In February 2004, when the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) walked out of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the late leader of the Dravidian party, M Karunanidhi, had declared that the DMK “will never return to an alliance with the BJP.”
Having been part of the NDA government between 1999 and 2004, the DMK lost the 2001 Assembly elections to the late J Jayalalithaa, who had formed an alliance with the Congress and other smaller regional parties, like the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK).
The defeat was seen as the price the DMK paid for being with the BJP and allowing all other “secular” political forces in Tamil Nadu to unite under J Jayalalithaa.
A backlash from the minorities, spread out across the state, is one reason that the alliance with the BJP cost the DMK the elections. Since then, the DMK has been firmly with the Congress and won both the 2004 and 2009 parliamentary elections.
DMK-Congress Alliance: a Time-tested Pact
However, the two parties ostensibly parted ways after the 2G scam and contested the 2014 parliamentary polls independently – to be routed with not a single seat and an abysmal joint vote share of less than 30 percent. This was the worst ever performance by both these parties.
Despite such a massive defeat, the DMK and the Congress came back together in the 2016 Assembly elections. Though they recovered from the nadir in 2014 and polled close to 39 percent vote, they lost a close election to J Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, who fought without any major alliance and polled 41 percent to win a majority of seats in the state Assembly.
This reiterates that firstly, the two sides have been consistently together over the last 15 years and hence can argue that it is not an alliance of convenience. Secondly, over the years, they have nurtured a grassroots arithmetic and chemistry to put up a cohesive fight in 2019.
Post Jaya, a Weak AIADMK?
On the other hand, the late Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK, which was in power in Tamil Nadu, had allied with the BJP in the 2004 parliamentary elections to be routed with not a single seat. Since then, Jayalalithaaa herself clearly avoided any open alliance with the BJP, at the state or central level.
She had learnt the same lesson the DMK learned in 2001 – aligning with the BJP does not offer electoral dividends in Tamil Nadu.
In 2014, despite her ostensible friendship with Narendra Modi, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK fought the elections on its own to win 37 of the 39 seats in the state. The fact that she refused to share a truck with the BJP was based on the electoral realities of Tamil Nadu.
However, the AIADMK, split into factions, seems to have depended heavily on the support of the Centre to continue in power and hence has formed an alliance with the BJP.
Further, the PMK, which has joined the AIADMK alliance, had been severely critical of the ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and had consistently accused it of corruption and inefficiency. The PMK leadership had used acerbic language in attacking the AIADMK and there is anger amongst the AIADMK cadre.
Such a history also leaves the alliance open to sharp criticism that it is one of compulsion and not cohesive.
DMK-Congress Alliance the Strongest in TN?
This is why the DMK-Congress combine may have an edge. In terms of arithmetic, too, the Congress has a 5 to 6 percent vote spread out across the state and hence is an ally that can bolster the DMK all across. In fact, historically, barring one or two exceptions, the Congress has been seen as a force that could tilt the balance in favour of one of the two Dravidian parties in a head-on battle. This is true since the 1970s.
On the other hand, the BJP has only a pocketed presence in two or three constituencies and the PMK is concentrated in about eight constituencies in Northern Tamil Nadu. This leaves the battle in a majority of constituencies as one between the AIADMK alone and the DMK –Congress combine.
2019: A Make or Break for the DMK
The one crucial question before the DMK is: does it have the same strength as it did under M Karunanidhi? While there has not been any major split in the party or rebellion against MK Stalin, this election – the first in the absence of Karunanidhi – will test Stalin’s leadership.
His elder brother MK Azhagiri is the only one who has thrown a challenge, but Azhagiri is not seen as a mass leader. His influence is restricted to only the Madurai constituency and even here the cadre is firmly with Stalin and the DMK.
A poor performance in 2019 may change that, but at the moment, the DMK seems much less weakened after M Karunanidhi than the AIADMK is without J Jayalalithaa.
In this backdrop, 2019 is not just a parliamentary election in the state, but one that will decide if the ruling AIADMK dispensation can survive. By-elections for 21 Assembly constituencies are expected to be held with the Lok Sabha polls and if the DMK can wrest all of it, it would have the numbers to form a government in the state.
Finally, Tamil Nadu is no stranger to decisive results in favour of one side and the DMK is hoping the winner will take it all. An adverse result will put Stalin and the party’s future and stature in jeopardy.
(The writer is an independent journalist. He can be reached @TMVRaghav. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)