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Tamil Nadu: The Southern Crucible


Tamil Nadu has become an important state in national politics since the onset of national coalition governments in 1996. Regional parties from the state have participated in all coalitions formed since then. For nearly fifty years Tamil Nadu has been governed by parties that claim the state has a distinctive south Indian or ‘Dravidian’ culture.  Two large parties, the DMK and the AIADMK, claim this Dravidian heritage.  Crucially, neither of these two parties has a pre-election agreement with a national party.  The 2014 elections in Tamil Nadu are full of interest. The bipolar alliance structure normally seen in state politics has broken down (political scientists will be keen to understand this deviation from theory). The contest between the DMK and the AIADMK is being fought with the usual vigour.  A number of other parties are contesting adding to the uncertainty. The state has 39 constituencies and even a handful of these legislators might be enough to take a coalition past the 272 mark needed to form a majority coalition government.

The national parties do not have much support in Tamil Nadu. Congress has the support of about 8% of the electorate in the state.  The BJP won a meagre 2.3% of the vote in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. The Congress dominated state politics in the 1950s and 1960s but a historic state election victory in 1967 allowed the DMK into government.  The Congress Party in Tamil Nadu was mortally wounded in the 1970s when a second Dravidian party, the AIADMK, was formed. The leader of the AIADMK, the filmstar-politician MGR, persuaded poorer voters to leave Congress, arguing that he could do more to protect them.  The ideology of Hindu nationalism has never captured the imagination of voters in the state, preventing the BJP from getting established in the state.  That said, in Lok Sabha elections parties that look able to form a national government attract a little more interest among voters in Tamil Nadu. Given that national parties will lead the government there is more reason to vote for them, especially if they are in an alliance with regional parties from Tamil Nadu.  In most recent elections the contest has been fought out by two main alliances, each led by one of the Dravidian parties.

Yet, the Dravidian parties have not been able to dominate state politics as they would have liked.  A lot of smaller parties have formed since 1987.  Some of these ‘new’ parties are splinters that have broken off from the DMK or the AIADMK.  Others are parties claiming to represent the interests of an influential caste group.  Most of these parties follow a set path into politics.  They begin by denouncing the Dravidian parties for overlooking community X, contest an election independently, and having established the size of their electoral following (or ‘vote bank’) bargain their way into an electoral alliance (headed by a Dravidian party).  There are plenty of small parties, which have the support of about 25% of the electorate, who can be brought (or bought) into an electoral alliance.  The more important of these parties are: the DMDK (an imitation Dravidian party led by the actor-politician Vijayakanth), the PMK (a party of the Vanniar caste group), the MDMK (a splinter of the DMK claiming to represent true Dravidian ideology), the VCK (a Dalit party strongest in northern Tamil Nadu) and the PT (a Dalit party notable in southern Tamil Nadu).  India’s two main communist parties, the CPI and the CPI(M) also have a small following in the state.

As Duverger’s Law predicts the plurality electoral system gives the parties in Tamil Nadu an incentive to ally so they can beat their opponents.  In Tamil Nadu the logic usually plays out so that almost all parties join one of two alliances, sharing the 39 constituencies between alliance partners.  The harsh logic of the simple plurality system means that smaller parties outside an alliance will win nothing.  Or indeed a larger party with insufficient allies can be humiliated.  Precisely this happened in 2004 when the DMK pulled most of the smaller parties into its alliance.  The BJP and the AIADMK were routed as the DMK alliance won all 39 seats.  The 2014 elections in Tamil Nadu are even more interesting than usual because alliance formation did not follow the usual pattern.  Instead of two evenly matched alliances there are three main alliances.  On top of this the Congress party is contesting without allies, the Communist parties do not have a major ally, and the Aam Admi Party is making its debut in the state.  The strategic calculations of the main parties in Tamil Nadu have contradicted Duverger’s Law in 2014.

