What is the big idea that is going to rule in the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections? The free right to torture animals? The politics of floods? With Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa's missive to the Centre demanding an ordinance to allow Jallikattu, the bull-racing event that is traditionally a part of pongal celebrations, election season has been officially inaugurated.
And, the chief minister is leading it.
In flood-hit areas, especially in Chennai, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) seems to have a lot more traction than the ruling party. Anecdotal evidence suggests DMK cadres were more active in relief and rescue operations than the government. One reason could be the lack of outreach between Jayalalithaa and her party cadres who tried to show their loyalty by fixing her pictures to relief material, eliciting howls of protest over the way relief had been reduced to the lowest common denominator of politics.
Unlike the management of the tsunami, Jayalalithaa's handling of the recent floods has left much to be desired. The question is, can she make up for that slippage?
The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)'s hold in Tamil Nadu is enviable and the figures are impressive. It won 203 of 234 seats contested in the previous Assembly elections in 2011. The party's vote share jumped from the 39.91 per cent it polled in 2006 to 51.8 per cent. The DMK front saw a five percentage point swing away from it. From 44.75 per cent in 2006, its vote share dipped to 39.44 per cent. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Jayalalithaa wiped out the opposition with AIADMK winning 37 of 39 seats.
However, in the Assembly elections in the summer of 2016, what will her strategy be, given that she and her party have suffered some reverses because of the floods? First, she will do everything to ensure that the opposition to her stays divided. The AIADMK has always formed the government as long as it has had 33 to 35 per cent of the votes. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has a small vote share, will be thrilled to become a part of the Jayalalithaa alliance. However, it is the BJP that will gain more from the alliance than the AIADMK, because the BJP's vote share in Tamil Nadu is so small that it really doesn't matter.
On the other hand, if the DMK with 20 per cent of the vote share does not contest unitedly with the Congress, Vijayakanth's Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), it could lead to a split of the 25 per cent or so of the vote share these parties have among themselves. The more the opposition splits, the more Jayalalithaa gains.
How do you keep the opposition divided? You don't have to do much - because it already is. The PMK is not part of any front. Vijayakanth has been having meetings with other like-minded parties including the BJP, but has reached no conclusion on whom he wants to tie up with. The DMK and the Congress have mooted some sort of an alliance, but nothing seems to have worked out yet.
Under these circumstances, Jayalalithaa, who has already opened up the purse-strings by announcing those hit by the floods will get free houses and money directly in their bank account, is the first mover. The chemistry is in place: The arithmetic might take time.