For the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the forthcoming Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu are of huge significance. Having received a drubbing in the 2011 assembly election, and having been routed to the extent of drawing a blank in the 2014 parliamentary election, the party was looking to the 2016 assembly election to revive its steadily sagging fortunes. Today, that hope too appears to be evaporating as quickly as it appeared a few months ago, soon after the devastating floods in Chennai.
Three months ago things were looking up for the party. The massive floods in Chennai and a few neighboring districts, where the ruling AIADMK government's initial response was seen to be tardy, had created an anti-incumbency mood that had been missing for the better part of the previous four years.
MK Stalin was on his "Namakku Namae" tour program across the state drawing an enthusiastic response. There was the hope of stitching together a grand alliance with the Congress, the DMDK of Vijayakanth, and some smaller parties. A few opinion polls forecast a close fight and a difference between the two major parties of just a couple of percentage points in vote share.
Today a lot of that euphoria around the DMK has evaporated, much of it due to the party's own muddled strategy. For over two months the DMK kept saying that they would welcome the DMDK into their alliance. This, after Vijayakanth, and more particularly his wife Premalatha, categorically said there would be no tie up with either Dravidian major.
The worst cut of all came soon after the DMK supremo, M Karunanidhi, announced his hope that an agreement was not far away, and the DMDK, as a ripened fruit, would fall into the DMK bowl of milk. Within a week the DMDK responded by calling the DMK a "Thillu Mullu Party," or a party of frauds.
That too was still not enough for the DMK. A week after this, Karunanidhi again expressed the hope that Vijayakanth would join them. A few days later the DMDK threw in its lot with the People‚Äôs Welfare Front causing a huge loss of face for the DMK
The genuflection before the DMDK is likely to cost the DMK dear. The sheer desperation which seemed evident in the DMK's efforts to woo the DMDK conveyed a lack of confidence that would surely have disheartened the party cadre now that Vijayakanth has finally rebuffed the party.
The party‚Äôs unwillingness to offer to share power was another strategic mistake. By openly offering to accommodate allies in its future Government should the alliance win, the DMK could have made it more difficult for the DMDK to refuse and could have successfully wooed the likes of the VCK.
The DMK of a decade ago was a much stronger party and had the luxury of telling its allies that it would not accommodate them in the Government. Today, with a shrinking vote base and facing a major election, this rigid stance drove away even the few parties who considered signing up with them.
The other major mistake the DMK seems to have made is in not addressing the issues that made the party lose two consecutive elections. The defeats were caused not just by the taint of the 2G scam or other corruption related issues but also by the unpopularity of the district level leadership of the DMK.
Unlike the AIADMK, where there has always been a wheel of fortune type of situation with no district leader emerging as a power centre, at least not for any significant length of time, the DMK has allowed its district leaders a level of autonomy and permitted them to function as strongmen in their regions. This led to the charges of many of them running amok with cases of land grabbing and arrogance.
This, compounded with the fact that many districts had one or two families and their offspring as the face of the party there, has meant that the DMK faces a piquant situation, as the party stands to lose votes even among those who like MK Stalin because of the unpopularity of the local leaders.
Stalin made a promising start to his Namakku Namae campaign when he mentioned that the party had made mistakes in the past which it would correct this time around. But he never elaborated on what those mistakes were or how the party would address them.
For the DMK to have any chance at all of putting up a good performance in the forthcoming election the party needs to make some quick course corrections.
First there needs to be a new generation of party leaders under Stalin who have to be presented to the electorate. As a worker of a party opposed to both the DMK and AIADMK told me a few weeks ago, "The AIADMK only needs to put up posters with the photos of the district level DMK leaders and ask the public if they wanted them back and the elections would be won."
This may be simplistic, but there is little doubt that the DMK has to shake off the image of being a party of oligarchs, and many of its faces in the districts are extremely unpopular. Some of them have been in and out of power for over 4 decades, prompting the younger leaders in their own party to ask when they would give way to the next generation.
This may be difficult for the party to do as its seniors have always enjoyed a special relationship with the leadership. But the party needs to look at its survival and make its move accordingly.
Secondly, the party has to distance itself from some of its leaders accused of corruption. Carrying the 2G scam and other accused on its campaign platform robs the party of the corruption plank that it wants to use against Jayalalithaa.
Third, the party needs to quickly move on from the DMDK pleading phase and galvanize its cadre to start the campaign in earnest. They need to announce the seat-sharing with the Congress and existing allies, and get on with it.
Fourth, Stalin needs to categorically address the issues that made the DMK unpopular and explain how he plans to correct them. His popularity today far outstrips others in his party, including his father, and he has a unique opportunity to express regret, at least partially, for some of the wrongs of the past and explain why they will not be repeated. This needs enormous courage but it increasingly appears to be a necessity. Such a move can help, at least partially, win back some of the youth who seem to have deserted the DMK en masse.
Fifth, Stalin needs to be projected as the party‚Äôs CM candidate at the earliest. While Karunanidhi still carries enormous appeal among the party faithful, the non-aligned voters, especially the younger ones, appear to prefer Stalin should they be given a choice. Several recent opinion polls also seem to indicate as much. With Karunanidhi appearing unwilling to make way for his son in this election this may be impossible for the DMK to do unless the patriarch himself volunteers to step aside.
Despite the history that is strongly in its favour, with the state having alternated every 5 years between AIADMK and DMK rule since 1991, the election stage this time looks far from rosy for the DMK. It may be bereft of some of the allies it coveted but it is the party's unwillingness to change that could become the millstone around its neck.
The elections are still more than 45 days away and there is still time to change tack. Is the DMK up to the task?