The BJP continues to be seen as a party from the North that will impose Hindi on the Tamils and has no sympathy for Tamil aspirations or culture.
The forthcoming elections are going to be crucial for Tamil Nadu. The state will face polls for the first time without DMK’s M Karunanidhi and AIADMK’s J Jayalalithaa—the two powerful and charismatic leaders who have taken turns to lead the state for decades. Both the regional parties have formed alliances with national parties. The alliances are quite complicated, with many permutations and combinations and with friends becoming foes and vice versa.
In 2014, Tamil Nadu saw an unprecedented landslide win for the AIADMK in the Lok Sabha polls, which wiped the DMK from national scene. Jayalalithaa pulled it off with her famous line ‘Modi versus lady’. Contesting on its own in 39 seats, the AIADMK won 37 seats and emerged the third largest bloc in Parliament. Subsequent developments in the state, Jayalalithaa’s conviction, her ill health, her death and her close aide Sasikala trying to seize power after her death have all taken the sheen off the party.
In spite of it taking occasional pot-shots at the BJP, it was a foregone conclusion the AIADMK will ally with the ruling party. It is known that it is the BJP that has been pulling the strings behind the scene in the state and has been propping up the AIADMK government—the AIADMK has to contest under the NDA umbrella.
But in the popular perception, the BJP continues to be seen as a party from the North that will impose Hindi on the Tamils and has no sympathy for Tamil aspirations or culture. Narendra Modi is very low on the Tamil psyche and ‘go back Modi’ hashtags erupt each time he visits the state.
The AIADMK has given five seats to the BJP, and seven seats more to the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), which is influential among the powerful Vanniyar caste in the northern belt of the state. The PMK has also been promised a Rajya Sabha seat in the future as a bonus. The opposition alliance sees this as an unacceptable combination of the BJP’s religious communalism and the PMK’s casteism.
When the DMK president MK Stalin announced the party’s official alliance with the Congress and the decision to allot them 10 seats, it raised a lot of eyebrows. The DMK’s decision is considered strange, especially after the national party’s dismal performance in 2016 Tamil Nadu assembly election prevented the DMK from getting a majority. The junior partners of this alliance are the CPI(M), the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, Vaiko’s MDMK, and the Indian Union Muslim League.
Most parties have aligned with Dravidian parties, with two notable exceptions. The nephew of Jayalalithaa’s close aide Sasikala, TTV Dhinakaran, has launched his own party, the AMMK (Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam), claiming to be the true successor of Jayalalithaa. No other known party is going with him and he is contesting 38 seats out of 39 on his own. The AIADMK hopes that its alliance with the BJP (which has already helped cut Dhinakaran’s wings considerably) will curb him totally. However, he is expected to eat into AIADMK votes in some districts.
The unknown factor is Kamal Haasan, founder of the Makkal Needhi Maiam. He has announced the names of candidates for 19 constituencies, although he is not contesting himself. The list includes a retired IPS officer, a retired judge, three doctors, five lawyers, four engineers and seven businesspersons. He has said that the party has chosen candidates based on whether they were economically stable, had past experience in public life, and with great ideas to solve many issues. Among other things, he has promised 50 lakh jobs, agricultural revival, and women empowerment with 50% job reservation to them. He has also played into some parochial sentiments. If his party makes any inroads at all, it will show that film stars still have some influence in Tamil Nadu politics.
Both the AIADMK and the DMK have announced populist economic promises in their manifestos. There is a lot of similarity in what they are offering. Both the parties have promised a change in oil-pricing formula, scrapping of foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail, and hike in exemption limit for individual income tax.
Freebies are a given in Tamil Nadu manifestos. The AIADMK has promised fans, mixer-grinders, laptops, goats, cows, four grams gold for poor women’s marriage and other things nationwide. The DMK’s manifesto is silent on freebies—the manifesto says it would urge the Centre to hike the exemption limit for individual income tax to Rs 6 lakh in the case of men and Rs 7.2 lakh for women. The party has also promised to urge the Centre to exempt gratuity and provident fund paid to government employees on retirement from tax. The AIADMK says it would take steps to increase the exemption limit to Rs 5 lakh for both men and women.
On the oil-pricing policy, the AIADMK has stated it would take action to change the mechanism for determining the prices of petrol and diesel. It will also work to withdraw the power given to OMCs to fix prices. The party wants oil and cooking gas prices to be fixed in a way that it is uniform throughout the year. On its part, the DMK wants the Centre to change the pricing policy to fix just and reasonable prices for petroleum products. As things stand, the DMK-Congress combination appears to have an edge over the BJP-AIADMK alliance. In the state, the BJP has not gained in popularity even after Pulwama attacks. All that the BJP can hope to do is to try and limit the Congress riding piggyback on the DMK and gaining some ground.