Waiting for 2021: Are TN 2016 Assembly Polls just a dress rehearsal?

What's driving political outfits like PMK, PWF-DMDK and BJP to project themselves as 'alternatives'?
Waiting for 2021: Are TN 2016 Assembly Polls just a dress rehearsal?
Waiting for 2021: Are TN 2016 Assembly Polls just a dress rehearsal?
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It’s the final stretch in Tamil Nadu with polling less than a week away. Political parties across the spectrum have their “star campaigners” out all day, hopping from one constituency to another, canvassing for votes as they race against the clock. But what if the battle may not be for May 16? And 2016 is only just a prequel?

For Chief Ministerial aspirants like PMK’s Anbumani Ramadoss the groundwork for 2016 began more than a year and a half ago. His party declared him as their CM candidate in November 2014, months after the Lok Sabha polls in which he made his electoral debut. They were equally quick to project themselves as an alternative to the Dravidian parties and stayed at an arm’s distance from their national ally, the BJP.   

But today, the PMK isn’t the only “alternative” for voters with the PWF-DMDK combine and the BJP also playing the same card.

For nearly 50 years, Tamil Nadu has been dominated by the DMK and the AIADMK, alternating between the two since 1989.  Despite charges of corruption against both parties, the vote share of the DMK and the AIADMK has been largely intact. The “alternatives”, however, have a vote share hovering in single digits. So, what’s driving their motivations to refuse alliances with the Dravidian majors and instead project themselves as the “change” voters are looking for?

Time, it appears, is their primary motivation. A few weeks before the election dates were announced, a DMK source whispered to me that several political parties were preparing for a post-Karunanidhi and post-Jayalalithaa scenario. “They are laying the groundwork for 2021,” said the source.  As long as the arch-rivals were in the electoral race, the space for alternatives was largely limited.  But time, they believed, was on their side.

2016 could very well be Karunanidhi’s last election, although the 93-year-old politician has debunked this ‘myth’ at every election for the last ten years. But it’s not just those outside the DMK who are laying the groundwork for a time after Kalaignar. Heir-apparent and younger son MK Stalin’s image makeover and his four-month long tour of the state as part of his ‘Namakku Naame’ campaign is also a step in that direction.  “Stalin has taken over the party for all practical purposes. But Karunanidhi remains the figure-head because of the goodwill he has among his followers,” says writer and political analyst, Gnani Sankaran.  

While Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has, for now, put to rest rumours of her ill-health following her state-wide election campaign, the disproportionate assets case still hangs over her head like a Damocles sword.  With no successor in sight for the AIADMK, political rivals are counting on the verdict of the Supreme Court to turn their political fortunes.  

Outfits like the PMK, BJP and the PWF-DMDK all hope to take advantage of the political vacuum in a political environment sans Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. “Alternatives should come in but the quality of alternative is important,” points out Madras University professor and political analyst, Ramu Manivannan. Much like how the DMK capitalised on Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement, he says, the Dravidian alternatives need a political movement or an ideology to give them credibility. An image-makeover or a year-long political campaign may not be enough. Gnani, however, says, “This Assembly Election will throw up surprises. The third front’s presence will be felt.” But he believes the battle is not for 2021, “It’s now for 2019. It could be a beginning.” 

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