Election Analysis

Verdict 2016: Tamil Nadu

20 May, 2016    ·   5033

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra says that the 2016 state assembly election should be seen as a cusp for far reaching changes in the next decade or so

This Tamil Nadu election was a landmark that brought two things – equilibrium and clarity. The equilibrium is that Tamil Nadu for the first time in 25 years since the 1991 election has a strong opposition. The clarity was regarding the relative strengths of the parties, their caste, demographic and geographic base.

The assembly now sees 134 seats with the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and 98 for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) combine. This is a massive change from previous elections where the ruling alliance would routinely win a two-thirds majority. However the chances of policy paralysis are slim. Given the venomous and polarised nature of the relationship between the AIADMK and DMK this could translate into greater physical conflict both outside and within the assembly itself reminiscent of Jayalalitha’s manhandling by Karunanidhi in 1998. This equilibrium is reflected in the vote share with the AIADMK at 40.8 per cent and the DMK combine at 38 per cent. This has significant implications for the marginal actors in the next round in 2021.

This election provided much clarity on two counts – the caste equation and the way forward for the so-called marginal players. This was because it showed definitive trends of caste alignment of the Thevars, Gounders and Vanniyars and highlighted the marginal actors’ disruptive value.

The Thevars and Gounders rallied behind the AIADMK. The Thevar consolidation is not a new factor, given that Jayalalitha’s close aide Sasikala is a Thevar and runs what is known as a Thevar coterie within the government, determining bureaucratic posts in the state administration and seat allocation within the party. However the reasons why the Gounders voted for the AIADMK still remain unclear. These two communities have a very strong presence in the western Kongunadu belt, which was the mainstay of the AIADMK victory. They are less strong, but nevertheless significant in the 75 southern districts where the AIADMK and DMK tied near evenly for seats.

The real surprise of the election though was the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) party of Anbumani Ramadoss. Far from being the wipe-out that people claim it was (given its failure to win a single seat), it has in fact emerged as the third party of Tamil Nadu. In the northern belt where the Vanniyars form a significant community, the party got upwards of 15,000 votes going up to 45,000 in some places. This is important given the victory margin of both AIADMK and DMK in several of these constituencies was between 1000 to 3000, rising to about 15,000 to 20,000 in some constituencies. No other party outside of the big two (AIADMK and DMK) has been able to replicate such results with so much consistency across a geographical and caste belt. Ramadoss had in fact factored this in, being very clear he would not ally with any party. In that sense the seeming tactical defeat for the PMK is actually a strategic victory for the next election in 2021 when victory margins will almost certainly be much slimmer and the value of the PMK as an ally will increase exponentially. He will therefore in the run up to 2021 be able to claim far more than the PMK has ever been able to in the past.

One aspect not spoken about much is how the lack of MK Azhagiri – Karunanidhi’s second son, and elder brother of Stalin – now expelled from the DMK, cost the party. The near even split between the AIADMK and DMK in the 75 southern districts as well as the wafer thin margins can be attributed to the fact that Azhagiri had gutted the DMK’s organisational structure there. However given he did not contest in an independent capacity, it remains hard to predict his next moves and what they mean for the DMK's internal dynamic.

The one deceptive trend however was the INC-BJP vote share with 6.4 per cent for the former and 2.8 per cent for the latter. GK Vasan’s (GK Moopanar’s son) Congress breakaway - the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) - fared well in the few seats where it fielded big names and won between 17,000 and 25,000 votes. It is safe to assume then that the TMC is in fact the real Congress, while the Indian National Congress (INC) and its 6.4 per cent have to be chalked down to the DMK transfer of votes. Much of this has to do with Vasan’s command of the Congress organisation built up over several years and the fact that “known” figures in Delhi such as Mani Shankar Iyer and P Chidambaram have almost no mass base. This is similar to 1996, when Vasan’s father Moopanar walked out of the Congress and won big, leaving the INC high and dry.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the other hand can claim its 2.8 per cent to be entirely its own with some spectacular showings in urban concentrations: parts of Chennai, Coimbatore and Kanyakumari with upwards of 10,000 votes. This still does not change the fact it will remain marginal for many decades to come till it gains traction in rural areas. However it enters both the 2021 state election and 2018 general elections from a position of strength in at least 5 parliamentary constituencies, where its vote bank can mean the difference between victory and defeat.

All up, the 2016 Tamil Nadu assembly election should be seen as a cusp for far reaching changes in the next decade or so.