Tamil Nadu Elections – A Battle of Known Unknowns!

In this week’s blog post, I continue my focus on Tamil Nadu state elections which is turning out to be a fascinating battle as the polling date comes closer. West Bengal elections and the results therein may be interesting for the commentariat for the sheer noise value around it because of the time and efforts being invested by BJP and Modi-Shah combine. But, I do feel that West Bengal is a simple and straight contest between TMC and BJP and the unknown in terms of result is only the margin of victory for the TMC and the extent of rise of the BJP in West Bengal.  In Tamil Nadu though, as it stands now, even with just few weeks for the poll date, the water is still muddy.

The reason for the same is there are many known unknowns in these elections that could impact the results in either way. What are those?

  1. Anti-Incumbency: Is there an Anti-Incumbency? The answer it seems depends on to whom the question is posed.  For a DMK supporter, there is an obvious anti-incumbency wave against the present EPS-OPS government. However for an ADMK supporter, there isn’t. There is a version which says even if it is, it is not strong enough to swing votes away from the ADMK. And finally there is one which says that few months ago there was but now there isn’t.
  1. Consolidation of Hindu vote: Will there be a consolidation of the Hindu vote in favour of the ADMK/BJP front? This is the first election in TN where BJP is making a serious attempt to make its presence felt. And it has been at it systematically in the last few months. In social media, there are orchestrated campaigns by BJP to make the Hindu vote count by appealing to the Hindu voters to reject the DMK based on its leaders’ past public utterances against Hindus and Hindu Gods. Yet, it is unclear if the campaign will lead to a consolidation of the Hindu vote and help the ADMK front.
  1. Kamal Haasan effect: Is Kamal Haasan’s party the Makkal Needhi Maiam going to split the ADMK votes or the DMK votes? It is clear that Kamal Haasan and his party are creating a buzz in the air this time. Targeted at those who are fed up with the Kazhagams in general, it is aiming to be an AAP in Tamil Nadu by being a third alternative. But it is obvious that it has not penetrated enough to form a government on its own and will lend support to one of the fronts in a post poll scenario. While the earnestness and honest image of Kamal are not questionable his personal ideology is. As an atheist and a non-believer, he is seen closer to the DMK ideology. At the same time, by calling himself as MGR’s ‘vaarisu’ he tries to appeal to the MGR’s supporters and legacy in the ADMK. It is also said that the youth are more drawn to Kamal. So, which section is he going to impress? Is he going to cut into DMK’s share or ADMK’s share or a bit of both? It is unclear.
  1. Freebies: In the battle of freebies and cash for votes, which side is showing more “catching” power? Tamil Nadu which usually has a paucity of rains, in election season shows a huge propensity for downpours. This season also, it is raining freebies from all sides. Whether the underprivileged and deprived class cast their vote depending upon the freebies being provided is a question which is unanswered. And there is also the phenomenon of distribution of cash to turn up to vote. Can the distributed cash provided an “aadhaar” proof of vote cast is a big question.
  1. Battle of narratives: On the one side from the DMK front, the narrative built is of a threat perception. Of Tamil Nadu succumbing to the Centre or BJP if the ADMK front is voted to power. On the other side from the ADMK front, it is the threat of handing over TN to one family which has always benefitted whenever it ruled. Between these two narratives – the first pegged around identity politics and weak leadership and the second around nepotism and corruption, which has more potential to gain ground?
  1. Leadership question: The last is the leadership question. This is the full first state election in Tamil Nadu without strong and charismatic leaders in both sides. Between Stalin and Palaniswami, is there a voter preference based on their leadership skills? Or is leadership an issue at all in this election?

All these known unknowns make the upcoming Tamil Nadu elections a tough one to call and a fascinating one for any political observer.  But one thing is clear. The stakes for not losing are quite high for all the main contenders except one. And you know which that one is. And that is a known known.

Graphic courtesy:  The Hindu Business line

“Turmoil” Nadu needs a Naidu!!!

The once prodigious state of Tamil Nadu (TN) has in the past few weeks earned a pitiable sobriquet of “Turmoil Nadu” and not without reason.  The state has been in a state of incapacitation ever since it’s Ex- Chief Minister the late Jayalalitha, was herself bed ridden for multiple health problems around the same time, last year. From then on, TN has been limping from one crisis to another. If it was uncertainty over Jayalalitha’s survival for few months since September, it was the crisis of her death in December for few weeks followed by the now done and dusted Jallikattu controversy in January.

