By Sambhavi Ganesh*
For a federal unit belonging to a country characterized by a prolonged national movement and the subsequent Congress dominated scenario, Tamil Nadu has surprisingly escaped the national electoral trends by and large. Since 1967, the main political parties operating in Tamil Nadu have been offering an alternative Dravidian ideology in response to the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani mobilization of much of the rest of India, diversifying the political processes of the country to a significant degree. This article attempts to understand the results of the 2016 Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu by exploring reasons for the ADMK’s victory, the DMK’s loss, and some general factors that bring a party to power in the state.
Anti-incumbency rule takes a hit
The state has been characterized by a constant swing between All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK/ADMK) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) governments since 1989. Exit polls had largely predicted a DMK victory. Contrary to the predictions, the ADMK returned to power with 134 seats out of 232 and the DMK alliance trailed with 98 seats. The ADMK has not come to power with such low vote share (40.8%) since 1977. Its vote share to power has been over 50% since 1984.
Predictions were made in favour of the DMK owing to the anti-incumbency factor. However, this was not to happen because of four reasons. Firstly, despite being criticized as populist, Jayalalithaa’s social welfare schemes provided household goods and marriage assistance and had ensured the support of women. According to the CSDS Lokniti survey, female voters cutting across all social and economic indicators were supportive of the ADMK victory, more so than in previous elections. Secondly, the promise of free mobile phones, free 100 units of electricity and subsidized two wheelers/mopeds have made a difference in the anti-incumbency trend of Tamil Nadu. The condition of high voter turnouts resulting in anti-incumbency has been proved wrong; about 3/4th of the electorate turned up to vote. Thirdly, the anger of the public due to the apparent lack of action and propagandist relief measures during the November 2015 floods has hardly shown any effect in the areas not affected by the flood. Moreover, the asset charges against her have been a seemingly insignificant case compared to the DMK’s 2G scam to the electorate. Hence, the predictions widely varied from the reality.
The DMK dynasty
Some significant reasons for the DMK’s loss seem to stem from the party leadership (and ex-leadership). According to news reports, MK Stalin, son of DMK chief Karunanidhi, had conducted a ‘spirited campaign’ critiquing the inaccessibility of the incumbent CM Jayalalithaa. He replaced the traditional political attire of dhoti, white shirt, and a shawl with trousers, t-shirts, and sports shoes. Almost a year-long public outreach program has led to a positive image of the party, especially in his constituency of Kolathur. However, since his name had not been announced for the CM’s post, many have avoided voting for the DMK. (CSDS Lokniti pre-poll survey) Alagiri, another son of Karunanidhi, was dismissed from the DMK in 2014 owing to rivalry with Stalin. He has since then been making statements against the DMK, even claiming neutrality in the 2016 Assembly elections. His workers have allegedly been working to make the party loses power in the Madurai belt, a region considered to be his bastion. Despite performing well in the 2016 elections in the rest of Tamil Nadu (39.7% vote share), the DMK has suffered in Madurai (35.225%) due to Alagiri’s ouster.
The dharma of coalitions
A characteristic feature of victorious parties in the Tamil Nadu assembly elections are coalitions: ADMK’s coalition with Congress, PMK, CPM and CPI in 2001 and DMK’s coalition with the same parties in 2006 had ensured their respective victories. In 2011, ADMK could form a government without a coalition, and hence it broke off its alliance with the DMDK (Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam) post elections. In 2016, the ADMK contested in 227 seats out of 234, distributing the rest of the seats to allies who contested under the two leaves symbol of the ADMK. The ADMK’s vote share was 40.8% in 232 constituencies. The DMK alliance had gained 39.7% of the votes; however, the DMK’s vote share in the 176 seats that it contested was 41.05%, slightly more than the ADMK’s performance. Allies have been a significant cause of reducing the DMK alliance’s vote share – the Congress won only 8 of the 41 seats that it contested. According to surveys, even traditional Congress supporters did not vote for the DMK-Congress alliance. DMK allying with other smaller parties might have resulted in a different electoral outcome. 
