The anti-incumbency was strong, and seems to have favoured the DMK, which has won 89 seats, the biggest ever for an opposition in Tamil Nadu.
Throughout the election campaign, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) ranged against the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) using two narratives: anti-incumbency and prohibition. “Do you really want to give her another chance to be queen?” DMK treasurer M.K. Stalin said repeatedly from his van in Coimbatore, even when driving through the AIADMK strongholds in west Tamil Nadu. “Do you really trust her promise of step by step alcohol ban?” DMK chief and chief ministerial candidate M. Karunanidhi said in a public meeting in Tiruchy. (Noticeably, rarely do they mention chief minister and AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa by name; after all, there is no other true rival and no other royal “she” in Tamil Nadu.)
At first glance, the results may seem to have demolished the anti-incumbency narrative somewhat, given that Jayalalithaa has been voted back to power, making history in the state after 32 years. However, a closer look at constituency level data and performance reveals telling details for a more nuanced understanding.
The anti-incumbency was strong, and seems to have favoured the DMK, which has won 89 seats, the biggest ever for an opposition in Tamil Nadu. It also polled large numbers of votes, with its candidates losing by under 1,000 votes in more than 20 constituencies. In the 176 seats that DMK contested, it has polled 41.05% votes, even though the overall vote share for 232 seats is a little over 30%. The AIADMK’s contested vote share is 40.78%, although it won more seats. But anti-incumbency couldn’t manage to surmount the 1.1% difference and fully favour the DMK, because its own allies did poorly (Congress won only 8 of 40 seats it contested) and the other parties in the fray like the PMK pulled votes away from DMK in the northern districts.
If anti-incumbency is a combination of desire for change and anger at performance, it is also palpable in many constituencies where cabinet ministers of the 2011-2016 Tamil Nadu government contested. Nearly all AIADMK ministers that were given tickets have lost.
In Athoor constituency in Dindugal district, Natham Vishwanathan lost to DMK’s strong I. Periyasamy by 27,147 votes. He was the minister for electricity, excise and, interestingly, prohibition. Former Housing Minister R. Vaithilingam lost to DMK’s M. Ramchandran by a margin of 3,645 votes in Orathanadu.
Some ministers lost with narrow margins, perhaps losing votes also to the third front and other parties. For instance, in Chennai’s Anna Nagar, Gokula Indira, former minister for handloom and textiles, lost to DMK’s M.K. Mohan by 1,687 votes, while the NOTA votes were at 4,048. In Thousand Lights, in Chennai city again, B. Valarmathi, minister for social welfare and noon-meal scheme, lost to K.K. Selvam by 8,500 votes. AIADMK spokesperson and actress C.R. Saraswathi lost by 9,205 votes to DMK’s I.E. Karunanithi of DMK.
Actor R. Sarath Kumar, whose Samathuva Makkal Katchi was supposed to bring in the Nadar caste votes, contested under the AIADMK symbol from Tiruchendur. The winning candidate was local strongman DMK’s Anitha R. Radhakrishnan, who was an AIADMK member, expelled in 2009 for anti-party activities.
Many other ministers were not even fielded. Until the 2016 election, the AIADMK had never contested more than 200 seats. This time, it fielded 227 candidates, the highest it ever has, but left out more than 100 MLAs. Out of 27 members of the state cabinet, Jayalalithaa did not nominate 10, including the ministers for forest, Backward Caste welfare, higher education rural industries, information technology and fisheries. Of the 17 that did contest, the four above lost.
Some of the other major leaders, like Parithi Ellamvazhuthi, formerly with the DMK for three decades, and a member of the chief executive committee in the AIADMK, lost to KS Ravichandran, a lawyer new to the Egmore constituency and handpicked by DMK chief M. Karunanidhi’s son MK Stalin.
Some of the top winners of the AIADMK have been former assembly speaker D. Jayakumar from Royapuram, former DGP R. Nataraj from Myalpore and interim chief minister and Jayalalithaa’s close aide today, O. Panneerselvam who won in Bodinayakanur.
Several reasons can contribute to a candidate’s defeat – poor performance, split votes from the third front and a strong rival candidate, among others. But what can be gleaned from many of these crucial losses, is that while Tamil Nadu has reposed faith once again in Jayalalithaa, many of her chosen leaders have not been able to win the voters’ trust to the same extent.