The noise from loudspeakers attached to campaigning vehicles, usually auto rickshaws, is deafening during election time in Tamil Nadu. Traditionally, the AIADMK campaign vehicles will play old MGR songs that were penned to project his politics, like “nann ungal veetu pillai” (I am a son from your house). Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) would play revolutionary film songs from the 60s and speeches.
This has been the character of elections in the state for decades, and from a distance one would instinctively know whether it was an AIADMK vehicle or a DMK vehicle without even seeing it.
However, on the busy streets of Thoothukudi, the vehicle playing MGR songs is from TTV Dhinakaran’s AMMK. Given that the BJP state president Tamilisai Soundarrajan is contesting the seat as part of the AIADMK alliance, the campaign of the party does not revolve around the MGR or J.Jayalalithaa image.
In a sense, the identity of the campaign is one that reflects the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image, not the traditional AIADMK trait of revolving entirely around MGR and Jayalalithaa.
They use Jayalalithaa’s photos along with the prime minister’s portrait in their posters and are aware that the BJP is only a marginal player in the state, but the identity of the campaign, the core character of it, reflects the BJP traits and not the AIADMK identity.
On the other hand, AMMK candidate M. Bhuvaneshwaran is running a campaign that is firmly AIADMK in its character, emphasising the party’s claim to be inheritors of the MGR-Jayalalithaa political legacy. “When an MGR song is played, as an AIADMK supporter, I automatically am drawn to that campaign. It is only after seeing closely that I realise that it is the AMMK,” say S.Nirmal who works at a hotel.
He adds, “We only vote on the fact that MGR and Jayalalithaa were our leaders and the ‘two leaves’ symbol is an instinct, but here the symbol on EVMs will be ‘lotus’ and that will leave us even more confused”.
The key advantage for the ruling AIADMK is the ‘two leaves’ symbol, but given that the BJP candidate’s symbol will be ‘lotus’ on the EVM, the traditional votes may further split and go towards the AMMK. In every campaign, the AMMK announces its gift box symbol soon after an MGR song and the candidate’s face is almost invisible in the midst of photos of MGR and Jayalalithaa.
So, in effect, the BJP candidate as part of the alliance is fighting a battle to ensure that the identity of the alliance is established. There is an inherent disadvantage in not having the ‘two leaves’ symbol when there is a dispute over the AIADMK legacy.
This is an issue not just for the BJP, but one that all other allies of the AIADMK will face. Given that the party will contest only in 21 seats, the EVMS in only 20 seats will have the ‘two leaves’ symbol, in the rest the symbol of alliance parties – like PMK and DMDK – could cause further confusion and split in the core AIADMK vote towards the TTV faction.
Electoral choices are also a matter of habit for core party voters and the symbol plays a major factor in last minute decisions at the voting booth. Given that ‘two leaves’ has been their symbol of instinctive choice. In places where it is absent there is a much greater threat of erosion towards another symbol that claims to represent the MGR legacy. This is something allies are aware of, but can do little about.
Further, BJP leaders like H.Raja have also invited controversy by derogatory remarks against the founder of the Dravidian Movement Periyar. Such ideological comments only add to the battle that candidates like Raja face in the Sivaganga constituency where he is fighting Karti P.Chidambaram, son of former union Minister P.Chidambaram.
Here, the AIADMK finds it very difficult to even justify support to a BJP candidate who questioned their party’s core ideology and hence face the threat of a split in their vote towards the AMMK.
The BJP has tried to build itself among the Nadar community in the southern districts of the state, but there are many divisions within the community and AIADMK votes do not automatically transfer to the ally. It becomes more difficult to ensure a total transfer of votes when the alliance candidate does not reflect the AIADMK trait and, on the other hand, the AMMK does.
Apart from this, issues like the killing of 13 activists in police firing against anti-Sterlite agitators in May 2018 has created a strong anti-establishment sentiment in not just Thoothukudi, but in other southern districts as well. All this makes the battle to get the AIADMK core vote more difficult even for AIADMK candidates and it’s tougher for the allies.