADMK.
The other Dravidian major DMK has similarly reduced the seats for the Congress in its alliance of Tamil forces aiming to recapture Fort St George. An assertion of a Tamil identity might see red over the income tax raids, conducted mostly against the Opposition parties and suggesting the misuse of central agencies in a battle for votes. A preference to place M.K. Stalin, who had stayed in his father M. Karunanidhi's shadow for decades on end, on the seat of power seemed well-indicated in popularity polls till A. Raja’s indiscretion changed things somewhat.
A campaign that was running smoothly enough on promises to keep the State out of NEET, fight CAA imposition as it is symbolic of a law being thrust by the Union against people’s wishes and such issues may have been marginally affected by Mr Raja’s references to the CM’s late mother. The CM milked it for sympathy dramatically as any seasoned politician would. The larger theme of this being another prestige fight between two Dravidian majors who have given Tamil Nadu a unique outlier status in national politics was still dominant.
The Congress’ fight to stay relevant in the South might hinge on a good performance from DMK+ as the prospects of the LDF benefiting from Kerala historically plumping for the alternative in five-year cycles may be denied by the impressive record of CM Pinarayi Vijayan who has steered the government with a focus on the people’s welfare. The fickle nature of voters’ behaviour at the EVM notwithstanding, it does appear the South India is ready to show once again that it is a different world.