Is AIADMK’s civic poll loss a prelude to 2021 Assembly elections?

‘This shows that you can be the Centre’s best friend but not their favourite slave,’ says 'Tharasu' Shyam, a political commentator.
Is AIADMK’s civic poll loss a prelude to 2021 Assembly elections?
Is AIADMK’s civic poll loss a prelude to 2021 Assembly elections?

The much-delayed civic polls in Tamil Nadu delivered a stunning result on Friday night, breaking tradition with the ruling party taking second place to the Opposition. For the first time in over a decade, with 272 seats in the District Council election and 2,338 seats in the Panchayat Council Election, the DMK alliance managed to race ahead of the AIADMK as counting drew to an end.

But while the DMK has declared this a prelude to the Assembly elections in 2021 and termed it an indisputable victory, experts point out that this blanket assessment will not serve them well.

Prelude to 2021?

“The number of votes required for a victory in rural local body elections is quite low,” says 'Tharasu' Shyam, a political analyst. 

While the strength of a village panchayat ward is 500, a panchayat union ward is 5,000, a district panchayat ward is 50,000 and for a village panchayat President it ranges from 1,000 to 12,000.

“So when you are racing for a number like 5,000, it is not unusual for the difference to be as low as 15 or 20 votes. So, a win here won’t immediately translate to an Assembly seat, which has at least 2 lakh votes or a Lok Sabha seat which has 10 lakh votes. Plus they have polled about 27 districts and only 20% of the state’s population would have voted in these elections. We can’t term this a prelude to 2021 when these are the immediate figures at hand,” he adds.

In fact, ahead of the elections, sources in the DMK maintained that if conducted now, the ruling party would definitely win over half the seats. Sources in the AIADMK too concede that they expected to win at least 60% of the total votes, but argue that the results are not a complete disappointment.

“We did not expect the DMK to perform this well,” says an AIADMK source on the condition of anonymity. “But it is not a complete loss, as far as we are concerned. It is manageable. The results have been very confusing for us. In the sense that even in neighbouring districts where the issues or local concerns could be the same, the results are radically different. For instance, in Ariyalur where there are 8 councillor positions, we won 7 and the DMK 1, but in Perambalur district, the results are the exact opposite. We need to sit down as a party and see what went wrong. Enough resources and manpower was pumped in, but the results still didn’t reflect that,” he adds.

Bharath, a political observer and senior journalist, points out that the results actually reflect a confused and divided electorate.

“The people of Tamil Nadu have always given clear mandates to either of these parties in the past,” he points out. “In the Lok Sabha polls, they realised that they have to counter the Modi wave and they voted for the DMK. In the bye-elections for the Assembly, they realised that they are fine with the AIADMK government for the time being and they voted for them. But this time, there is no big margin of difference between the two parties. This is a victory in numbers for the DMK and a moral victory for the AIADMK. What both parties have done essentially is maintain their strongholds,” he adds.

The west to AIADMK, delta to DMK

Amongst the most noticeable trends in terms of winning in strongholds was AIADMK’s grasp over western Tamil Nadu and the DMK’s over the delta districts. Except for Nilgiris and Krishnagiri district, the AIADMK stamped its dominance on the western region and won most of the panchayat union and district panchayat seats. This included Coimbatore, Tirupur, Salem and Namakkal.

“We had Ministers Velumani handle Coimbatore and Thangamani handle Namakkal closely,” says an AIADMK source. “There were no doubts about a victory there,” he adds.

In Coimbatore, AIADMK won 10 of the 17 district panchayat ward members and 18 out of 29 in Salem. The DMK won only 5 seats in both districts.

Similarly, for the DMK, the delta consisting of Thanjavur, Trichy, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam proved to be a major victory. Support from CPI and CPI(M) cadre further boosted their prospects. In Trichy, the DMK won 18 district councillor posts out of 24 despite AIADMK ministers Vellamandi Natarajan and Valarmathi being present for the campaign there.

“Traditionally, AIADMK has enjoyed a large rural vote bank while DMK has done better in urban polls. In fact, the DMK barely did enough campaigning this time around,” says Shyam. “Even they would be surprised by the results,” he adds.

Political analyst and Frontline Associate editor Radhakrishnan points out that the odds were definitely stacked against the DMK.

“The state government had appointed an election commissioner who would willingly do their bidding. Plus the entire machinery, including the police, was at their command and given this, it was an election that the AIADMK should have won hands down,” he says. “Even the DMK knew this, which is why they were constantly approaching the courts to delay it. In fact, they were taken kicking and screaming to this election, only to win it,” he adds.

Radhakrishnan, however, disagrees with the two other experts and maintains that these results will have an impact on the Assembly polls in 2021.

“They will now have representation and money power at the grassroots level,” he points out. “This was a bigger win than the DMK expected and an important one,” he adds.

So what caused this change in the minds of TN voters?

This is perhaps one answer that all the experts and both parties agree upon – the BJP.

Friend vs favourite slave

Over the last four years, Tamil Nadu has seen a slew of protests against the Centre’s proposals, including the hydrocarbon projects in the delta region and the eight lane highway in Salem.

“In rural areas particularly, this had a major effect, and first impacted the Lok Sabha polls. This is because everyone who was against the BJP voted for the DMK alliance, causing the AIADMK to lose out,” says Shyam. “During the bye-polls, there was no major Central scheme that was causing animosity towards the AIADMK-BJP alliance and so there was a favourable verdict for the ruling party. But this time around the CAA protests created an upheaval,” he adds.

Even former AIADMK MP Anwar Raja told the media that the party’s support for CAA had cost them dearly in the elections, leading to upsetting losses in Muslim dominated areas.

The AIADMK source admits that the demonstration in district headquarters across the state decimated any hope of minority votes. In addition to this, the usual 15-20% swing voters, who decide whom to vote for during the campaign, also moved towards the DMK, he adds.

“To maintain your vote bank in the state, you have to show token opposition,” says Shyam. “Look at Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, he is friendly with the BJP without losing dignity. You can be their best friend but not a favourite slave,” he adds.

In addition to the impact of the CAA protests, anti-incumbency too worked against the AIADMK.

“This was supposed to be an acid test for both parties but neither have performed convincingly,” says Bharath. “We will know the real results when the indirect elections for the district heads end,” he adds.

The AIADMK, meanwhile, has begun strategising for the urban local body polls.

“If this is the result in rural areas, our performance will be worse in the cities. We have to figure out how to shake off the BJP tag at this point,” says the party source.

The DMK on its part is satisfied with its performance.

“It is very difficult to manage, strategise or control how the local body elections will work out. The sheer number of candidates makes it difficult, not to mention the lack of symbols at the panchayat level,” says DMK’s IT Wing Secretary PTR Palanivel Thiaga Rajan.

“For any party the logistics is hard, the ruling party usually tries to rig the polls in its favour. For us to perform this well despite these odds and not having carried out a massive campaign, shows that the people of Tamil Nadu want change,” he says.

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