Originally Published 2010-01-06 00:00:00 Published on Jan 06, 2010
The DMK's current resurgence had its beginning in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls that the ruling AIDMK-BJP combine lost completely after the negative fallout of the economic and fiscal reforms hit the common man
Repositioning for the 21st century, the DMK experience
The massive margins recorded by Tamil Nadu’s ruling DMK in the December by-elections for the Tiruchendur and Vandavasi-SC Assembly seats – tenth in a row for the combine since the party returned to power in 2006 – should surprise none. Despite heading a single-party, ‘minority’ Government with the support of the Congress ally for the longest term in the country, the DMK hopes that the poll-trend would continue in the Assembly elections next year, possibly with the party obtaining an ‘absolute majority’ on its own. If that happens, or even without that, octogenarian Chief Minister and party president M Karunanidhi can pat himself on the back, for repositioning the party for the 21st century, after the Dravidian socio-economic ideology and governmental programmes deriving from it had rendered them redundant for the new-generation voters under the alternating administrations of the DMK and the breakaway AIADMK since 1967.

The DMK’s current resurgence had its beginning in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls that the ruling AIDMK-BJP combine lost completely after the negative fallout of the economic and fiscal reforms hit the common man, starting with the  19-lakh State Government employees and pensioners, whose families contributed up to a fourth of the four-crore voters in the State. Having learnt its electoral lessons from the ‘anti-people’ fiscal policies of the fourth Karunanidhi Government in the Assembly polls of 2001 that it lost, the DMK, on returning to power five years later, re-oriented State Government policies with a judicious mix of economic reforms aimed at attracting investments and thus creating jobs and mopping higher revenues, and revisited the fiscal reforms agenda of the previous 15 years, to re-introduce social subsidy schemes that were/are otherwise dismissed as ‘populist’.

The economic/fiscal logic of the free-television scheme may still be questionable but the attendant ‘feel-good factor’ attracted rural women voters that the DMK had not been able to garner ever since the late M G Ramachandran (MGR) broke away to float the AIADMK in 1972. Coupled with this were more meaningful schemes such as free-LPG distribution, and the Re 1 rice programme. With the 2011 Assembly polls in mind, the DMK Government has already launched imaginative medi-care schemes such as free health insurance for BPL families and ‘108’ ambulance-on-call service for the rural population. Learning rather belatedly from the mistakes committed by the earlier Karunanidhi regimes of the Seventies where party cadres dictated terms to the officialdom, the DMK State Government has now introduced verifiable official mechanisms for delivering these benefits and following up on them without the latter feeling that they were being harassed (as they felt during 1996-200, when the popular “Farmers’ Market” scheme was launched). Where the party structure is involved, the leadership has ensured that the cadres do not seek to substitute the officialdom in a partisan and haphazard way but only supplement the same.

On the organisational front, DMK leadership has addressed the traditional concerns of the cadres, who felt left out of the bureaucrat-controlled delivery apparatus when the party was in power from 1996-2001. Debunking the old, decentralised mindset of the DMK ‘distribution network’, which also made the rival AIADMK under Chief Minister Jayalalithaa unpopular (2001-06), and possibly taking a leaf out of the MGR experiment (again an extension of the earlier Congress methodology while in power), the current DMK dispensation has found newer avenues for accommodating the cadres without causing eyebrows to rise elsewhere. In doing so, the party has also acknowledged the reality that the new-generation cadres at the grassroots-level would not be hangers-on but would be available to the party only during election time. The revival and re-orientation of the poll management techniques of the party to the Seventies’ level has paid rich dividends in every outing since the 2004 parliamentary elections.

Today, after a series of sweeping poll victories with huge margins, comprising  two rounds of parliamentary polls 2004 and 2009), one for the State Assembly (2006), 10 by-elections and one for local-self governments, the DMK feels more confident than the AIADMK rival or Congress ally. This could mean that  a substantial number of the high 40-45 per cent ‘non-committed voters’ from the Nineties may have become habitual DMK voters, or identified themselves with the DMK-led alliance, or both. It may be too early to dub them a part of the ‘committed DMK vote-bank’.  In the past, the AIADMK with the largest vote-share and the Congress as the ‘deciding factor’ used to be hot favourites for alliance-partners. Today, the DMK may have taken the place of the former after the ‘committed vote-shares’ of the AIADMK and the Congress too fell steeply, but with the respective leaderships not doing enough to revive the cadre-morale or voter-support.

