With the dust finally settling on one of the longest poll campaigns in Tamil Nadu, no clear picture has emerged, so far—this is despite some media surveys predicting a comfortable win for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam led by opposition leader M. Stalin. Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, popularly known as EPS, insists in a voice that has turned hoarse after high-decibel electioneering across the state that people want him back.
When the votes are counted almost a month later, on May 2, the victor could, at least, heave a sigh of relief for all the hard work did not go waste. The vanquished would bemoan that all those hard punches, some of them pretty below the belt, did not land well. The nail-biting finish would be long remembered for the mausoleums it left behind.
The outcome must also interest the BJP watchers, as the party projected this campaign as the launch of its power bid in 2026—a hugely ambitious target considering there’s barely a sprinkle of saffron in the hard-core Dravidian state, as of now. But then, the target though tough is not impossible; in fact, the political turf is most fertile for a fresh crop as both the ruling AIADMK and the rival DMK have taken a hit after the demise of their charismatic leaders, J. Jayalalithaa and M. Karunanidhi, and could sink deeper should this April 6 poll deliver a fractured verdict.
What BJP can do now
But to get anywhere close to that distant goalpost, the Parivar would have to majorly rejig its Tamil Nadu strategy and start devising tools to ‘Dravidianise’ itself rather than try converting people to think-speak-act the ‘Northerner way’. The electorate has been nurtured on anti-Hindi and anti-North sentiment ever since the DMK founder, the late C. N. Annadurai (Anna to his followers), demolished the Congress party in the 1967 state elections.
To start with, they could substitute ‘ji’ with ‘thiru’/ ‘thirumathi’ (respectful prefix to any male/female name). And, they could start encouraging party leaders in the state to grow nationally instead of having ‘outsiders’ boss over them. The example of the Congress leadership stagnating due to the suicidal flaw of Indira Gandhi who did not allow regional leaders to grow must not be lost on the present-day political strategists.
“Where was the need to import all those leaders from the North to campaign here? They could speak only in Hindi and that further helped the DMK propaganda that we are out to impose Hindi on the Tamil people,” rued a state BJP senior seeking anonymity.
The ‘Dravidian’ ferocity witnessed during the ‘Go Back Modi’ demonstrations in the earlier trips of the Prime Minister to Tamil Nadu was not seen this campaign season. But it’s still a long, arduous journey and would require some intelligent navigation to win the Tamil hearts in time for the next state polls—they may take place sooner than five years if the PM’s prescription of ‘one nation, one election’ is pushed through.
Fierce campaigning, some desperate moves
Back to the present day. The final hours of the fierce campaigning saw some very desperate manoeuvres and deafening howlers from the rival camps. The loudest of all was the ‘leak’ of an email purportedly sent from Prashant Kishor’s I-PAC, the strategy consultant for DMK chief Stalin. The mail was supposedly sent by an Anant Tiwari and addressed to “Dear Mr Stalin”, informing him “with deep regret” that the DMK was “on the verge of losing the TN Battle” because women voters were furious after Raja (former Union Minister from the DMK) spoke ill of chief minister Palaniswami’s mother, and its social media impact “is now far beyond repair”. “PK was on a long call with me after he saw TN CM’s emotional break-down on TV, one of his yatras earlier this evening… All our efforts with friends for favourable Opinion Poll outcomes have gone to drains just because of such loose statements made by your leaders”.
I-PAC (Indian Political Action Committee) lost no time in tweeting denial. “Disgusting to see a ruling party @AIADMKOfficial circulating a fake email to support their false propaganda. Reeks of desperation,” said Prashant Kishor’s team. Incidentally, it turned out that Anant Tiwari is in the HR section of the I-PAC and has never been part of the campaign team.
And, there was a ‘matching’ mail too, allegedly from Sunil Kanugolu of the Mindshare, the AIADMK’s strategy consultant, addressed to CM Palaniswami, regretting that the “battle is lost despite best efforts” as the “ground has worsened after the campaigning of the BJP”. “We also tried email propaganda but it didn’t work becas BJP tried the same trick in West Bengal. Tamil Nadu people are well aware of these gimmicks. Unfortunately, our last weapon also failed miserably”. I did not find any ‘formal’ denial from the consultant firm despite repeated attempts.
But what I did find, rather huge and jarring, was a four-page ‘advertorial’ in several newspapers on Sunday, cautioning the electorate of the ‘bad’ things that had happened during the DMK regime in the past, ‘lest you forget’. Newspapers usually carry such stuff in the tiniest of print to stay true to their conscience while obliging the client’s demand that the matter must read as ‘authentic news’ and not paid advertisement; but in this case, there were no such disclaimers.
Apart from keeping the social media pot burning 24×7, the rival fronts also had their star speakers spit fire at the opponent over a variety of issues and non-issues. One favourite weapon of the AIADMK speakers was to scare the electorate, particularly women, about the law and order situation if the DMK came to power. Stalin’s campaign retort, which he repeated at a gathering of first-time voters for a show by Sun TV, owned by cousin Kalanithi Maran, was he would provide a clean administration, safe environment and greater opportunities for the youth. The BJP on the other hand, he said, in its hurry to add political muscle has enrolled several ‘rowdies’ as party members. The memory of the Pollachi sexual assault and extortion case, wherein accused allegedly had links with the AIADMK, is still fresh in the minds of the people.
Amid all this serious sabre-rattling, the DMK’s crown prince, Udhayanidhi Stalin, stole the show for a while with a brick. He told the crowd he had taken the brick from the AIIMS site at Madurai because that’s all he could find when he went looking for the promised hospital, on which the Centre had already spent crores. “I took away the brick and they are searching for it in Madurai,” he declared laughing. Stalin junior ended up facing a BJP worker’s complaint, seeking action under Section 380 of the IPC (theft in a building).
Tapping the young Tamil
Nearly 22 per cent of the 6.26 crore voters in Tamil Nadu are in the 18-29 year age group, and in a closely fought election, they may well decide the winner as they are generally expected to be guided by issues and their merit while making a choice rather than blindly voting for staid party loyalty. A big lot among this young segment could be first-time voters, who are not sensitive, in a political sense, to the ‘grandeur’ of Jayalalithaa or Karunanidhi; and in their absence now, might just want to replay a poll speech of actor-politician Kamal Haasan or pro-LTTE rabble-rouser Seeman. While most pollsters say it would be interesting to see who suffers more, the DMK or the AIADMK, without these ‘young’ votes, I have an interesting theory to offer.
The strategy planners in the DMK seem to have drawn inspiration from the groundswell of support for the Jallikattu protest on the Marina (January 2017) after the social media spewed anger at alleged interference from the rulers in Delhi to halt the Tamils’ traditional bull-taming sport. The apolitical-uninitiated IT pro grabbed their backpack and walked out of the air-conditioned cubicle, picked up their partner and kid from home to rush to the seashore rally that already had thousands like them singing praises of the Tamil tradition and directing anger at the interventionists. Their team manager and family had turned up too; a stranger offered free sandwiches, biscuits and water packets.
The DMK campaign had focused hugely on the post-Jayalalithaa AIADMK playing ‘slave’ to the Delhi ‘bosses’; much of its podium rhetoric and social media play have been driven by it—a vote for the AIADMK is a vote for the BJP and that would ultimately bring in ‘alien’ control.
Ironically, the Modi government had pushed files, full-throttle, through multiple ministries to overcome the court ban on Jallikattu and let the decorated bulls run the ring; but the BJP failed, or felt shy, to scream credit for it.