In the aftermath of the passing of DMK patriarch Muthuvel Karunanidhi earlier this week, and despite the speculation to the contrary, there is unlikely to be any electoral vacuum in Tamil Nadu or political “poaching” of any kind — whether by the ruling BJP at the Centre even if the Narendra Modi wave is visible elsewhere in the country or by “star-politicians” in the state like an unsure Rajinikanth or an already-committed Kamal Haasan enter the fray more seriously than in the past. It is not without reason.
The DMK supremo’s death on August 7 comes less than two years after the passing of arch-rival and former AIADMK chief minister Jayalalithaa on December 5, 2016. True, their death between two elections (2016 and 2019) has left a void in terms of charismatic leadership, but both parties have settled down to business without them. Voters and cadres alike have also come to accept that these parties and their “non-Dravidian competitors” will be facing the parliamentary elections next year without their towering personalities and leadership.
Around the time, nonagenarian Karunanidhi had become near-irrecoverably ill owing to age-related ailments. The party had come to be identified in more ways than one under his son and party treasurer M.K. Stalin for more than a decade by then. Karunanidhi’s bed-ridden condition meant he was party president only in name, though the voters and cadre still identified it with the man. But that’s all there is to it.
The ruling AIADMK is still a house divided, with the breakaway Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) of rebel T.T.V. Dhinakaran drawing substantial crowds at his regional rallies, when compared to the official party leadership of chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami and his deputy CM, O. Panneerselvam, even jointly at times. Yet the fact remains that as the ruling party now, they are in focus. For any anti-incumbency advantage accruing to their rivals, the latter should be in place and in full preparation.
The DMK is out there, ready for a good electoral fight. The AMMK may also have established itself at the grassroots level by Elections 2019. The last time the BJP-NDA projected Narendra Modi’s leadership to win the parliamentary polls of 2014, which worked elsewhere in the country, Jayalalithaa’s “Modi-ya, Lady-ya?” campaign call demolished it in Tamil Nadu and the adjoining Union territory of Puducherry.
Though the DMK suffered the most by drawing a blank, against the AIADMK’s 38 out of 40, including Puducherry’s sole Lok Sabha seat, the party is now back in action. The subsequent Assembly polls of 2016 saw the losing DMK combine (under Stalin’s direct guidance and control) still making the highest and very respected number of 98 seats out of 234, and with the narrowest of voteshare margins anywhere: 41-40.
The death of Karunanidhi a “little too early” for the 2019 parliamentary polls may have robbed the DMK of a possible “sympathy wave” that followed the assassinations of Indira Gandhi (1984) and Rajiv Gandhi (1991), which worked against the party in the elections that followed. But so is it for the AIADMK and/or AMMK, as they could not hope for any “sympathy wave” flowing from Jayalalithaa’s death years earlier.
Every time a senior political leader exits, especially in an insular state like Tamil Nadu, analysts and political busybodies have jumped to the conclusion that minus the face, there is no future for the political party, and there thus emerges an electoral vacuum for anyone waiting on the wings to exploit and make good. It is too simplistic an argument that has not proved itself, either in Tamil Nadu or elsewhere.
It was thus that the exit of the Atal Behari Vajpayee-L.K. Advani duo from the BJP’s leadership at the national level did not create a vacuum for regional parties to fill in.
Mr Modi emerged, and rather it is his emergence from Gujarat to centrestage that caused the sidelining of Mr Advani in particular, given that Mr Vajpayee is already ailing and home-bound for many years.
In Tamil Nadu, too, the death of DMK founder and chief minister C.N. Annadurai (1969) and M.G. Ramachandran (1987) did not wipe out the parties that they had left behind. There were internal readjustments, but they bounced back, even capturing whatever voteshare that a national party like the Congress (41 per cent voteshare in 1967, reduced to 20 per cent in 1989) still had. Again, the reasons are not far too seek.
The Congress was not a cadre-based party, but both the DMK and the AIADMK were. Above all, they threw up charismatic leaders who had their hearts where it should belong. The two leaders, like Karunanidhi, were admired for their leadership qualities, like his admirers see in Mr Modi at the national level, but for which the BJP, for instance, has thrown up no one in Tamil Nadu, which is accustomed to strong leaders and stable governments, barring the maiden general election in 1952. The state has refused to return to those days.
Even without it, arguments that the BJP under Mr Modi could provide the foil are all misplaced. The PMK, a “Vanniar community party” with a sub-regional presence, for instance, has retained around a five per cent voteshare since its electoral arrival in 1991. The BJP, with a purported statewide presence, has not crossed the 2.5-per cent voteshare mark, concentrated still only in a few Lok Sabha constituencies, starting with southernmost Nagercoil.
The less said about the actor-politicians and their election hopes the better. Voters in “star-struck” Tamil Nadu do love a good actor, and may even raise the likes of MGR or Jayalalithaa to the level of semi-gods. But that is for the good that they had done to the people as leaders, drawing their initial strength from the cadre base that they have created and/or inherited.
This apart, the last time an actor-politician entered the politico-electoral fray, the DMDK’s Vijaykanth, he could garner eight per cent voteshare in his maiden outing in 2006, increasing it to 10-plus per cent in 2009, and gave up instantaneously for the succeeding 2011 Assembly polls. The DMDK joined hands with Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, helped her to return to power, and then lost out in the bargain — for good.
There are imponderables still, but not of the Narendra Modi, Rajinikanth or Kamal Haasan variety. It could be due to pending court cases against Dhinakaran and the investigations into revenue-related issues by Central agencies against some friends and aides of the present rulers getting fast-tracked overnight, as is being widely apprehended. With Jayalalithaa showing the way, unless such procedures/proceedings lead to conviction, confirmed by the highest court in the land in good time, again, there is unlikely to be any electoral disturbances of the kind that is being visualised by some people.
There is, of course, the pending Madras high court third-judge verdict in the “disqualification case”, affecting 18 MLAs belonging to Dhinakaran’s AMMK. Either way, the case may end up in the Supreme Court, before some sense of finality is reached — and again, the cadre and voter movement is mostly likely to be between the two, not to the outsider. By that time, Stalin may have settled down as DMK president, replacing his current status as “working president”, with the party meeting due on August 30, which was decided before Karunanidhi was hospitalised this time around.