When one thought that “Thai piranthaal Vazhi Pirakkum”, it is was the “Amma” of all leadership wrangles which ensued, resulting in the unceremonious exit of O. Panneer Selvam (OPS) as Chief Minister. The subsequent sentencing of Sasikala, the 24*7 resort drama that followed and the many heart to heart discussions various leaders had with the soul of Jayalalitha at her Samadhi consumed the state for few more weeks till Edapadi Pazhanisamy (EPS) was installed as Chief Minister. When one thought that the worst for the state was over, then came the cancellation of the bye election in R.K. Nagar constituency following brazen distribution of cash even at the peak of Demonetisation!

For political parties, fishing in troubled waters comes easily. BJP at the centre has been no exception in fishing in TN’s muddled waters. With the spectre of a drought looming large, this fishing expeditions so far have not yielded much results. Yet, it has not stopped the BJP from trying. Throwing the hat into the circus ring or rather posturing to throw have been two ageing star actors – Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, who of late have found the voice to raise against the not so new ills of TN. As I write this, it is yet uncertain if these will remain dress rehearsals sans a final stage performance! In the meantime, there has been coming together of the OPS & EPS camps while isolating the Mannargudi camp which has been camping in one of the resorts in Pondichery. Or may be Coorg. Or is it Kerala?  With the judiciary intervening almost on a daily basis on conducting a floor test, on disqualification of the defectors and generally everything, one can be certain that the state is in Coma and governance in suspended animation!

The Tamil Nadu I grew up was never like this. Even today, in spite of the lack of any meaningful governance, the state does still rank high on many social indices. But this is living in past glory and milking the once healthy cow.  The seeds for today’s rot have been systematically sown by the two Dravida parties who have been ruling the state alternatively since the death of MGR. To be fair, till the beginning of this century, things were not bad.  Almost ten years ago, a foreign visitor after visiting few states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, UP, the then AP, and in the end TN asked me why things were looking better in TN compared to the other states. And like all Indians who never say “I don’t know” to any subject on the earth, I gave my own theory. Which was that TN was the only state where the economy was quite balanced between Agriculture (Rice), Manufacturing (Auto, Textiles and small machinery) and Services (SW). Unlike other states even when growing well, the growth was not balanced between the sectors and hence created its own problems. For example, Karnataka had a high share of Services and less of Manufacturing while Punjab had a high share of Agri and Industry but less of Services. But if I look at the statistics today, this is indeed the case for TN and this has certainly ensured a very equitable growth in the state and no other state comes close to this balance.

Again, what TN is today is a result of some far-sighted thinking in the 70’s and 80’s by the then Governments. In the last decade or so, the state has been drifting away. While TN has been sleeping and slipping, the other states have been catching up. And this catching up has happened mainly due to some strong political leadership in each of these states. The neigbouring state of Andhra Pradesh ever since its bifurcation has seen some frenzied action. Both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are fiercely competing today to garner investments. And in the age of competitive federalism, one state’s gain is another state’s loss. When Kia Motors (a subsidiary of Hyundai Motors) decided to set up a new manufacturing facility they opted for Penukonda (Anantapur) in Andhra Pradesh. It is heard that the Chief Minster Chandrababu Naidu took personal effort in bagging the project for his state and ensuring painless and swift land acquisition. In his weekly Swaminomics column, Swaminathan Aiyar once hailed the AP model of land acquisition for developing the capital city of Amaravati as an ideal model for other states to follow. He wrote that “Other states must study Naidu’s example, and adapt pooling for their own use.”

In Telangana, K.T.Rama Rao, its IT minister and son of the Chief Minister, has been in the forefront of attracting investments in the IT sector. In my own resident state Maharashtra, the young and dynamic Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is focused on making Maharashtra the most sought after destination for manufacturing again. And he already has a few early wins. Among his other plans are big bang infrastructure projects like Mumbai – Nagpur Express way,… In Rajasthan, its Chief Minister Vasundara Raje has been the flag bearer for labour reforms for the entire country.

In the midst of such action, what has been TN up to?  Plunged in a serious leadership crisis ever since Jayalalitha went to jail in 2014, TN has been just a torch-bearer for sycophancy saddled between MGR/Amma anachronisms on the one hand and OPS/EPS/TTV acronyms on the other. So, for “Turmoil” Nadu to regain its past glory and become a “Thalai” Nadu once again, its needs a Naidu like leader! ASAP. No, as of yesterday!  Do you have any picks? I have none at the moment.

Cartoon courtesy: Surendran/The Hindu

TN, TINA and the lack of Conscience!!!

