Tamil Nadu’s chief minister eyes role on national stage at federal election

Politics of forming India's next government may rest with quirky characters in southern state

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 March, 2014, 9:23pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 March, 2014, 10:24pm

The politics of forming India's next government could come down to how many seats a 1960's matinee siren can wrest from a rival named Stalin.

At stake are 39 parliamentary seats in Tamil Nadu, a southern state known for its ancient Hindu temples, its modern auto industry - and a history of electoral landslides.

With pollsters predicting that no party will win a majority in the 543-seat parliament, the caucus returned by India's sixth-largest state could hold the key to forming a government after the five-week general election that starts on April 7.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram - or "Jaya" to her fans - is riding a wave that could take her AIADMK party's seat count to 27, according to one recent survey, which potentially would cast her as national powerbroker.

Her party is one of many regional groups whose proliferation over the past two decades has made it impossible for national parties to rule alone in India.

The portly Jayalalithaa bears little resemblance to the singing, dancing heroine she played in 1960's Tamil cinema. But at 68 she is more popular than she has ever been.

Hopping around the state by helicopter, she is addressing enthusiastic crowds, including one last week near Tiruvannamalai, a holy site where Hindu pilgrims, in an act of devotion, walk around a mountain barefoot at full moon.

"She is the only one who gives voice to the Tamils," said tea seller M.K. Baskran, an AIADMK grassroots organiser, to noisy agreement from fellow party supporters.

Others thanked Jayalalithaa for food handouts that sustained their families.

Pundits in Chennai, the former port of Madras founded by the British in the 17th century, describe Tamil Nadu as a "sweep" state; not a swing state. That is the result of another British legacy: first-past-the-post voting.

"A gap of 4-5 percentage points in the popular vote between the first and second party gives you a hugely disproportionate result," said N. Ram, publisher of The Hindu newspaper.

Cinemas in Chennai are screening a digitally restored version of Jayalalithaa's 1965 movie One Man In A Thousand in which she plays a damsel in distress saved by leading man M.G. Ramachandran in the role of a swashbuckling pirate.

As well as bringing her extra publicity, the film revival holds the key to regional politics: It was actor-turned-politician Ramachandran who formed the AIADMK party four decades ago when he was kicked out of the DMK.

"The DMK split was like an amoeba dividing or an earthworm being cut in two," said Chennai journalist and political commentator Gnani Sankaran. "These two formations are the major players - always. The others are minor players - always."

The DMK is still led by the 89-year-old M. Karunanidhi, who fired Ramachandran in 1972. But it is his son M.K. Stalin - named in honour of the late Soviet dictator - who is leading the party's rearguard action.

"There's a wave against the Jayalalithaa government's misrule, massive corruption and undemocratic governance," Stalin told the Economic Times last week.

But the DMK is riven by in-fighting after quitting the Congress-led government in New Delhi a year ago.

Congress, isolated, now faces a wipeout in the state.

In one sign of looming defeat, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has bowed out of contesting his family bailiwick in Tamil Nadu, giving his son the chance to cut his political teeth.

And although the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is poised to emerge as the largest parliamentary party - with 195 seats according to one poll - the Hindu nationalist opposition party has no base in Tamil Nadu.

Even with its allies, the BJP could fall 40 seats short of the 272 needed for a majority in the national parliament, according to the NDTV news channel poll. That is where regional players like Jayalalithaa come into the equation.

Her reluctance to criticise the BJP's candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi, and a past dalliance with his party, suggest she is positioning herself for power in the next government.

"Jayalalithaa is both in the BJP alliance and not in it," said N. Sathiya Moorthy, director of the Chennai chapter of the think tank Observer Research Foundation.

Her ability to dictate terms - or even stake a claim to the prime ministership - would depend on how desperately the BJP needs her to cobble together a majority.

A weaker BJP result would strengthen Jayalalithaa's hand, as she eyes the alternative of a coalition of regional parties.

India's dynasties still appeal to voters, says survey

Indian voters are largely comfortable with electing dynastic candidates despite dire predictions in upcoming polls for Rahul Gandhi, scion of the country's most celebrated political family, a survey said. A poll released by the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace confirmed recent surveys pointing to a strong showing by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party after a decade of rule by Gandhi's Congress Party. Gandhi, 43, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers, is the candidate from the centre-left Congress Party in elections starting on April 7, going against the BJP's Narendra Modi, the son of a tea-stall owner. But the poll did not support suggestions that Indians have rejected hereditary candidates. Instead, 46 per cent of voters said they preferred politicians who hailed from dynasties. "What we found was kind of shocking," said Milan Vaishnav, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment's South Asia programme. "Nearly one in two Indians say, if I had a choice, I would prefer to vote for a candidate who has a family background," he said. The vast majority of voters who preferred dynasties said they thought such candidates would be more adept or likely to succeed, with only 15 per cent saying that their main motivation was an expectation of patronage. Twenty-nine per cent of Indian lawmakers elected in the last election in 2009 succeeded family members or have relatives also serving in parliament.

Agence France-Presse