An election that raised the bar in Tamil Nadu

dc-Cover-ab5ikvkp452s09qcdndvki8kl6-20160523063811.MediTamil Nadu CM Jayalalithaa

 “If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Philosophical Investigations’
There seems no better way to picture the just-concluded 2016 Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu than in the above words of one of the greatest 20th century thinkers the world has seen, and who still inspires many.

Baffled with multiple party choices, something that the Tamil Nadu electorate had not seen since 1989, it was still not difficult for the people’s intuition and sagacity to see that when they reached the political bedrock, the landscape is substantially spread between the DMK and the AIADMK, now known as the ‘Dravidian Majors’.

It was yet no pure status quo reaffirmation as this hard-fought election to the State Assembly has visibly raised the bar on all fronts, showing how expectations could influence outcomes in a social India that is redrawing its boundaries.  Ms Jayalalithaa quietly breaking a 32-year-old anti-incumbency jinx to pull off an amazing victory topped a grueling poll process, which saw standards go up for all the players.

First and foremost, the Election Commission (EC) itself has been raising the bar progressively in deepening people’s awareness about a free and fair poll. The EC’s ‘shock treatment’ to all political parties by its 11th hour deferment of the polls in Aravakuruchi and Thanjavur constituencies, was a first of
its kind, what with EC’s ‘speaking orders’ on its website giving graphic details of how voters in those two segments were sought to be influenced with money.

It implied the EC also had to take on a new role of a tough regulator, not just being an ever-vigilant referee as former Chief Election Commissioner,
T. N. Seshan saw his job in the early 1990’s. “I don’t know what awaits in the womb of time,” Seshan had poetically burst just before the 1991 general
elections, though he may not have quite envisaged that the EC has to also don the cap of an ‘electoral SEBI’!  Both the DMK and AIADMK, another first, had to also explain to the EC how they will find resources for their respective poll promises.

Second, this election also raised the bar in the realm of political contestations and challenges. One key issue impacting people was prohibition, particularly after the tragic death of the Gandhian activist Sasiperumal. Something of that intensity had not been seen in recent decades since the 1984 polls, when the AIADMK’s founder-leader MGR’s health condition in a US hospital had turned a hugely contested issue, amid Ms Jayalalithaa having emerged a star campaigner on her own, and until former Information minister RM Veerappan released dramatic footages of MGR raising up his hand in ‘Vanakkam’ from his hospital bed to disprove opposition’s campaign that MGR had turned moribund.

The 1991 elections’ emotive intensity exactly 25 years ago, was of an entirely different order though. ‘A tornado’ was how the late CPI (M) leader W R Varadarajan then described the poll to this correspondent, after the ghastly assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in Sriperumbudur by an LTTE human bomb.   But in responding to the prohibition issue itself, it
was surprising that the most experienced DMK patriarch, M Karunanidhi, chose to outdo the ‘total-prohibition-in-one-stroke’ plank that the PMK made the centerpiece of its campaign, while projecting Dr Anbumani Ramadoss as its Chief Ministerial candidate. None disputes the virtues of a ‘Dry Law’ if meaningfully implemented in the larger welfare interests of the poor
and the middle class sections, particularly women. But the DMK bit off more than it could chew on the liquor-ban issue.

On the other hand, despite barrage of opposition criticism against her regime on this score, Ms Jayalalithaa did not lose her nerve in handling a very sensitive issue, and came out with a more pragmatic and realistic stance of ‘prohibition in phases’ just in time before May 16, a fact that won her plus points all around.
Leadership styles also saw an upswing in the just-held Assembly elections. Dr Anbumani Ramadoss by now has realised that the much-hyped consolidation of the OBC Vanniyars behind the PMK did not take place.

This is in spite of PMK and the Vijayakanth-Vaiko-Left parties-VCK-TMC- led ‘third front’ candidates cutting into the votes of the DMK and AIADMK in varying numbers in constituencies in the North-Northwestern belt. Voters have preferred to vote for more inclusive parties like DMK or AIADMK, despite local / ‘NOTA’ option factors.

The PMK’s ambition to replace either of the main Dravidian parties as a pan-Tamil Nadu entity, has to thus await a prolonged engagement and rewriting of the social compact with the other OBCs’ in the South and West – like the Mukkulathors, Naickers, Vellala Gounders, Mutharaiyars and Yadavas, besides the Dalits and the minorities. And in that, the PMK had tactically erred by placing the cart before the horse in projecting Dr Anbumani as the ‘next CM’, unless they had already convinced the BJP about it. The DMDK’s decimation, though, may be comforting fallout for the PMK. In fact, the Vanniyars have been closer to the Congress ethos in Tamil Nadu, historically speaking, and Dr. Anbumani was after all the Union health minister in Dr Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet.

And last but not the least: this election again manifested not only the DMK’s steel-like nonagenarian leader M Karunanidhi, smashing all his previous electoral records since 1957 to win by the highest margin ever from Tiruvarur of 68,366 votes, but also the ascendance of his younger son M. K. Stalin as a leader in his own right. It was in a virtual solo fight since his ‘Namakku Naame’ campaign last September.

However, as the BJP’s ideologue Mr Seshadri Chari, insightfully remarked, the DMK has found its next leader, but “lacks a new narrative”. The narrative aspect applies even more to the Tamil Nadu Congress, despite the party’s small but significant win in Puducherry.

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