In May last year, when Tamil Nadu (TN) was in the throes of election I had written a post titled ‘The NOTA Conundrum’ (read here) where I had said that in TN, people have to make a choice when there is actually none.  Between the 2 leading Dravidian parties namely the DMK and ADMK there has been so little to choose from in the last 2 decades. Both the outfits are bereft of any ideology or ideas, are equally corrupt, excel in competitive “freebieism” and have been consumed by family intrigues – one own and the other extended. In that sense TN has been suffering from “TINA” (There Is No Alternative) syndrome. Since NOTA (None Of The Above) was not an option, the people of TN did make a choice of electing ADMK under the leadership of Jayalalitha. (I hate the Amma, Chinnamma sobriquets).  However it would be a grave mistake to conclude that it was a Jayalalitha wave or a massive mandate for ADMK. In fact analysis (read here) shows that DMK actually pipped ADMK in terms of the “Contested vote share” and was actually weighed down badly by the poor performance of its allies. Be that as it may, unfortunately for TN since the elections and the return of ADMK, it has been bogged down by one crisis after the other – the demise of Jayalalitha, the Wardah cyclone, the Jallikattu ban controversy and now the ongoing reality show of Sasikala trying to usurp the reigns of the state. Governance in TN has been holidaying in some “Bay resort” or recuperating in Apollo Hospital for some time now.

That being the case, the question that begs to be asked is what was the hurry for Sasikala to take over as Chief Minister now? After Jayalalitha’s demise, she was able to smoothly appropriate the reigns of the party and became the General Secretary without much ado. In Panneerselvam (OPS) she had a man who has always been pliable and willing to toe the line as long as his interests are taken care of. So the best option for Sasikala was to follow the “Sonia Gandhi model”. Enjoy authority without responsibility by doing back seat driving of OPS from Poes Garden.  If the Government under OPS did well, Sasikala could have still got the credit diverted to her through her sycophant brigade of MLAs and Ministers. And if things went wrong, OPS could have been made the fall guy. This could have helped in moulding public opinion in her favour as a person who listened to her inner voice and made the sacrifice of not going after power. But all this was not to be.

In a very hurried and ill-advised move just when the state was returning to normal after seemingly scoring a win in the Jallikattu issue, Sasikala decided to ascend the throne by de-seating OPS. OPS after initially playing ball decided to run Sasikala out. After his well-choreographed chat with Amma’s Atma for 40 over minutes (not 5 or 10 mins but 40 which was the time needed for the TV cameras to reach Marina beach from wherever they were) spilled the beans on the machinations of Sasikala. He put paid to her ambitions and her so far crafted public image. From being the natural claimant to Jayalalitha’s legacy just a few weeks back to becoming the Villian No. 1, the descent for Sasikala has been steep.  And OPS morphed to becoming a paragon of virtue. Meme factories the best testimonials so far to the Make in India program aided the transition of OPS from a “starter” to being the “main course”!

What explains this Sasikala camp not following the “Sonia Gandhi model”?

Was it the chase for money? I don’t think so. In fact authority sans responsibility is the best way to get a share of the booty while dodging what our erudite CEA Arvind Subramaniam calls as 4cs – Courts, CVC, CBI and CAG which today torment politicians in power!!!

Could it be the lust for absolute power? That narcissist feeling of seeing your name prefixed with Chief Minister when the opportunity is at striking distance is certainly tempting for anybody. So, this could have been the reason though as per me, the headaches that come along may not be worth it. That too when you can still enjoy the fruits of power by wielding the remote control.

I think that there is more to than meets the eye. It is possible that OPS is in the know of the shenanigans of Sasikala in the last few years. So the most plausible reason could be the insecurity that OPS may let the Govt. machinery have a go at the Mannargudi Mafia as it is called now with the sleight of hand of the centre.  This would pose a 24*7*365 check on her aspirations while giving the impression of her wielding power when she is not.  I conjecture that this could be the reason for Sasikala & Co. in deciding to pull the plug on OPS as CM so early. More time could have only cemented OPS’ position.

What would have been a smooth transition had OPS played his usual submissive self, has turned into a pitch battle now. The “Game of Thrones” is now playing out on our TV screens for the past 1 week putting reality shows to shame.  Herding and hiding of MLA’s in luxury resorts an idea contributed to Indian polity by Chandrababu Naidu I think is past its prime. MLAs one by one jumping ship from Sasikala to OPS on an hourly basis only brings to the fore the need for a “Conscience vote”. In India, the Anti defection law originally meant for stopping the Aaya ram gaya ram politics of the 80’s has put a lid on the conscience vote totally. Today a MLA or an MP has no option but to toe the high command line lest he/she will be disqualified under the Anti Defection law. This has effectively stymied dissent in democracy. Though the lack of conscience vote is not an issue in the ongoing TN saga, I reckon lack of conscience is.

I feel that if our legislators are allowed to vote with their conscience confidentially on all issues may it be related to internal democracy (like electing their leader) or voting on a bill, our country will be a better place. Till such time, those honest people wanting to enter politics may have to wait.

ops-sasiPic Courtesy: Indiatoday.in