The People’s Welfare Front (PWF), a coalition of DMDK (led by actor-politician Vijayakanth), CPI, CPI (M), and VCK (a Dalit party) aimed to form a strong to the Dravidian parties. DMDK’s victory in 29 seats out of 41 in 2011 made no effect in this election as the alliance failed to win even one seat. Lack of funds has been a leading cause attributed to the loss; while other contestants spent Rs 5-10 crores in each constituency, the PWF contestants couldn’t spend more than Rs 40 lakhs. The election commission does not allow more than Rs 28 lakh to be spent by a candidate for assembly elections, which brings us to the issue of cash-for-votes.
Cash for votes
After the resounding DMK win in 2009 by-poll in Thirumangalam (Madurai district), there were widespread allegations of the party buying votes for cash. Each voter was supposedly given five thousand rupees through newspapers and milk delivery systems, forcing many to receive money. The ‘Thirumangalam model’ of cash for votes has since then gained much notoriety among the Election Commission. In 2016, more than 100 crores of unaccounted money was seized, which was believed to be meant for distribution among the public. In Aravakurichi and East Thanjavur constituencies alone, the Election Commission seized large sums of cash a few days before the elections. Hence, elections have not been conducted in those constituencies as of June 2016.
Casting the vote or voting the caste?
Parties like Puthiya Tamizhagam (PT), Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) (both are SC welfare parties) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK – an OBC-Vanniyar interest based party) failed to win a single seat in 2016. Voters appear to have avoided caste-based parties openly and instead opted for the Dravidian parties (ADMK and DMK) which express a pan-Tamil identity. However, the Dravidian parties are not caste-neutral – candidates fielded in a constituency mostly belong to the dominant caste of that region, thereby splitting the votes of the caste. Moreover, many important positions in the DMK and ADMK are filled by dominant OBC castes (including Vanniyars); some token positions are given for Dalits. Violence against Dalits is continually silenced to keep the OBC vote banks intact. Hence, the Dravidian parties themselves work under caste influence. Ironically, they brand the PMK (accused of inciting violence against Dalits), PT and VCK (Dalit parties) together as playing caste-based politics. The caste factor in Tamil Nadu’s politics is rarely brought to the limelight because of the assumption that an anti-Brahmin movement before independence has driven caste identities underground. However, this is not the reality.
It is true that Tamil Nadu has largely bucked the national trend in terms of the party system. However, what binds the political processes of Tamil Nadu to the Indian state’s processes is the concealed but important role of caste and community in elections. Additionally, large scale cash distribution takes place during campaigns. The cash and caste model of mobilization have resulted in the hegemony of the Dravidian parties. Hence, stable subaltern formations or even alternative governments have become a remote possibility in the state.
*Sambhavi Ganesh is a intern at CPPR. The views expressed by the author is personal.
Featured image source: india.com
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 Elections were actually conducted only in 232 constituencies because of the confiscation of cash in two constituencies, Aravakurichi and East Thanjavur.
 Soloman. 24th May 2016. ‘CSDS Lokniti Post-poll Survey: DMK needed broader alliance to consolidate anti-AIADMK vote’. The New Indian Express. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/karunanidhi-dmk-jayalalithaa-aiadmk-tamil-nadu-assembly-elections-2016-results-2816021/
 Gorringe and Karthikeyan. 2016. ‘Anti-Caste Politics and the Tamil Nadu Elections: A Lost Opportunity to Deepen Democracy.’ The Wire. http://thewire.in/38255/anti-caste-politics-and-the-tamil-nadu-elections-a-lost-opportunity-to-deepen-democracy/#disqus_thread
 Kumar, Devesh. 19th February 2014.’ Poll panel raises expenditure limit for Lok Sabha campaign by 30 lakhs’. NDTV. http://www.ndtv.com/elections-news/poll-panel-raises-expenditure-limit-for-lok-sabha-campaign-by-30-lakhs-551288
 Vanniyars are an OBC caste group concentrated in north Tamil Nadu. They comprise 25% of Tamil Nadu’s population.
 Gorringe and Karthikeyan. Op. Cit. ‘Anti-Caste Politics ...’ The Wire
 Scheduled Castes make up 20% of the population, while OBCs constitute 68% of the population of Tamil Nadu.