Read voters’ mind

Anger against corruption is now back on the national agenda thanks to Tamil Nadu Assembly results. This state has been decisively voting against corruption over the last several decades. The defeat of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 2011 is comparable only to that of the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in 1996.

Since the state does not have a credible third alternative (same problem as in national politics), the electorate here always has a Hobson’s choice between the DMK and the AIADMK.
The anger of the electorate over corruption had been simmering for quite some time. Corruption did not mean only the 2G spectrum. Every district had a DMK satrap whose family controlled the district. They had become like traditional polegars (palayakkaarans in Tamil) who had the autonomy over their region and had to pay the kisti to the king (read Karunanidhi) at the headquarters where the first family, including the first cousins, dabbled in all fields from sand quarrying to real estate to mega movies where moolah was waiting to be extracted.
The 2G spectrum was actually the last straw on the camel’s back. The massive turnout in cities was prompted by the disgust over spectrum among the new generation voters and the educated sections. In small towns and villages poor women were angry that they were getting ruined by government-run liquor shops turning their men into alcoholics and lazy, thanks to the freebies.
A significant though not a big factor that went unnoticed by the national media was the intense campaign against the DMK and the Congress over the Eelam issue. Fringe and marginal Tamil groups led by film personality Seeman carried on a consistent campaign against all Congress candidates holding the Congress regime at the Centre responsible for the slaughter of millions of Tamils in the Eelam final war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Rajapakse government. The price rise and power cuts were other factors that strengthened the anti-incumbency mood. Corruption became the overall motif to despise the DMK regime.
The DMK and the Congress were partners in mutual hate. The Congress youth wing was angry that the DMK has tainted the entire alliance as corrupt thanks to spectrum. The DMK was angry that the Congress, which till yesterday was a pliant ally, was now an arm- twisting bully. It was a déjà vu of 1980 when a similar alliance between the DMK and the Congress to fight M.G. Ramachandran fell flat as neither the DMK cadres nor the Congress voters were comfortable about the alliance.
The Congress made the huge mistake of not distancing itself from the DMK around the time of former telecom minister A. Raja’s arrest. It spurned J. Jayalalithaa’s offer of unconditional support at that time. Vijaykanth, who led the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, was then yet to announce his alliance with Ms Jayalalithaa. He was open to forming a third front with the Congress and was waiting for signals from Sonia Gandhi. Having missed the opportunity, the Congress is now the biggest loser in Tamil Nadu.
Puducherry has always been an oasis for the Congress even when it lost Tamil Nadu in 1967. This time it has lost Puducherry too. The Congress seems to have the knack of being on the opposite side of people’s anti-corruption mood everywhere. N. Rangasamy, erstwhile chief minister in Puducherry, was popular with people for both his simplicity and overall honesty. The Congress threw him out of the party and has now lost power to the very same man.
Mr Rangasamy is not the only one whom the Congress nurtured, developed and then dumped. The neighbouring Andhra Pradesh is a case in point. Jagan Mohan Reddy, son of late former chief minister Y.S.R. Reddy, has beaten the Congress to pulp. Ironically, Mr Reddy has no individual reputation. It is all borrowed glory of his father. YSR was the Congress’s sheet anchor in Andhra Pradesh and his popularity as chief minister was only during the Congress regime. By not striking a deal with his son and widow, the Congress dug the grave for itself in the Andhra Pradesh byelections. The overriding issue was Cuddapah pride.
In Kerala, the Congress should have been back in power comfortably going by the Malayalis’ penchant for shuffling the government every term. But Congress leader Rahul Gandhi challenged the Kerala voters on whether they wanted 90-year-old Achuthanandan as chief minister. Mr Gandhi forgot that his own ally in Kerala, K.R. Gowri Ammal, contesting the elections was already 90. Kerala’s electorate, comprising mostly middle-age and old-age groups, did not like Mr Gandhi’s comments at all. Instead of a comfortable win, the Congress has ended up with a narrow victory.
Mr Gandhi’s youth brigade lost everywhere. This was mainly because he has not understood the dynamics of party politics. He had been trying to run a parallel party within the party based on different norms. Power remained with the old guard, while the young blood refused to serve as their minions. The disconnect was so severe that in Tamil Nadu the Youth Congress demonstrated against its own party president and complained against him to the Election Commission.
The major gain in this election from a social perspective is the strengthening of democracy and the weakening of partisan casteist groups. The Paattali Makkal Katchi, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and the Kongu party all with apparent caste followings could not deliver at all in Tamil Nadu. When a massive issue like corruption that affects all people irrespective of caste became the dominant discourse, the caste equations weakened.
The above 80 per cent turnout has strengthened democracy and the credit entirely goes to the EC that introduced voter slips for quick, easy and hassle-free voting and its no-holds-barred action against the use of money power that created hope in the minds of people that the elections would be fair.
Both the DMK and the Congress are at crossroads now. Sonia Gandhi’s greeting to Ms Jayalalithaa may signal shift in alliances, but the Congress can gain in Tamil Nadu only by working for a third alternative in the long run. The DMK will have to clear its cobwebs of nepotism and go back to its founding days when its inner party democracy was vibrant.
And the message from the people is clear for Ms Jayalalithaa too. We won’t tolerate abuse of power and massive corruption even if you cheat us with freebies.

Gnani Sankaran is a Tamil writer, theatreperson and filmmaker

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