The infant DMDK of actor-politician Vijaykanth, which sought to replace the DMK and the AIADMK at the centre-stage after improving its eight per cent vote-share in the maiden 2006 Assembly poll outing to 10-plus in the parliamentary elections three years later, lost deposit in the two-seat by-elections of December 2009.  It had fared reasonably well and threatened to replace the AIADMK at the number two slot in the five-seat by-election in October, which the AIADMK alliance boycotted, citing the ruling party’s money power and muscle power as the cause. Barring the DMK (1957-62), which came to power in 1967, no other party that had managed a 10-per cent vote-share as a fresher, has survived to win elections and come to power (1967). The pan-Tamil MDMK and pro-Vanniar PMK, though divided at the time, had that kind of combined vote-share in the early Nineties until the TMC of the late G K Moopanar replaced them in the later half. Neither Moopanar, nor TMC is around. The PMK and MDMK are not their original self – and are no more the favourite of anyone for alliance partners. If anything, the MDMK is in the AIADMK combine, not necessarily by the choice of either. The PMK, having been rudely shown the door by the AIADMK, is knocking at the DMK’s doors, but to no avail as yet. The party is hoping that the upcoming Assembly by-election in Pennagaram would help it revive its ‘balancing act’, for the DMK to take it seriously, again.

The common man, enjoying the benefits of focussed social sector programmes and subsidies in the post-reforms era of high costs and expectations on the one hand and low job-rates and family incomes on the other, has no cause to complain. The law and order situation too is satisfactory, though not superb. The voter has no visible cause for dissatisfaction or disaffection, which are the main factors for an ‘anti-incumbency wave’ at election-time, as was witnessed through the Nineties in the State. The May 2009 parliamentary polls demonstrated this factor, when the ‘Sri Lankan issue’ refused to motivate the inward-looking Tamil Nadu voters, whose priorities had taken a U-turn from the days of ideology-based pan-Tamil, Dravidian politics of the 20th century. Despite the high-voltage end-game in the decades-old ethnic war in the island-nation having its violent political reverberations across the Palk Strait, the DMK-Congress combine won 28 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry – that too against what was traditionally considered a strong electoral alliance, whose AIADMK leader too had lent its weight behind other partners in running down the Central and State Governments on the ‘Sri Lankan issue’.

The DMK has won seven and the Congress ally three, in the 10 by-elections held since the Assembly polls of 2006. Of them, a total of four seats were held by AIADMK-MDMK legislators, who chose to quit their seats after crossing over to the DMK – again, a first in Tamil Nadu. With these by-election victories, the DMK has improved its legislative strength from 96 at the time of 2006 poll victory, to 100. The Congress too has improved its off-take from 34 to 36. Whatever be the party’s performance in Elections-2011, the DMK has found a new groove and role for itself, unlike its competitors and compatriots. A combination of laid-back attitude or electoral arrogance or both could still work against the party’s interests – as it did with the AIADMK rival while in power in 1991-06 and the DMK, 1996-2001.  Strong, monolith parties decay from within, as the DMK found it for itself after the second successive electoral defeat of the Congress-O rival under the late K Kamaraj in 1971. In the absence of an ambitious and opportunity-driven second-line, the rival AIADMK has not been able to repair the damage fully after the 1996 poll defeat. The experience of the Congress and the BJP at the national level would show that the exit of a strong and widely acceptable leadership could divide the party from within. In the post-Annadurai DMK, it was but natural that Karunanidhi and MGR had to fall out after the two had joined hands for the former to become Chief Minister with the latter’s support.

The DMK may just be there again, after Chief Minister Karunanidhi began reiterating his desire to exit from leadership positions after the conclusion of the Coimbatore Tamil conference in June 2010. As Deputy Chief Minister, his son M K Stalin is in line to take over from the patriarch. After three-plus decades of sustained work and low-profile presence, both in the party hierarchy and political administration, his all-round acceptance level has improved vastly. While the exit of Karunanidhi could provide adequate space for Stalin to flower as a leader in his own right and expand his acceptance level even more, it has the potential to create a political vacuum in the Opposition bench. The Tamil Nadu voter has been conditioned to equate AIADMK’s Jayalalithaa only with Karunanidhi from within the DMK, and the emergence of Stalin in his place and the demoralisation that has now set in in the AIADMK may contribute to the voter recasting his leadership priorities. Yet, the presence of Karunanidhi’s other son and Union Minister M K Azhagiri, whose contribution to the re-energising of party cadres in a short , cannot be wished away. How the leadership handles the impending transition – as and when it actually happens -- and how this impacts on the political administration, and thus the continued acceptance level of the party at the voter-level, will decide the political future of the DMK more, than external factors. The current re-positioning of the party would have also paid dividends only when the DMK is able to put the ‘transition crisis’, if any, behind it and proceed forward – for others in its place elsewhere in the country to learn from its ways, rather than from its mistakes.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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