23/05/2016 4:32 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

The DMK's Biggest Challenge: A Crisis Of Credibility

A supporter holds up cut-outs of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party symbol with an image of M.K. Stalin, son and heir-apparent of M. Karunanidhi, chief of DMK during a rally ahead of a general election in the southern Indian city of Chennai April 6, 2014. India, the world's largest democracy, will hold its general election in nine stages staggered between April 7 and May 12. REUTERS/Babu (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)
Babu Babu / Reuters
A supporter holds up cut-outs of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party symbol with an image of M.K. Stalin, son and heir-apparent of M. Karunanidhi, chief of DMK during a rally ahead of a general election in the southern Indian city of Chennai April 6, 2014. India, the world's largest democracy, will hold its general election in nine stages staggered between April 7 and May 12. REUTERS/Babu (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. When the polls are done and dusted, one can say, in cavalier fashion, that the writing was always on the wall. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), should not have given 41 seats to its ally, the Congress. DMK heir apparent MK Stalin should have been announced as the Chief Ministerial candidate.

Cash distribution to voters swung votes in Jayalalithaa’s favour in the last two days. The lure of freebies announced by Jaya – more gold for thaali (mangalsutra) for women, 50% discount on scooters for working women and free mobiles for all – did the trick. Prohibition was never an election issue and therefore tipplers voted for Jaya since they believed she would not ban the booze immediately. Women voters too appear to have solidly stood behind their idol, Jaya.

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All of the above analyses would be correct. But these are descriptions of symptoms alone. There is a firmer diagnosis arising out of the DMK’s not-so-vast debacle of 2016. That, simply put, is a crisis of credibility for the Dravidian party, something which it needs to address with urgency.

Known Devils Vs Unknown Angels

A look at the realigned political map of Tamil Nadu in 2016 shows clearly who the voters saw as the alternative to the ruling party. The DMK took 98 seats in alliance with the Congress and the Indian Union Muslim League. The AIADMK took 134 out of a total of 232 seats which went to polls on May 16.

For the first time in Tamil Nadu’s history, there were a number of visible alternatives to the voter. The Third Front was one such – Vijaykanth with his DMDK (Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam), Vaiko and his MDMK (Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), Dalit leader Thol Thirumavalavan, the two Left parties and GK Vasan’s brand new party formed after his split with the Congress. Another visible face was that of former Union Minister Anbumani Ramadoss, young, urban and speaking development politics, with an Obama-like campaign, proclaiming himself to be the much-needed alternative. The Bharatiya Janata Party, an almost irrelevant force in the southern state too ran a high pitched campaign, stating that they were the alternative.

Tamil Nadu categorically decided that the alternative to one Dravidian party, the AIADMK, could only be another, the DMK. And despite Vijaykanth’s and Vaiko’s parties bearing the term ‘Dravida’, voters rejected both. Vijaykanth was pushed to third place in Ulundurpet, suffering the ignominy of losing his deposit, along with his party being de-recognised as a state party owing to securing less than 6% of votes polled. Junior Ramadoss too was annihilated in Pennagaram, an Assembly seat within the Parliamentary seat of Dharmapuri where he won as MP in 2014.

Thirumavalavan was sent home licking his wounds, losing the Kattumannarkoil seat by a mere 87 votes. The BJP hardly figured in the reckoning, garnering 2.8% voteshare, after crowing about being the third largest party in the 2014 polls with 5% voteshare and 2 MP seats.

“Tamil Nadu voters decided that they preferred the Dravidian parties to anyone else,” agreed T Ramakrishnan, senior journalist and political analyst. “They have given a clear mandate. All those people who made a hue and cry about being the alternative have been sent home.”

Essentially, the state chose between the known devils – the two Dravidian behemoths – who have a track record of governance by dint of being alternatively in power in the past. The unknown plausible angels – the newer parties – were wiped out.

Choosing The Lesser Evil

Now that the choice was between two known devils, the AIADMK and the DMK, the lesser evil had to be chosen. Voices on the ground spoke the language of anti incumbency. “This government has not done any work in terms of development or infrastructure or job creation,” was a constant refrain one heard while traveling across the state ahead of polls. “But the DMK will be worse if they come to power,” was the postscript.

M Kameshwaran, a voter in Coimbatore explained why he was glad of the AIADMK’s win. “During the DMK regime of 2006 to 2011, we had to sell our land hurriedly because their goondaism was out of control,” he said, anger still evident. “The local DMK men had bought all the land surrounding ours. If we had refused to sell, they would have held a knife to our throats. We did not want trouble so we sold it at a lower rate. If we cannot even keep our land in peace and always have to worry, what is the point?” he asked. In a Jayalalithaa regime, such land grabbing and goondaism would not happen, he asserted. This was also the highlight of Jaya’s 2016 campaign – “Don’t forget how they grabbed your lands and threatened you all,” she told the electorate repeatedly at her rallies before the polls. Voters have neither forgiven, nor forgotten.

In October 2015, during his statewide tour called Namakku Naame (We for ourselves), DMK heir apparent MK Stalin apologised to a voter in Madurai who questioned him about the atrocities and kangaroo courts of the DMK men in the district. “I assure you such things will never happen again,” he said to the voter, without overtly referring to his elder brother MK Alagiri’s role in the goondaism of 2006-2011 in that area.

Towards the end of campaigns, Stalin again reiterated that there would be no kangaroo courts or rowdyism if the DMK was voted back in. But the reassurance was neither firm enough, nor loud enough. The issue of land grabbing too was simply ignored by the party.

tamil nadu polls

Another issue that Jayalalithaa harped upon on all her campaign rallies was that of family rule. The powerful but tainted DMK first family and their misdeeds appear to have made the voter wary. While Stalin himself has not been seen campaigning with any of his family members, DMK patriarch and Chief Ministerial candidate M Karunanidhi was seen traveling on his campaign trail, with his daughter Kanimozhi and grand-nephew Dayanidhi Maran, both accused in infamous corruption cases. Stalin, picking on the mood of the voter rather late in the day, announced that neither his son Udhayanidhi, nor his son-in-law Sabareesan would ever enter politics. Jaya, on the other hand, kept reiterating that she had no family – “my life is dedicated to serving the people of Tamil Nadu” she said. The voters appear to have given her the benefit of the doubt.

The voters’ mistrust in the DMK as a credible and worthy alternative is evident from the slim winning margins thrown up in the polls. In 12 constituencies, the DMK has lost to the AIADMK by under 2000 votes – in 9 of these, the AIADMK has won on less than 1000 votes. In 7 seats, the AIADMK has polled between 2000 to 3000 more votes than the DMK.

‘None of the above’ (NOTA) votes are indicative of discontent with the ruling party – these are votes which would have gone to a credible viable alternative to the ruling party, if there had been one. Voters choose NOTA only when they have no faith in even the most prominent alternative to the ruling party. An analysis of the distribution of 5.6 lakh NOTA votes in the state shows that in 15 constituencies, the NOTA votes could have swung the election for the DMK, if voters had been convinced of the DMK being a good alternative to the ruling party.

In the end, the mandate is clear – Jaya is the lesser evil of the known devils, but the voters are not entirely happy with her performance either. By sending the DMK to the position of a powerful Opposition in the state Assembly, the voter has checkmated Jaya too.

As for hindsight, it serves one more purpose – to introspect and rectify the mistakes of the past and gear up for the future. The DMK needs a revamp and a sea change from within. Its leaders need to walk the talk and take drastic action to clean up their mess of 2006 to 2011. They have another five years to do so.