There has been a systematic attempt in the media, propped up by the ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, that there is no anti-incumbency factor against chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and that he has considerably gained in stature since 2017. Most opinion polls by national and state agencies for upcountry and local TV channels besides magazines indicate that the support for Palaniswami as chief minister is just about 30 to 35 per cent, which is more or less the same as the projected combined votes for the AIADMK-BJP-PMK front. This means there is no real push in favour of Palaniswami as an individual or in other words, any other CM candidate of the front would secure about the same rating.
If these opinion polls are right, the anti-incumbency factor against Palaniswami could be as high as 20 per cent or at least 15 per cent if you want to be generous as compared to the 2016 vote share of 41 per cent secured by the AIADMK on its own. If the vote percentages of the PMK, BJP, TMC etc. are added to the 2016 vote, the AIADMK should bag at least 50 per cent of the votes. However, the average projection of 30 per cent in 2021 indicates a sharp fall of 20 per cent.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the AIADMK netted just 18 per cent. AIADMK poll managers refer to the 38 per cent vote share in the 22 Assembly by-polls but there are two factors to be borne in mind here – the extra effort put in by the AIADMK for the by-elections as compared to the Lok Sabha seats, and that this was still 12 per cent short of the 2016 vote percentage.
The Poll of Polls compiled from the opinion polls done by various agencies would put the AIADMK front vote-share as 30 per cent which is more or less the same as what the combine secured in the Lok Sabha polls in the state.
The swing against the AIADMK as compared to 2016 ranges from 15 to 20 per cent as per these surveys. This is a huge number. If the results hold good as per these surveys, the AIADMK-led front could be heading for another defeat, and stares at the prospect of loss of power.
Is Stalin better off? Not exactly, say opinion polls
What about the DMK president MK Stalin’s ratings to increase his prospects of being the CM? Most of the opinion polls give Stalin a rating of 40 to 45 per cent, which again is not saying much as the combined strength of the DMK-led front (DMK with Congress 39.9 per cent in 2016 plus the votes of CPI, CPM, MDMK and VCK who contested as part of the Makkal Nala Koottani, a third front) should come close to 45 per cent. Thus, there is no real appreciation for Stalin in terms of individual approval ratings beyond the party lines.
While it is true that Stalin is the tallest leader in the state at the moment where there is no Karunanidhi or Jayalalithaa to lead their respective parties, one is yet to see the numbers go past the support of political parties to the DMK. In fact, the combined votes of the DMK-led front despite the entry of several parties since the 2016 polls are more or less the same as seen in the Assembly by-polls of 2019 (around 45 per cent).
The real test of popularity as far as an individual is concerned is to check ratings outside the fold of a party. The ratings secured by Kamal Haasan, Dinakaran and Seeman may appear small but the support for the likes of Palaniswami, O Panneerselvam etc may hover around the same mark as Kamal Haasan if they were not part of an established party like the AIADMK or the DMK, and floated parties of their own.
DMK, AIADMK’s loss, AMMK’s profit
Which brings us to the real question? If the AIADMK suffers a loss and there is real anti-incumbency of 15 to 20 per cent, where are these votes going? The trend of the opinion polls of 2019 show that there is a drop of 15 to 20 per cent in the AIADMK vote-share, but this is not getting transferred to the DMK-led front by and large. These votes seem to be going to the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) formed by TTV Dinakaran, nephew of VK Sasikala, former aide of Jayalalithaa. Although Sasikala and members of her party have been kept out of the party by Palaniswami and co., and though its family members are still under a cloud due to a plethora of cases against them, the AMMK could poll anywhere from 5 to 7 per cent (the vote-share being 10 to 20 per cent in some constituencies of the southern districts), the Kamal Haasan-led Makkal Needhi Maiam around 5 per cent, a marginal increase of actor Seeman’s Naam Tamizhar Katchi (NTK). There could also be a factor of some women voters in particular not keen on voting for anyone in the absence of Jayalalithaa.
Although these opinion polls do not indicate any significant shift in pro-AIADMK votes of 2016 towards the DMK-led combine in 2021, the anti-incumbency factor as far as Palaniswami and the AIADMK are concerned is too large for the party managers to gloss over. A mere publicity blitz, involving payments worth several hundred crores towards media advertisements from the Tamil Nadu Government exchequer and party funds, is not enough to build an image for an individual, however high he or she may be placed. If the opinion polls hold water, the voters may send the message that Palaniswami is no MGR or Jayalalithaa who could attract votes beyond party lines.
On the other hand, AIADMK managers, clutching on to some opinion polls done by a few other agencies with little credibility, still believe the party and Palaniswami have done enough to retain power. EPS has to climb this huge mountain of anti-incumbency factor, around 15 per cent, in order to succeed. (That is why his government had come out with offers of freebies like washing machines, six gas cylinders etc free of cost, besides doles of ₹1,500 per month to home-makers).
The exit polls on April 29 evening may provide the first clue.