“Ours was not just a political alliance. It was an ideological alliance,” D Ravikumar, general secretary of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK or Liberation Panthers Party) who won Viluppuram seat on Thursday by a margin of 1.28 lakh votes, said. He was referring to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) alliance led by MK Stalin which swept the Lok Sabha polls winning 37 out of 38 seats in Tamil Nadu.
Compared to the rest of India, Lok Sabha elections 2019 were indeed fought differently in Tamil Nadu. Here, two regional heavyweights DMK and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) locked horns but the electorate cast their votes against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). How did Tamil Nadu make a statement against the BJP even though the party’s presence in the state was limited to a vote share of 5.56% in 2014 and 3.7% in 2019?
This is how it was done: “We (alliance partners and DMK) identified BJP as the enemy of Tamil people. As elections approached we reminded the public that the ruling party AIADMK protects BJP’s interest in both the Centre and the state,” Ravikumar explained the simple equation, even though the task at hand seemed Herculean before the elections.
Back in 2014, the DMK alliance comprising Congress, VCK, CPI, CPI(M) and Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) was a non-starter. That year, DMK’s presence in Lok Sabha was reduced to naught by AIADMK which won 37 Lok Sabha seats. And BJP won its first ever Lok Sabha seat with Pon Radhakrishnan in Kanyakumari. Fortune did not favour DMK even in the 2016 Assembly polls when the party was relegated to the opposition benches as it secured 88 seats against AIADMK’s tally of 135.
On 5 December 2016, however, the political climate in Tamil Nadu underwent a drastic change. J Jayalalithaa, six time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu who spearheaded AIADMK’s victory in 2014 and 2016, died leaving her party in the throes of a faction fight between O Panneerselvam, VK Sasikala, TTV Dhinakaran and Edappadi K Palaniswami, who were all eyeing the Chief Minister’s seat. Though some stability returned to the party after Palaniswami (popularly known as EPS) became Chief Minister, the AIADMK rungs remained in disarray and the state’s administration came to a halt. Meanwhile, DMK, which was at an advantage after Jayalalithaa’s demise, also suffered a setback when its political patriarch and five time Chief Minister M Karunanidhi died on 7 August 2018. But having a successor in place meant that Karunanidhi’s demise did not destabilise DMK. His son MK Stalin took over as working president of the party and was expected to lead DMK in both Lok Sabha polls and Assembly by-polls in 22 segments (18 out of the 22 were vacant due to disqualification of AIADMK MLAs who revolted against the incumbent CM).
Stalin rose to the occasion. “He conveyed a clear message that elections in 2019 will also be fought on the ideological front when he reiterated that welfare and secularism should go together. He vehemently opposed Hindutva and Narendra Modi in his public speeches. In the same breath, keeping true to DMK’s longstanding position on state autonomy, he blamed the BJP government at the Centre for infringing on state’s matters. His vision was consistent with the political stand of Karunanidhi,” said Prof. Anandhi Sansmukhasundaram of Madras Institute of Development Studies who is a researcher on DMK’s politics. Stalin’s first move essentially was to reinforce Dravidian pride in Tamil Nadu, a state which stood out in the Indian union for its demand for federal autonomy. He drove home the message that BJP is harmful to Tamil Nadu’s economy and welfare.
On matters that affected large majority of Tamil public—from devolution decline in central funding to the state, based on recommendations of the 14th financial commission to cross-subsidy cuts starting 2014, to imposition of National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) on Tamil medical aspirants, introduction of Hindi in Tamil schools in 2015 and delayed relief during Gaja cyclone devastation of 2018—Stalin insisted that BJP put Tamil Nadu at a disadvantage. Simultaneously he stressed that BJP is a “fascist”, “Hindu nationalist” party with an agenda to corrupt Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian secular, rationalist ethos.
To top that, Stalin actively took the support of Dalit leader Thol Thirumavalavan whose party, Liberation Panthers is a grassroots organisation with radical left and anti-caste leanings. The Panthers were openly critical of not just the communal history of BJP but also the party’s silence on atrocities against Dalits and minorities. Stalin’s bold efforts in making the right alliances to confront the BJP put him at an advantage in the state where #GoBackModi would trend every time the Prime Minister attempted a visit. And in the absence of both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, he emerged as the only Dravidian leader who was ready to safeguard the state’s unique ethos.
As Stalin rode the anti-BJP wave, DMK leaders consistently followed up the party’s agenda on ground as they attached themselves to people’s protests across Tamil Nadu. Stalin’s stepsister and Karunanidhi’s daughter M K Kanimozhi led protests in her constituency Thoothukudi where 13 protesters were gunned down on May 22, 2018 as they demanded closure of Vedanta’s Sterlite copper smelter plant. DMK was a presence in anti-NEET protests and the outrage which erupted in the state after Dalit student and medical seat aspirant S Anitha committed suicide in 2017. In each of these protests, DMK consistently offered support to its alliance partners even before the alliance was forged. Thol Thirumavalavan and D Ravikumar were seen sharing protest platforms with DMK leaders including Kanimozhi and Stalin. The communist parties with their networks of grassroots organisations and the Muslim league were also in the loop.
“Together the alliance partners gave support to people’s concerns. While the formal alliance was declared only in 2019, to build confidence among people we came together on public platforms months before the election,” said Ravikumar. As elections approached, the DMK alliance channelised public ire from various protest spots towards the AIADMK and ultimately the BJP.
On the contrary, AIADMK, which was found lacking in leadership after Jayalalithaa’s demise, steadily lost public support. “Though Chief Minister Palaniswami made an effort to gain back traction, Panneerselvam was discredited for having ties with the BJP. As rumours about him joining the BJP flew right before 2019 elections, AIADMK had to brace itself in the state,” Sansmukhasundaram said. In the run-up to Lok Sabha elections, AIADMK lost its appeal further when it formed an alliance with the BJP whereas DMK tied up with the Congress. Result: DMK bagged 23 seats, Congress won eight, VCK got one, CPI and CPI (M) won two seats each and Muslim League won one seat. The star campaigners who were vociferous in protests targeting BJP trounced the AIADMK alliance—Kanimozhi won in Thoothukudi by a margin of 3.4 lakh votes against BJP’s Dr. Tamilisai Soundararajan, A Raja won by a margin of 2.03 lakh votes against M Thiyagarajan of AIADMK in Nilgiris and Thol Thirumavalavan won by a small margin of about 3,000 votes against P Chandrashekar of AIADMK in Chidambaram. AIADMK’s saving grace was its performance in Assembly by-polls held in April and May in which it retained nine seats out of 22. DMK won 13 assembly segments.
The Lok Sabha results in Tamil Nadu sent out two messages: One, they proved that the Tamil Nadu public voted for the DMK alliance because they attested the Dravidian ideological challenge to BJP. Secondly, DMK’s staggering win established MK Stalin as the rightful political heir of Karunanidhi, an openly atheist Chief Minister, poet and political stalwart who vehemently fought for the state’s autonomy when it came to language, education, caste-based reservation and fiscal matters.