In the shrill cacophony of debates and discussions on the April 18 elections in Tamil Nadu, one political leader whose name often gets drowned is TTV Dhinakaran. Though he has been ignored seemingly as irrelevant and inconsequential in the hustings, he is a force to reckon with, particularly in the crucial bye-elections to the 18 Assembly constituencies, which the powers that be are indeed aware of it. An indication of that awareness is the no holds barred efforts to deprive Dhinakaran of his old ‘Pressure Cooker’ symbol and also the covert move to confuse voters by allotting that symbol to other independents.
That Dhinakaran had to put up an enduring fight for an election symbol, which many dismissed as just a routine wrangle with the Election Commission of India, itself exemplifies the prevalent fears over his political maneuvering skills. Otherwise, why should the AIADMK turn jittery when he asked for the Pressure Cooker symbol for all candidates of his party, Amma Makkal Munetra Kazhagam (AMMK), which, along with alliance partners, has fielded candidates in all the 39 Lok Sabha seats and 18 Assembly constituencies facing by-elections in the state?
Of course, the Pressure Cooker was Dhinakaran’s winning symbol at the RK Nagar bye-election in December 2017. But does it warrant such a vicious legal battle against its allotment to AMMK? The case dragged till the last day for filing of nominations and the AIADMK won. However, it lost on the other plea that AMMK candidates should not be allowed to contest on a common symbol. But after the AMMK was allotted ‘Gift Pack’ as a common symbol, another hanky-panky came to light.
At least in four Assembly constituencies, the Pressure Cooker was allotted to independents with the same name as AMMK candidates. In Thiruvarur, vacated by the demise of former Chief Minister former and DMK President M Karunanidhi, the AMMK candidate is S Kamaraj and the independent who has been allotted the Pressure Cooker symbol is also Kamaraj. In Pappireddypatti, the AMMK candidate is TK Rajendran and the independent with the symbol Pressure Cooker is also Rajendran. So is the case in Harur, where Murugan is the name of AMMK candidate, while his namesake is the one with Pressure Cooker. In Sattur, the common name is Subramaniam.
It is anybody’s guess who is instrumental in playing this old trick - of making candidates with the same name of popular politicians file nominations – and this time adding an additional twist by allotting the Pressure Cooker symbol to them. And it is not without reason. Even if the public at large may not be aware of or remember Dhinakaran’s role in the past elections since the late 1990s, the mandarins in the AIADMK would be fully conscious of it as they would have had a ringside view of it. In fact, many of them were identified to contest elections and made to win under the ‘Two Leaves’ symbol of the AIADMK by Dhinakaran, though he stayed much in the background.
Managing Jaya’s election campaign in 2002
His exemplary work in managing an election campaign was seen in 2002 when Jayalalithaa was contesting the bye-elections to Andipatti. After her party swept the Assembly Elections in 2001, Jayalalithaa had assumed charge as Chief Minister though she had been barred from contesting owing to a corruption case (TANSI land deal). Four months after being sworn in as CM, Jayalalithaa was forced to step down as the Supreme Court quashed her appointment. She let O Panneerselvam hold fort until she was acquitted by the Madras High Court in March 2002. She assumed charge as Chief Minister again and then went to Andipatti to seek the people’s mandate.
Dhinakaran, who was then a Lok Sabha member representing Periyakulam, in which Andipatti was a segment, was in total control of the constituency. The manner in which he organized the campaign for Jayalalithaa, motivated the grassroots level party workers and mobilized the voters to go to the polling booths, revealed how good a poll strategist he could be. The same skills were on show very recently at RK Nagar, first in April 2017 when the bye-elections were declared after the passing away of Jayalalithaa in December 2016, and again in December 2017 when he clinched the seat.
Beating the odds in RK Nagar
When he had to contest as an independent and was allotted the ‘hat’ symbol in April, he ensured that it sat snuggly on his head. But that election was abruptly called off ostensibly due to allegations of irregularities and possibly because the ’hat’ had by then endeared itself to the voters of RK Nagar. Then the Election Commission sorted out the dispute over the claim for the AIADMK’s symbol, ‘Two Leaves’, by handing it over to the group led by Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami, and then called for the bye-election in December 2017.
Again, Dhinakaran filed his nomination as an independent and asked for the ‘hat’ symbol that he had popularised in the constituency. But the Election Commission refused to allot the symbol and instead gave him the ‘Pressure Cooker’. A never say die politician, Dhinakaran, accepted it with elan and popularised it to the extent that he won the election with an unprecedented margin and became the first independent to win a bye-election in the state. But the way in which the Pressure Cooker was popularised in one small constituency in Chennai gave the jitters to the AIADMK when Dhinakaran asked for it when the Lok Sabha Elections came.
The main fear of the AIADMK is that Dhinakaran could play spoilsport for the ruling party which needs to win a necessary number of seats in the bye-elections to stay in power. Most of those constituencies fell vacant because AIADMK MLAs owing to allegiance to Dhinakaran had given a letter to the Governor expressing their lack of confidence in the leadership of the Chief Minister, leading to their disqualification. Since there is every possibility of Dhinakaran and his followers having considerable clout in those constituencies, the ruling party is seemingly desperate to outsmart him. For, losing the 18 constituencies would render the AIADMK without a majority in the Assembly.
If Dhinakaran uses his proven political skills and popularises his latest symbol ‘Gift Pack’ in the entire length and breadth of the state, it could spell doom for the government, besides leading to the AIADMK-led alliance faring miserably in the Lok Sabha Elections. Dhinakaran, who had to break away from the AIADMK with his band of supporters after the incarceration of his aunt, VK Sasikala, consequent to the death of former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, has the potential to break the AIADMK now even if his party may not scale greater heights.
Views are the author's own.
G Babu Jayakumar is senior journalist living in Chennai.