Stakes appear higher in Tamil Nadu bypolls to 18 Assembly seats

Chennai: The dust and din have settled at last on the high-decibel campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections happening Thursday in 38 constituencies in Tamil Nadu and one in the neighbouring Puduherry. Higher stakes hang on the by-elections to 18 Assembly seats on the same day as the ruling AIADMK must win at least five seats to stay safe in power, which should not be such a problem for a ruling party going by the state’s poll history.

Analysts have called this a watershed election as it’s the first mega referendum on not just the Edappadi Palaniswami Government but also the saffron regime of Narendra Modi at the Centre, taking place in the absence of both the Dravidian giants, M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa. After spending most of their time during the post-MGR political era starting December 1987 fiercely battling each other as they dominated the state’s political platform, the two leaders have found their final resting places, ironically not far from each other at the Marina.

This public referendum is also on the leadership rating of the next gen bosses in both the DMK and the AIADMK — particularly the former since Kalaignar’s son MK Stalin has finally taken the reins for absolute control of his party at this wartime. The awe-inspiring presence of his father, still sharp in mind though the body was not willing, hovered around the DMK strategy sessions even if the elder patriarch could not actively participate in the decision-making process in the 2016 state polls in the same domineering manner of yesteryears.

And now with his passing away in August last year, Stalin takes the entire burden of running the DMK’s multiple tasks, captaining the poll wars included. It is said he does not trust many and his son-in-law Sabarish is his prime adviser. And this would mean that Stalin must bear the cross all by himself if the April 18 battle does not deliver the expected victory and worse still, if the ‘enemy’ EPS-Modi team walks away with glory.

Poll surveys by and large have given DMK's Thalapathi an impressive score, so such a predicament is unlikely to arise for the 66-year-old young man hoping to soon march into the Fort St.George.

Chief Minister Palaniswami had, in fact, made that 'CM dream' of Stalin one of his campaign issues to poke fun at the DMK rival throughout his campaign, saying he would have to stay content being a CM only in his dreams.

Another favourite missile to target Stalin has been his proposing Congress president Rahul Gandhi as the Prime Minister of the anti-Modi secular coalition, which he did when the opposition leaders came to Chennai in December 2018 to participate in a condolence meeting for his father Karunanidhi. No one else in the UPA has endorsed Stalin's proposal, said the CM in almost every election rally to rub in the insult that the DMK chief put his foot in the mouth and jumped the gun in crowning Rahul while the other leaders in the coalition are more mature in their stand that the leadership will wait till the votes are finally counted.

"We have a Prime Minister candidate and that is Narendra Modi as only he can guarantee India's security and all-round development. The rival camp - Stalin's UPA - has none". That was Edappadi's refrain.

In celebrating Modi as the leader of his alliance, the Chief Minister has had a tough time battling the attack from the opposite camp as speaker after speaker - not to forget the pungent social media they control - went high-decibel calling the PM insensitive to Tamil Nadu issues and dubbing the AIADMK leadership as a slavish bunch prostrating before him just to keep themselves away from jails for high corruption.

Corruption and jails have been the inevitable 'key words' in the campaign rallies of both the Dravidian majors - in fact even with the other players such as TTV Dhinakaran of Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK),  Kamal Haasan of Makkal Neethi Maiam (MNM) and Seeman of Naam Thamizhar Katchi. While the AIADMK had in its media advertisements an exhortation, "Let's drive away the corrupt elements" after its campaigners repeatedly referred to the 2-G arrests and imprisonment, the DMK referred to the Supreme Court sending Sasikala to jail in the disproportionate assets case in which Jayalalithaa was a co-accused. Stalin repeatedly pointed out that Jayalalithaa too would have gone to Bengaluru's Parappana Agraharam jail along with Sasikala had she been alive.

Apart from corruption, issues like Sterlite, NEET and Chennai-Salem Expressway dominated the DMK campaign platforms. The DMK also attacked EPS-Modi accusing the Centre of trying to impose alien Aryan culture and language on the Tamils while trying to obliterate their glorious history by such acts as suppressing the Keezhadi archeological findings as they would establish the Tamil race as the oldest in this part of the world - not the Indus Valley civilisation. And the pet poll theme for Stalin was the break-in and murders that happened at Jayalalithaa's Kodanadu Estate in Nilgiris after her death.

Stalin would promise the voters he would order a comprehensive probe into the Kodanadu crimes when he become the CM soon, while CM Palaniswami would deliver his 'tit-for-tat' telling the audience at his rallies that as soon as the election is over, he would order investigation into the complaint made by Sadiq Basha's wife that Basha was killed after he promised information to the CBI sleuths probing the 2-G case. And so the people of Tamil Nadu are assured of some exciting fare as post-poll drama.

'Opportunistic alliances' has been another campaign theme for both the main gladiators. The DMK accused the AIADMK of forging alliance with the BJP out of fear that its leaders, particularly the ministers, would otherwise land in jail in various corruption cases. The PMK had been brought in despite the party petitioning the Governor for firm action against the AIADMK government accusing it of high corruption, and despite its leaders opposing the memorial for Jayalalithaa at the Marina and her picture in the Assembly.

It will be a five-cornered battle on April 18, if one considers TTV's AMMK, Kamal's MNM and Seeman's NTK in the field along with the two Dravidian majors. Both the AMMK and MNM are expected to bite a bit into the AIADMK vote-share, while NTK's role is not so clear, except that several young educated-unemployed people, particularly in the rural south, are attracted towards Seeman.

There is special interest in how TTV's AMMK will fare when the votes are counted on May 23. Pollsters and ground reports have not given him any seats but what the political observers are keenly waiting for is to know his vote-share. If it turns out he has fared badly, his political future could evaporate and the various criminal cases could suddenly turn hot.   

The Election Commission has said nearly six crore people are eligible to vote in the single-phase election. It has also promised elaborate security arrangements are in place and fool-proof polling through the EVMs with the backup VVPAT.

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