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The Continuing Importance of Regional Parties: The View from Tamil Nadu

The results of the 2014 Lok Sabha election in Tamil Nadu showed that regional parties continue to dominate politics in the state.  The headline story is the remarkable victory of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).  The AIADMK won 37 out of 39 seats in the state, beating its rival the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) into second place in terms of vote share.  The BJP alliance won two seats in the state but this was by no means a breakthrough for the Hindu nationalist party.  The outcome of the election is of longer term significance for two reasons.  Firstly, it shows that the regional dynamics of politics was not transformed by the BJP’s attempt to make this a national election.  Secondly, the election confirms the difficulties faced by the DMK.


 AIADMK election poster © Andrew Wyatt

The AIADMK hoped the 2014 election would be the springboard to national power and influence.  The party aimed to win all 39 seats in the state and bargain its way into a coalition.  The ambitions of the party were partly achieved when it received 44.3% of the vote and won 37 seats.  However the remarkable success of the BJP thwarted Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s ambition to wield national influence, and even lead the new coalition government.  Nevertheless the AIADMK won a spectacular victory, the like of which has not been seen since 1980 in Tamil Nadu.  The party may not have won all 39 seats, a feat achieved by the DMK alliance in 2004, but the AIADMK gained nearly all the seats without the support of any significant allies.  The AIADMK defied two opposition alliances and its victory resembled that of MGR in 1980. He faced down a supposedly superior alliance of Congress and the DMK, and the voters returned the AIADMK to the state assembly with a majority of its own.  In 2014 the AIADMK offered the voters an attractive proposition, a chance to vote for a potential Prime Minister who was independent of Congress and the BJP.  Many voters consider the AIADMK has governed well since 2011.  Electricity shortages have not been eliminated but manifesto promises are being implemented. The innovative Amma canteens, offering cheap meals for ordinary people, have been noticed.  These policies are both popular and populist.   The AIADMK also benefited from the ongoing difficulties experienced by its main rival, the DMK.


A wall painting in Chennai depicting M.K. Stalin with his father and DMK leader M. Karunanidhi © Andrew Wyatt

The DMK has been in political difficulties since it was voted out of office in May 2011. Beginning in 2010 the AIADMK campaigned vigorously against the DMK state government, alleging the governing party was corrupt and abusing the powers of office.  The DMK is internally divided over leadership questions.  The Party President, M. Karunanidhi, expressed a wish to retire in 2009 but disagreement over who should succeed him prevented this from happening.  Two of his sons, M.K. Azhagiri and M.K. Stalin, covet the leadership.  An amicable settlement could not be reached and more or less public feuding between the brothers did not improve the image of the party.  Azhagiri lost ground in the party after the 2011 elections.  Stalin’s victory over his brother was confirmed when Azhagiri was suspended from the party in January 2014.  Stalin took a key role in the Lok Sabha election campaign, speaking out against the AIADMK government. A respectable performance by the DMK in the Lok Sabha elections would have boosted the morale of DMK party workers, giving them hope for the 2016 assembly elections.  It would also have enhanced the status of Stalin, setting the stage for his elevation to the post of Party President.  The hoped for rehabilitation of the DMK was dashed when the party secured just 23.6% of the state wide vote and no parliamentary seats.

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Narendra Modi pictured with Superstar Rajnikanth on the front cover of the Tamil Magazine, Junior Vikatan. © Andrew Wyatt

The BJP placed itself in a third front opposed to both the AIADMK and the DMK when it allied with several small and medium sized parties in Tamil Nadu.  These included the DMDK (led by the actor-politician Vijayakanth), the PMK (associated with the Vanniar caste), the MDMK (a splinter from the DMK), and two other caste-based parties.  The DMDK was especially important for the BJP as it helped give the campaign a state wide presence.  The support of the PMK is concentrated in northern Tamil Nadu and the party is seen as a sectional one.  The PMK is rarely far from controversy and since December 2012 it has been strongly criticised for exploiting caste tensions between Dalits and Vanniars in the Dharmapuri district.  The BJP campaigned hard in the state.  Narendra Modi visited the state during the campaign and managed to get the attention of the leading star of Tamil cinema, Rajnikanth.  The ‘endorsement’  of the BJP was somewhat qualified but the photo opportunity was an important one.  Narendra Modi also met with the well-known actor Vijay.  The BJP alliance came third in terms of vote share (17.7%), but unlike the DMK alliance, it managed to concentrate some its vote and win two seats.  However the result did not indicate a BJP breakthrough.  The vote share of the alliance was slightly lower than one would expect given the number and calibre of parties in the alliance (and one would expect the share to have been higher given the BJP had a strong candidate for the Prime Minister). The two seats won by the alliance were exceptional.  The BJP victory in Kanniyakumari has logic to it. The district is exceptional in the state. The BJP had already won 33% of the vote in 2009 and with its allies its share of the vote went up to 38%. Unlike the rest of Tamil Nadu the BJP has a strong local following in Kanniyakumari.  Hindu nationalist organisations have been very active there since the early 1980s.  The very visible presence of Christians in the district makes Hindu nationalist claims about minorities more plausible.  The other alliance seat went to the PMK in the sensitive Dharmapuri constituency.  The party made much of its caste allegiance and poured resources into the constituency.  Still, the BJP alliance was able to take something from the 2014 elections. The new MP from Kanniyakumari, Pon Radhakrishnan, was rewarded with a cabinet post in the new government, keeping Tamil Nadu represented in government.

The BJP’s outright majority on May 16 was a great surprise to many.  The BJP is in a powerful position and it has not given many cabinet seats to its allies. It would be easy to conclude the regional parties had been eclipsed and their role as kingmakers in national coalitions is over.  However regional parties remain vitally important in Indian politics.  The BJP needed the support of regional allies in states like Maharashtra, Bihar and Punjab to get its majority.  In the south and east of India the electoral geography of India did not change much in 2014.  These are still areas where the BJP is weak and cannot make much progress without its allies.  The BJP did not breakthrough in Tamil Nadu in 2014.  The victory of the AIADMK was striking and positions it well for the 2016 assembly election.  The DMK’s difficulties have not eased. If anything they have deepened. The party, like many others, relies on dynastic leadership which cannot be changed easily.

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

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