Pre-poll posturing by small parties spoils alliance talks in TN

Tamil Nadu, Elections, Rajya Sabha, Upper House, Lower House, Lok Sabha elections, AIADMK, DMK
The PMK allied with the AIADMK for seven Lok Sabha seats and the promise of a future Rajya Sabha seat. PTI

They were the belles of the ball in Tamil Nadu over the past week: everyone wanted a dance with the PMK and the DMDK while others queued up and glanced across the room, hoping for the next dance.

Scratch that: the PMK and the DMDK’s actions do not resemble those of the stereotypical belle. Instead, they have been actively courted for their brashness and their ability to punch above their weight during alliance formation talks.

Setting the tone

In a way, the PMK set the tone. The party kept channels of communication open with both the AIADMK and the DMK-led alliances; Anbumani Ramadoss, the former Union minister and son of party founder S Ramadoss, reportedly favoured a tie-up with the DMK. The PMK’s demands were reportedly so steep that the BJP, which attempted to project itself as the leader of the alliance, had to hand over the responsibility to the AIADMK.

In the end, father Ramadoss prevailed and the PMK allied with the AIADMK for seven Lok Sabha seats and the promise of a future Rajya Sabha seat.

The PMK had just walked away with two seats more than the maximum it had won at a time in any Lok Sabha election. The deal came at a cost though: it has made things difficult for both the AIADMK and DMK-led alliances.

Merely entertaining the PMK meant that the DMK would be in firefighting mode all week. The VCK, a party that has its base among Dalit voters, threatened to quit the alliance in protest; there were even reports that VCK founder Thol Thirumavalavan had opened alliance talks with the political party run by VK Sasikala’s relative TTV Dhinakaran.

Vanniyars, which comprise the base of the PMK, often find themselves in conflict with dalits. As a result, the VCK and PMK find themselves in direct competition across multiple Lok Sabha constituencies of northern Tamil Nadu.

As a result, the VCK — which has been part of the DMK team for over two years — is yet to sign a seat-sharing deal despite multiple rounds of talks. On February 23, Thirumavalavan publicly indicated a preference to contest from the Chidambaram constituency and said that talks will go on for two more days.

By disappointing the VCK, DMK president MK Stalin also risked alienating both the CPI-M and the CPI, who work closely with the VCK. The Left parties too, are yet to conclude a seat-sharing deal with the DMK.

Effect on DMDK

What has been far more devastating has been the effect the PMK’s eventual deal had on the DMDK. After being part of the NDA in 2014, DMDK founder Vijayakant’s wife, Premalatha, now treasurer of the party, had alleged that the PMK had worked against her party by citing PMK founder S Ramadoss’ statement that he had voted for NOTA in a constituency where the DMDK had fielded its candidate.

The DMDK – which had been in talks to join the AIADMK-led alliance – rebelled, and how. On February 25, BJP national president Amit Shah was forced to cancel a trip to Chennai, presumably to announce a seat-sharing deal that included the DMDK. The DMDK – which has never won a Lok Sabha seat – wanted to be considered as important as the PMK and be allocated at least seven seats; the BJP had been offering it four.

On Monday evening, the video footage of Union minister Piyush Goyal – seen outside Vijayakant’s house with the DMDK founder’s brother-in-law L K Sudheesh – went viral. A bangled hand gesticulated from within the house occasionally but Goyal and Sudheesh stood on their own on the porch, deep in conversation. At one point, P Muralidhar Rao – the national general secretary of the BJP in charge of Tamil Nadu – joined them, gently squeezing Sudheesh’s upper arm.

Goyal would leave without acknowledging seat-sharing talks with the DMDK. Over the course of the next four days, the excuse he would utter to justify his visit was repeated by three other prominent individuals who visited Vijayakant at his home: former state Congress president Su. Thirunavukkarasar, actor Rajinikanth and Stalin. All the three said they were merely enquiring after Vijayakant’s health. The actor and DMDK founder recently returned from the United States after being treated for a kidney dysfunction.

Stalin would even refuse to rule out the possibility of including the DMDK in the DMK-led alliance. In all likelihood, that would mean that the DMK contests less than half of the 40 seats on offer across Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. Meanwhile, the DMDK has gone ahead and asked its members to apply to be considered as candidates across all 40 constituencies.

Tough stance

That other parties in the state are surprised about DMDK’s tough stance: its ideology – agnosticism has given the DMDK a certain flexibility that makes it a tough pre-poll partner with a penchant for making last-minute decisions.

Ahead of the 2011 elections to the state assembly, the DMDK went along with the AIADMK but only after considering becoming the leader of a third front. The party fought the 2014 elections as part of the NDA but held pre-poll talks with the DMK. At one point, frustrated that negotiations with the BJP were not going his way – especially after noting that the PMK had been given 10 seats – Vijayakant went ahead and announced the names of five DMDK candidates unilaterally.

Come the 2016 assembly elections, the DMDK opened seat-sharing talks with the DMK as well as the BJP before announcing that it would fight the elections alone. However, it later allied with the People’s Welfare Front – an alliance of small parties that were attempting to build a third front in the state – and became its leader.

The PMK and the DMDK’s situation is in stark contrast to the BJP’s, which had to settle for far less than it hoped: it wanted at least eight but the AIADMK would only let it have five seats. It also flows from the differences in these parties’ strategies: while the PMK and DMDK hopes that such display of strength will keep their cadre happy, the BJP is hoping that by keeping its allies happy, it can walk away with more wins from Tamil Nadu.

At the end of the day, this flexing of muscle is the strategy. The PMK needs to signal to its cadre that it is big enough to go toe-to-toe with bigger parties. For the DMDK, it is a signal to its members about how robust the party is despite its founder’s poor health. It was articulated by Vijayakant’s son Vijay Prabhakar at a political rally on Friday. “The lion will remain a lion even from its den,” he said, referring to his father’s lack of public appearances.