Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Dravidian Syndrome (Vijayakanth versus Congress; 2 G versus Free Colour TV)

I can't help point out that the results in the spate of Assembly elections we are about to witness will be on Friday the 13th of May. I am not much of believer in superstition but politicians are. Jayalalithaa especially is. To her this election is no less of an exorcism of DMK rule in Tamil Nadu and I wonder how she feels about the Friday the 13th. I guess we will find out only after the results, but, till then it's all about speculation and analysis - some credible and others incredible. I write mine and hope it's less incredible and more credible!

Since 1991, the side the Congress party has supported has won. Except in 1998 when Moopanar went on his own and the Congress was a non-entity. Enter 2011 and do we have an alternative to the Congress in the form of a third force, the one that tilts the balance in the J versus K battle?

Vijayakanth was a popular actor when I was in school, he is called captain after a super-hit film Captain Prabhakaran (not about the dead LTTE chief). He was never a superstar like a Rajinikanth or a Chiranjeevi, but someone who had a very strong rural connect and he has now proven that he can sustain himself in politics. His party got 8.3 per cent in the 2006 assembly elections, 11 per cent in 2009 Lok Sabha polls. His political plank was being the alternative to J and K and even if he seemed like not a great option he still got the votes but not enough to win seats. Jayalalithaa tried to break the Congress DMK alliance and failed, now she hopes Vijayakanth can negate a traditionally strong Cong, DMK, PMK alliance. The coming election will be as much about answering the Vijayakanth strength question as it is about other issues.

Amongst the other issues, the one that's dominated the media mind space is the 2G scam. All assessments from the ground reveal that 2G and corruption will be an issue, but only in urban centers. It's so much of an issue in urban centers that the DMK may not want to contest in many seats in its traditional stronghold Chennai. Karunanidhi may be contesting from rural Thiruvarur. In 2006 the AIADMK had started winning Chennai and in 2011 it may reassert its position in the metropolis. But in rural Tamil Nadu, it's the DMK's scheme like the free colour TV that's working in the party's favour. There is a feeling that the DMK will do well in the rural areas because of a populist government which delivered the goods it promised to a large extent.

The joke going around though is that Karunanidhi gave people free colour TV on which they got to see the full colour of the 2G scam! But jokes apart, the shift in the rural versus urban strongholds is extremely interesting. It was MGR who was always strong in rural areas and Karunanidhi's DMK in urban centers. But that's now gone for a complete toss. One DMK MP put it jocularly that in 2011 "Karunanidhi has become the populist MGR and Jayalalithaa has become the urban Karunanidhi!"

In terms of electoral arithmetic, it is a North Tamil Nadu versus South Tamil Nadu battle. The DMK has been traditionally strong in the northern parts of the state. Its alliance with the PMK and VCK augments that strength; both Thirumavalavan and Ramadass have their strength only in Northern parts of the state. And the alliance is expected to work in the elections. On the other hand, the AIADMK has always been strong in the south, and has finalised an alliance with smaller parties which will give it an edge in the south. In the deep south areas near Kanyakumari, the Congress has a hold and should retain its own if the DMK alliance has any hopes of winning. At the end the DMK has to win rural seats in North Tamil Nadu and the AIADMK has to do very well in the South (Madurai belt) along with fishing areas like Nagapattinam and also the communist areas in the state. Even then it will be a very close contest at the end.

Western Tamil Nadu (Coimbatore) may be the battle that could determine the winner. AIADMK has been traditionally strong, but the DMK hopes its alliance with a caste-based Kongu Nadu Munnetra Kazhagam can make the difference. The party polled over 5 lakh votes in 12 constituencies in the 2009 parliamentary elections and if it carries those votes for the DMK alliance it could be the decider. It was launched only ahead of the 2009 elections and the caste vote is transferable. Observers say that the DMK's generosity in accommodating the KMK with 7 seats may be a good decision at the end of the day. But even with the alliance it will be a very close fight in the western regions.
I guess if you leave the western parts of the state and the micro issues out, the two large questions that will determine the verdict are: can giving free colour TV and populist governance defeat the tag of corruption, and can having Vijayakanth as an ally change the arithmetic against a time-tested Congress-PMK-DMK alliance? At the moment I would only say your guess is as good as mine. The game for Tamil Nadu is still wide open.