Almost a month after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa launched her AIADMK’s election campaign from the historic Island Grounds in Chennai, much water has flown down the Cooum river. But politically nothing much seems to have happened to change the course of Tamil politics, except for freebies doled out by both the fronts. Jayalalithaa, who is leading the party for the seventh time since the death of her political guru and mentor M.G. Ramachandran, has left a fragmented opposition far behind.
Jayalalithaa is facing three opposition fronts: one led by the DMK-Congress combine, another of actor Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK)-People’s Welfare Front combine; and the third, the BJP and Anbumani Ramadoss’ Pattali Makkal Katchi. This very divided opposition, with its quivers almost empty, is Jayalalithaa’s greatest advantage in securing a second consecutive term in office.
This time no major parties are in alliance with Jayalalithaa. In 1991, 1996 and 2001, the Congress was with Jayalalithaa. But in 2006, it was Vaiko’s MDMK and in 2011 Vijayakanth’s DMDK that was with her. This time, Jayalalithaa is going it alone except for a few one-man parties like that of actor Sarathkumar’s All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi. G.K. Moopanar’s son G.K. Vasan was willing to ally his Tamil Maanila Congress with AIADMK if a call came from Amma, so was the BJP. But this time Jayalalithaa was determined to prove that her party’s performance in the last Lok Sabha elections was no fluke when she bagged 37 of the 39 seats.
Jayalalithaa has named it as Mission 234, meaning the aim is to capture all the 234 seats in the Assembly. Though AIADMK is contesting in 227 seats and the remaining seven are for her allies, all 234 candidates will be contesting on the AIADMK symbol of two leaves. This is a first in the state.
In the 2011 Assembly elections, while AIADMK secured 38.4% votes, DMK managed 22.4% and DMDK 7.9%. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when she contested all 39 seats alone, the AIADMK vote share was 44.3%, compared to just 23.4% of DMK. DMDK’s share shrunk to 5.4%.
It was Karunanidhi who started wooing the electorate by offering goodies when in 2006 he outwitted Jayalalithaa and came to power by promising 1 kg rice for Re 1 and free colour televisions. This was a revelation to Amma. And once she opened the coffers by offering laptops and cycles to students, mixies, grinders and fans to housewives in 2011, there was no looking back. For Dravida parties, the state exchequer is just a means to launch so-called welfare schemes, no matter how much the coffers get drained.
This time Amma has gone miles ahead in rolling out promises of 100 units of free power for households every two months, 50% subsidy for women to buy scooters, eight grams of gold for women getting married, maternity leave for nine months and Rs 40,000 crore in loans for farmers from 2016-2021. Of this, DMK could match it only in the waiving of farm loans.
This time Amma has gone miles ahead in rolling out promises of 100 units of free power for households every two months, 50% subsidy for women to buy scooters, eight grams of gold for women getting married, maternity leave for nine months and Rs 40,000 crore in loans for farmers from 2016-2021. Of this, DMK could match it only in the waiving of farm loans. But credit must be given to Jayalalithaa. When she came to power in 2011 Tamil Nadu was reeling under severe power shortage. In 2012 and 2013, there were minimum eight hours of power cuts daily. Jayalalithaa managed to tide over this crisis and is now in a position to offer free power! Still the star of her welfare schemes is the Amma canteens which offer food at reasonable prices so much that on Rs 20 one can easily survive for a day. This is not possible elsewhere in the country. Add to this, Amma salt, cement, medicines, water. So when she says at rally after rally that she can offer all this without anyone asking because a mother knows what her children wants, the crowd goes ecstatic.
This time the DMK, with an eye on the women’s vote, promised to implement a blanket ban on liquor if voted to power. “Undoubtedly, enforcement of prohibition will be the first policy to be implemented,” Karunanidhi said in an interview. Jaya blunted this too. All she said was she would bring a ban on liquor not at one go but in phases. The Tamil Nadu government mops up about Rs 25,000 crore a year through liquor sales. It accounts for 33% of the state’s total revenue. Jayalalithaa knows that it is not easy to kill the golden goose at one go, hence she has proposed prohibition in stages. Everyone knows that all this is for public consumption before the elections. Who in the state does not know that all the major distilleries from where the state procures liquor belong to DMK and AIADMK leaders?
Hard currency and liquor too change hands on the day of polling. Voters know that the day of exercising their democratic right is also the day they would be kings, even if for a day. This time the Enforcement Directorate has already seized unaccounted cash worth crores. Every single party in Tamil Nadu resorts to this, openly defying all rules.
In such a scenario, no other issues are raised. Opposition parties criticise Jayalalithaa for her welfare schemes. But the public feels that it is because they cannot match her benevolence. DMK and Congress, which are still very much in the shadow of the 2G spectrum and other scams, are not in a position to raise any corruption charges against the ruling party. Though Vijayakanth, Vaiko and the Left combine has a clean image, they could not make much impact among the masses. Hence, all they could raise is the question of her lack of visibility, especially during the floods that submerged Chennai last December. But if you ask the man on the street his/her reply would be a standard one: “What could Amma do to stop the wrath of Gods?”
It is true that DMK treasurer and Karunanidhi’s son, M.K. Stalin had made some inroads through his “Namukku Nammai” people’s contact programme before the elections were declared. But the party could not sustain it for reasons known only to Kalaingnar, as Karunanidhi is fondly known among the masses. The DMK patriarch is still hesitant to declare Stalin as his heir openly. Some say he is a prisoner of his own family compulsions. Elder son Alagiri is cross with him. Daughter Kanimozhi is still a political novice, without any mass following. Opinion polls point out that projecting the 93-year-old Karunanidhi as the chief ministerial face once again might turn out to be the undoing of DMK’s chances. Insiders feel that had Stalin been named the chief ministerial candidate, things would have been brighter for the party. It is a big “if”.
Jayalalithaa will end her campaign in another two days. As usual, no one can read her mind nor is she meeting the press and spelling out her plans. Keeping aloof may be her way of building an aura of invincibility around her. But those who throng to see her whenever there is an opportunity swear that Amma, and only Amma, is their saviour. Sounds a bit like celluloid melodrama? But then what is Tamil politics without the silver screen with its heroes and divas?