Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, is looking to solidify BJP's position in Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly elections to be held in April 2021 for the 234 seats Image Credit: PTI

Tamil Nadu’s 6.26 crore (62 million) passionate voters are witnessing the upcoming assembly elections very differently.

Among many new elements, two things stand out in the great Tamilian political game.

First, how long the Dravidian politics, unique to the state, would survive as the 21 century marches on?

Second, is Prime Minister Narendra Modi, still considered an outsider in the state, effective enough to change the fundamental terms of the Tamilian politics?

In the ongoing election campaigning for the 234 seats of the assembly, people are missing the towering personalities of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch M. Karunanidhi, state’s five time chief minister who died in 2018 and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (AIDMK) strong leader J. Jayalalithaa, six time chief minister who died in December 2016. There are no charismatic giants in the electoral battlefield and that’s not normal for Tamil voters.

If the last Lok Sabha election of 2019 is taken as the test case, DMK is having a clear edge over the incumbent AIDMK. In the last general election, the DMK got 32.76% vote share while AIDMK got only 18.48% share.

Also, out of 39 seats of Lok Sabha, DMK and its allies got 52.39% vote share and 38 seats while AIDMK got one seat. In that election, the BJP was rejected and the AIDMK shrunk as its fortunes were linked to the BJP.

Since 2019, nothing dramatic has happened to change the ground reality drastically as the players are the same, but, no Indian election is easy to decode.

Enter the heir apparent

The stakes of the DMK chief M.K. Stalin, heir of Karunanidhi and the challenger to the ruling party AIDMK, are the highest. The DMK hasn’t won of its own, without allies, any election since 1996. If the DMK wins majority under the leadership of Stalin, he will be the new saviour of the Dravidian ideology.

That’s why DMK is offering around 20 or less seats to Congress. Prime Minister Narendra Modi came out of the shadow of Vajpayee’s legacy in the party because of his own emphatic win in 2014 and 2019. Stalin needs one, too, to get out of the weight of his father’s legacy.

He will have to prove that he is the worthy heir of his father’s legacy, can modernise the Dravidian politics to match with the changing India, can give convincing response to BJP’s ambitious expansion plans in the state and above all win with a handsome majority. Nothing less. Only a solid victory will give him the bargaining power to stand against the strong centre.

Stalin, although lacking in charisma and no match to his father’s enormous political talent, have many advantages. DMK is a cadre-based party. It has time-tested coalition with the Congress, the Left parties and few other caste-based parties who matter. In the last assembly election, AIDMK had won with a mean margin of 1.03% vote share.

Since 2017, the DMK’s propaganda to defame the ruling AIDMK as the BJP’s stooge is somewhat successful.

The minorities like Christians and Muslims which constitute some 11% voters are likely to overwhelmingly go with the DMK unlike before when their votes were divided between two Dravidian parties depending on the prevailing ground situation. The AIDMK is facing “double anti-incumbency” as the Centre’s rule of the BJP gets debited in their account, too.

A battle for survival

The incumbent chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami is leading the party in its battle for survival. The anti-incumbency of two terms is the main challenge. Palaniswami and former CM O. Panneerselvam are not on same page in running the party.

Power holds them together and without it they are likely to break, hopelessly. Both are facing the splinter groups led by Sasikala and T.T.V. Dhinakaran. Actor Kamal Haasan’s new party is likely to be on side of the DMK.

In some sense this election will be decisive for the historical Dravidian movement. In the straight fight between Stalin versus Palaniswami for the leadership of the state, the BJP’s presence is not useful for the AIDMK.

In spite of insignificant vote share of 3.7% in 2019 election, down from 5.5% of 2014, BJP is neither shy of its ambitions nor untouchable anymore in the land of Periyar, founder of the anti-Brahmin Dravidian movement.

The legendary Tamil actor Shivaji Ganesan’s son Ramkumar has recently joined the BJP.

The youth voters are a dicey factor for the DMK as Stalin is showing signs of ageing at 67. Also, CM Palaniswami has gained some ground for providing good governance in managing the Covid-19 situation.

He travelled all over the state to improve the health facilities and has taken many welfare measures. Lately, he has shown that he is having a grip in running the state. That has contained to some extent the anti-incumbency against the AIDMK.

The BJP would like the AIDMK to win so that it could buy time.

Any which way it would like to see that the Dravidian movement cedes some space to the nationalist BJP. Post-election if the AIDMK share shrinks significantly then the BJP and the Congress would be fighting for the same space. 

Its an irony that if AIDMK, an ally of the BJP, loses power while retaining respectful vote share and the seats then it will be helping the larger cause of the Dravidian politics but if the AIDMK is wiped out then its replacement will be the BJP in a long run.

The vacated opposition space will be grabbed by the BJP and it will not be lacking in aggression over the next five years.

On BJP's radar

BJP wants to exploit the fact that PM Modi is having a better image than the BJP amomngst staunch Dravidian voters. There is substantial non-Tamil voters in the state now who are on BJP’s radar.

Some months back, the song uploaded on the You Tube had offended some devotees. The state BJP kick-started Vetrivel yatra to invoke the Hindu vote bank, but it was wound up due to the covid threat.

In each state the BJP plays a micro game to unite and divide the castes in its favour, too.

One can see through the BJP’s smart game in the recently tabled Constitution (scheduled castes) Order (Amendment) bill 2021 in the Budget session of the parliament.

This hurriedly introduced bill wants “to group” seven sub-castes of Dalits in Tamilnadu under the heritage name “ Devendrakula Velalar” DVK. These Dalits are largely residing in communally sensitive Southern Tamil Nadu. These seven sub-castes of Dalits want to shed the “dalit tag.”

According the analysis of journalist D. Suresh Kumar in The Hindu, “shedding individual Dalit caste tags would help in the social advancement of the community. Their argument is that existing caste names were being used more in a derogatory sense to belittle the community.”

The BJP has fully supported the demand for “social advancement” and for delisting these seven subcastes from the list of schedule castes who are 17% of the Dalits in Tamil Nadu.

Amit Shah on his visit to Chennai endorsed it and arranged a meeting of these seven subcastes leaders with Modi. The government introduced the bill in the Parliament just a day before the prime minister’s visit to Tamil Nadu on February 14.

The results of Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry elections in first half of 2021 will give fairly good idea of the national politics till 2024 general elections. The countdown begins, now.