A popular thumb rule to understand Tamil Nadu politics is that whenever political parties need a life-saver or a face-saver, electoral alliances are forged at the cost of ideology, principles and stated positions. This rule applies to forging alliances within the state or with national parties since the days of late political stalwarts such as MG Ramachandran (MGR), M Karunanidhi or even Jayalalithaa.
The singular and common feature of these alliances is that both the ruling AIADMK or the principal opposition DMK have not allowed any national party to be the leader of their alliance. Instead, they have forced the aligning parties to accept their leadership.
There are 39 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu and one seat in Puducherry. These seats are crucial for both the BJP and the Congress to conjure up numbers for a comfortable majority to form the next government at the Centre. If they cannot win by themselves, it is important that their allies bag these seats.
Ahead of the DMK’s formal seat-sharing arrangement with the Congress, the ruling AIADMK has taken the lead and announced seat-sharing agreements with the BJP and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). In the 2014 elections, the AIADMK had won 37 seats, while the BJP and the PMK had won one each.
After a gap of five years, the AIADMK is aligning with other parties to face elections because of the vacuum created by the demise of Jayalalithaa, who had notched victories in the 2014 general elections and the 2016 assembly polls by contesting alone.
Today, the AIADMK is more concerned about the survival of the Edappadi K Palaniswami government till the end of its tenure in 2021 than the Lok Sabha polls. Therefore, the PMK is a bigger player for the AIADMK than the BJP.
The AIADMK is beleaguered by internal strife and faces challenge from a rival faction led by TTV Dhinakaran, nephew of the once-powerful Sasikala — aide of late Jayalalithaa. Sasikala is currently serving a term in Bengaluru jail after she was convicted in a disproportionate assets case.
The AIADMK has given only five seats to the BJP but allowed the PMK to contest seven Lok Sabha seats and one Rajya Sabha berth. The AIADMK is expected to contest somewhere between 23 and 25 seats, allowing for the possibility of roping in actor Vijaykanth-led DMDK.
Crucial bypolls a deciding factor
The PMK will support the AIADMK in the bypolls to assembly elections, which are expected to be held alongside the Lok Sabha polls. Chief Minister Palaniswami has to ensure that the AIADMK wins all these seats to survive in office.
Palaniswami has shown political acumen by getting the PMK to not contest these bypolls and instead, support his party. It is a big achievement for the chief minister whose government is surviving on a wafer-thin majority. The AIADMK will have to win five to ten seats or else it might lose power. The PMK is said to have a dedicated vote bank of 5 per cent and can help the AIADMK in a big way in the northern districts.
Of the 21 seats, as many as 18 had fallen vacant following the disqualification of ruling AIADMK MLAs loyal to ousted leader Dhinakaran by the Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker in September 2017, which was upheld by the Madras High Court late last year. The court had also lifted an earlier stay on notifying the seats as vacant. Two other seats are vacant after the death of sitting members — then DMK president M Karunanidhi (Tiruvarur) and AK Bose (Tiruparankundram) — while state minister Balakrishna Reddy representing Hosur constituency was disqualified recently after being sentenced to three-year imprisonment in a criminal case.
Bitter pill for PMK
An alliance with the AIADMK is a bitter pill for the PMK to swallow but nevertheless is needed for its own resurrection. The PMK was mauled in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls as well as in the assembly elections in 2016.
Besides, a Rajya Sabha berth will enable former Union minister Anbumani Ramadoss (son of PMK founder K Ramadoss) earn a ministerial berth in the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government if the BJP forms the next government at the Centre.
The PMK, which commands a following among the Vanniyar community, wields considerable influence in northern districts that make for 17 Lok Sabha seats.
BJP cannot lead from the front in TN
The BJP needed an alliance in Tamil Nadu for the sake of optics to show that Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA is way ahead of the opposition camp in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls. It is no coincidence that the AIADMK’s announcement of an alliance with the PMK first and then with the BJP came a day after the chief of the saffron party, Amit Shah, forged a renewed tie-up with a recalcitrant Shiv Sena.
However, Shah decided to skip the AIADMK-BJP pact ceremony because the BJP was not the leader of the alliance, say local party leaders. Instead, Shah deputed Union minister Piyush Goyal.
The AIADMK was an ally in the first NDA government led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004. The party leaders hope to sell the alliance with the BJP among the rank and file on the plea that the party will find place in the next government at the Centre.
Consequently, the BJP kept up the pressure on Palaniswami and deputy CM O Panneerselvam for sewing up the alliance. The saffron party could not have ploughed a lonely furrow in the state. But AIADMK leaders bluntly told BJP interlocutors that a BJP-led front could not attract smaller parties. Besides, anti-Modi sentiment was strong in the state due to the DMK campaign.
In the run-up to the 2014 polls, Modi had led a BJP front in the state, which had the PMK, Vaiko-led MDMK and Vijaykanth-led DMDK as its partners. The BJP managed to win only one Lok Sabha seat.
AIADMK’s problems with DMDK
Vijaykanth’s DMDK, meanwhile, is playing truant with the AIADMK because it wants more seats than the PMK. Besides, an ailing Vijaykanth is insisting on a Rajya Sabha berth for his wife Premalatha (and not Hemalatha as rendered), who is the real boss of his party. Vijaykanth’s film producer brother-in-law LK Sudhish is another contender for the RS seat.
Vijaykanth’s equation with the BJP is good. Hemalatha is known to top BJP leaders, including Modi, whose good offices may see that the DMDK is ultimately accommodated in the AIADMK-led alliance.
But one thing is clear: whether it is the AIADMK, the PMK, the DMDK or the BJP, an alliance for the Lok Sabha polls is a necessity. Going alone, they risk a mighty fall.
(Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)