Chennai: “I am forever indebted to the people of Tamil Nadu,” declared All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) chief Jayalalithaa on May 19, soon after her party’s clear lead in over 130 constituencies became certain. Not a surprising comment, considering that they gave the incumbent leader another term in office, the first successive term for a Tamil Nadu chief minister since M.G. Ramachandran in 1984.
Jayalalithaa’s margin may not be huge, but the victory is significant. This was an election about which no one could make easy predictions. This was also an election the outcome of which proved almost all exit polls wrong. The results, without a doubt, enhance her image as one of the most powerful politicians in the country – an image that came with the AIADMK combine’s landslide win in 2011 and one that grew further with her spectacular performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
In terms of the leader capturing power, holding on to it and building on it, all this looks great. However, what has this power and Jayalalithaa’s national profile meant to the ordinary voter who reposed her faith in the party’s two leaves?
It is easy to duck the question citing her “people-friendly”, populist politics or freebie-rich manifesto that bring tangible benefits to the voters. If you are a first generation college-goer, a free laptop is not just enticing, but also very useful. If you are a woman whose mobility is restricted by the absence of good public transport in your village, the prospect of owning a two-wheeler is liberating. Blaming those who receive freebies for an election outcome is naïve and problematic. At the end of the day, freebies are part of a political strategy. They neither ensure equal access to resources in the long run, nor do they bridge the disparity in society. The culture of freebies has to be seen in the larger context of public goods and services an ideal state is expected to deliver systematically.
Compared to many states, Tamil Nadu has a relatively impressive track record in development thanks to the Dravidian movement and the following decades of progressive politics rooted in social realities. However, such a relative scale is of little consequence to large sections of people, especially those on the margins, who are still denied what they ought to have as a matter of right – be it good public education, public health, transportation, sustainable livelihoods or safe water. Their standards of living remain stagnant and in many cases, pathetic. In such circumstances, even the few crumbs that the state may throw by way of freebies can be very precious.
Jayalalithaa secured a massive victory in 2011, but that does not mean her governance since has been unquestionable.
In people’s most recent memory is her government’s grossly inadequate response to the one of the worst floods – in December 2015 – witnessed in the state in a century. Earlier, around the time the disproportionate assets case involving her came up at the Karnataka high court, governance came to a virtual standstill. Files did not move for months. The cabinet appeared entirely powerless. The media had no access to information, as all her ministers and party men stayed away from the press. In May 2015, the court acquitted her and she made a dramatic comeback.
However, Jayalalithaa’s government continued resisting any view that was remotely critical. With the increasing instances of her government filing defamation cases against the media, self-censorship became a natural response for many media outlets. Cutting out access and silencing criticism or dissent make a dangerous combination. People not only stop hearing from their government but also stop hearing about it. Governance then exists merely as a concept in abstraction, but not in the day-to-day interaction between the ordinary citizen and the elected representative.
The May 19 victory – the AIADMK’s vote share had a ten percentage point difference from 2011 – does not mean that the people of Tamil Nadu ignored any of this. They did not trade their votes for freebies, either. The fact that they have reinstated a government that was not successful in its primary duty of governance only means they had little choice. This election outcome is not entirely a reflection of Jayalalithaa’s continuing electoral success. It is partly a consequence of some clever political strategy and execution on her part, such as her decision to contest in the two-leaves symbol from all 234 constituencies. And partly, it is due to the absence of a credible and appealing alternative – an alternative not to the AIADMK alone, but to the well-entrenched, populist politics of both the principal Dravidian parties.
There was an anti-incumbency sentiment on the ground, waiting to be channelled but the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) did not cash on that effectively. It may not have emerged the opposition party in 2011, but sitting in the assembly with a sizeable bunch of MLAs and walking out frequently is not the only way voicing opposition. The DMK had an opportunity to connect with the people through the last five years. Especially in the last two years, the party had a chance to consolidate the simmering discontent on the ground. The DMK’s electoral performance did improve considerably this election, but it was not good enough.
The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), despite a reasonable manifesto, remains a party that is often divisive on caste lines and is yet to be taken seriously by all regions in the state. By the time the People’s Welfare Front, which sought to be a third front, came anywhere close to acquiring an identity or getting some focus, the elections were over. Viable alternatives, after all, are not built on the eve of elections.
Tamil Nadu’s voters have given Jayalalithaa a big chance and she knows that. Following the results, Jayalalithaa said there were no words in the dictionary that would adequately capture her emotional outburst and heartfelt gratitude. But she has five years to show the same in action.