J. Jayalalithaa, the leader of the AIADMK and current Chief Minister of Tamil, made an important strategic calculation and decided not to form an alliance.  Her party won the 2011 state assembly election by a good margin.  Jayalalithaa denounced the DMK as highhanded and corrupt in 2011, and many voters concurred with this sentiment.  Jayalalithaa calculated that with the DMK divided and demoralised it would be easy to defeat again, and decided not to waste seats on junior allies.  Furthermore Jayalalithaa judged the national outcome of the 2014 election would be finely balanced giving the regional parties more importance than usual. Congress was expected to lose seats, and the BJP was not expected to advance that much.  The party had been in the doldrums since its defeat in 2004.  The nomination of Narendra Modi as BJP Prime Ministerial candidate in 2013, a polarising figure, seemed to confirm this expectation.  Jayalalithaa concluded a rewarding alliance with a national party could be formed after the elections.  So the AIAMK is contesting all 39 seats.

For its part the DMK would have liked to have an alliance capable of overwhelming the AIADMK, but it could only get the support a few smaller parties (the PT, the VCK and two Muslim parties).  The DMK allied with Congress in 2004 and was a stalwart of the UPA government from that point.  However relations between the parties became awkward from 2011 onwards.  The Party President, M. Karunanidhi was outraged by the arrest and detention of his daughter Kanimozhi on corruption charges in 2011.  He claimed the case was politically motivated.  Party members felt Congress wanted to tarnish the reputation of the DMK and keep it in a subordinate position.  Curiously the DMK waited until early 2013 to break its alliance with Congress.  The reason given was that the Congress government was not doing enough to support the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. The logic of Tamil solidarity did not apply to the DMK alliance with Congress during the 2009 election when the Sri Lankan civil war was brought to a brutal end.  The Congress-led UPA government, which included the DMK, had an ambiguous role in these events.  In 2013 the DMK leadership took a different view.  It was felt Congress might be an electoral liability in the 2014 elections, and the DMK should keep its options open.  It could always change its mind and return to Congress (before or after the election).  The uncertainty would increase the bargaining power of the DMK.  Either way Congress would be taught not to take its DMK ally for granted.   The DMK hoped to add quite a few smaller more allies to its coalition.  Some joined the DMK, but several others preferred the BJP.  The DMK calculates that even with a modest alliance it can win some seats and potentially join a national coalition after the election. The DMK has candidates in 34 out of 39 constituencies.



Picture: A leaflet promoting the BJP alliance in Tamil Nadu

The formation of a BJP ‘third front’ in Tamil Nadu was a surprise outcome.  As the profile of Narendra Modi increased as the campaign progressed, a number of smaller parties began negotiating with the BJP.  The BJP agreed to be the ‘junior’ partner in the state, accepting that most seats will be contested by its allies. The smaller parties get a fillip from the connection with a national party.  Modi is a well known figure in the state and he has taken care to spend time in Tamil Nadu giving speeches and meeting film stars. The DMDK (with about 10% of the vote) and the PMK (with about 4% of the vote) give the alliance a respectable presence across the state.  The BJP will contest seven out of 39 seats in Tamil Nadu.

Congress is in a difficult position in Tamil Nadu 2014.  It has no significant allies and just a few pockets of regionally concentrated support.  It is hard to see Congress winning even a single seat.  Yet it has to contest a large number of seats in Tamil Nadu to maintain its credibility as a party in the state.  Much the same can be said about the Communist parties in Tamil Nadu this year.  The Aam Admi Party has added interest to the election in Tamil Nadu.  Their leading candidate, S.P. Udayakumar, earned national fame for his part in the campaign against the Kudankulam nuclear power station.  He is standing in the Kanyakumari constituency close to the reactor.

The state of Tamil Nadu will probably be critical to the outcome of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.  Most of the 39 MPs elected from Tamil Nadu will not have a prior commitment to a national coalition. The regional parties that dominate Tamil Nadu are ideologically flexible and have offered support to coalitions formed by both Congress and the BJP since 1998. A group of regional parties, that will include either the DMK or the AIADMK, will be the kingmakers that install a coalition government in May. The AIADMK and the DMK are waiting to see how the election turns out on May 16.   Only then will one of those parties bargain its way into a coalition. 


Andrew Wyatt lectures in Indian politics at the University of Bristol. He is the author of Party System Change in South India, Routledge, 2009.

Published inIndia Votes 2014

One Comment

  1. A nostalgic moment when seen your post and that bright colored poster about the alliance. Why not a follow up article from about this little further.

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