Amid COVID-19 health crisis, Tamil Nadu’s ruling party AIADMK is busy in combating the pandemic. However, its opposition DMK is silently indulging in groundwork for the upcoming state elections, evident through their activities shrouded in coronavirus relief measures.
In the initial stages of the pandemic, DMK chief M.K. Stalin called an all-party meeting. It was later done via video conferencing as the state government denied permission for a meeting citing the nature of the disease.
During the meeting with the party’s allies, the DMK passed a resolution urging the government to pay ₹1 crore as compensation to the kin of those who died due to the novel coronavirus in the state.
The drill went on for a while during which Stalin issued statements on lack of PPEs, test kits, and other areas where the state was found wanting.
Stopping at this would have made him just another political leader. The deft DMK chief, on March 30, launched two helpline numbers to allay the fears surrounding COVID-19 and tasked the party’s medical wing with its smooth running.
Let’s come together to feed the hungry
On April 20, the DMK launched its Ondrinaivom Vaa (Let’s come together) campaign to take up COVID-19 relief in a full-fledged manner. The campaign focused on delivering food, providing medical assistance, and arranging transport to the needy in the state.
“The DMK is not only a political party, but also a social movement. It has a long tradition. It is purely a relief measure and there is no political motive behind it,” said Saravanan Annadurai, one of the spokespersons of the party.
It was after DMK’s campaign that Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam came up with a similar initiative Naamey Theervu.
“”Even in the 2015 floods, DMK was on the field. The AIADMK leaders were busy pasting stickers on relief materials. This time, in the first 15 days we expected the government to come out with a concrete action plan. But they did nothing. None of the ministers came to the ground. Then we decided to take up the responsibility. Senior leaders like J. Anbazhagan put in all their efforts in this relief activity. Unfortunately, he too succumbed to the disease. For us, people come first,” said Saravanan.
“It has nothing to do with I-PAC,” said Sarvananan, dismissing the idea that the campaign could be a strategy planned by Prashant Kishor, who joined hands with the DMK as their poll strategist earlier this year.
“He is only an election strategist. None of the members of I-PAC came to the ground to distribute the relief materials. If they did, then you can say it is a strategy of Prashant Kishor. But the relief activities are driven completely by party members from top to bottom. Even in 2015 floods it was the party that took up all the relief activities. That time there was no Prashant Kishor. So why does the question arise now?” asked Saravanan.
Numbers don’t matter
For the past ten years, the state has been under AIADMK rule. Between 2011 and 2020, the party saw many ups and downs, right from the conviction of the party’s then supremo J. Jayalalithaa in the disproportionate assets case, her victory in the elections for a second consecutive term, her demise, the factions formed within the party, to Sasikala’s ousting and her conviction.
Besides infighting, the party has also faced a multitude of problems affecting people such as NEET, hydrocarbon issues, Sterlite imbroglio, Chennai-Salem Eight Lane Expressway, and thr Pollachi sex scandal, among others.
The DMK’s cashing in on these issues bore fruit during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, in which a total of 38 MPs entered Parliament under the DMK-led alliance. Even as the party trailed in the assembly bypolls, it was able to secure a considerable number of seats in the rural local body elections.
Meanwhile, the party has lost three of its MLAs — K.K.P. Samy (Thiruvottiyur) and S. Kathavarayan (Gudiyatham) in February and J. Anbazhagan (Triplicane) on June 10.
Related news: DMK MLA J Anbazhagan succumbs to COVID-19 on birthday
Considering the ongoing health crisis, bypolls and urban local body elections are highly unlikely any soon.
The loss of three MLAs has decreased the strength of DMK in the assembly from 100 to 97.
However, Saravanan seems to be confident that this unprecedented loss would not impact the strength of the party.
“Numbers don’t matter. In a couple of months the term is going to end. So the numbers won’t have any impact,” he said.
Strengthening IT and youth wings
Unlike the ruling party, the DMK has had its presence on social media for many years now. Instead of entrusting the IT wing supervision to cadres, the party has appointed P.T.R. Palanivel Thiagarajan, MLA, as its secretary.
In contrast to the AIADMK’s move of dividing the IT wing into four zones, the DMK has appointed an IT coordinator and two deputy coordinators in all the 65 party districts. It also has a coordinator for every assembly constituency. The average age of most of the office-bearers is between 30 and 35 and they hold a college degree.
“We wanted the IT wing to be spread over in a more granular model, say, till the booth level. We have the rule that a cadre applying to work with the IT wing should be below 35 and should have at least an undergraduate degree. However, in some cases, we gave some relaxation based on their track record. This kind of infrastructure is also a reason for the success of the Ondrinaivom Vaa campaign,” Thiagarajan told The Federal.
On the idea of roping in poll strategist Prashant Kishor to boost the IT wing, he said, “We are bringing complimentary talents to the table. They have experience in many electoral campaigns in many states. But they don’t know about Dravidian history and it’s philosophies. We are strong in that aspect. So we make their experience and our knowledge go hand in hand,” said Thiagarajan.
On the other hand, under the leadership of Udhayanidhi Stalin, fresh blood is infused into the party’s youth wing. The wing organises conferences at regular intervals wherein Dravidian historians and ideologues educate the young minds on the party’s history. It also uses social media via which experts speak on the contribution of the party to the fields of literature, social justice and health.
Federalism, a key strength for DMK
The state is known for its vocal federalism from the times of Dravidian leader C.N. Annadurai. The leaders who came after him like M. Karunanidhi, M.G. Ramachandran, and Jayalalithaa, in some way, have ensured that they would not budge on any Central infringement affecting federalism.
However, the current regime is apparently subservient to the Centre and the perception is that it is unable to put pressure on the Union government even to get its rightful of GST share, among other things.
In case of the New Education Policy that mandated the states to follow the three-language policy, the Edappadi K. Palaniswami-led government first agreed to the Centre’s move and later withdrew its support after facing opposition from the people.
Probably, this is one aspect where DMK chief Stalin fares well. His attempts to make federalism the main focus of governance started in 2018 when the Centre decided to conduct both the Lok Sabha and State assembly elections simultaneously.
During the tenure of the 15th Finance Commission, Stalin had written letters to the chief ministers of non-BJP ruled states asking them to demand modifications to the ‘undemocratic and biased Terms of Reference’ of the Commission.
Recently, he stressed on federalism over the Centre’s Draft Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2020.
“The state autonomy has never been a centre of attraction during election campaigning. It has always remained the party principle. It can help the party build the image, but that doesn’t need to reflect on the ground,” said P. Ramajayam, a well-known psephologist and assistant professor at the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Bharathidasan University, Trichy.
“The state autonomy can be successful, based on the bargaining powers of the state. If DMK projects the lack of bargaining power of the ruling party during its election campaign, then it may bear fruit. Otherwise, we don’t have informed voters who understand federalism,” he added.