38 of Tamil Nadu’s 39 Lok Sabha seats and 18 Assembly constituencies go to the polls today. This is the first major election in Tamil Nadu after the passing of J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi, the two stalwarts who dominated the state’s political landscape.
What the electorate will essentially decide today is whether the political chaos that the state has witnessed over the last two and a half years will remain, or whether the state has found a way to bring about a degree of political stability. After all, the current government hangs by a thread, completely at the mercy of the 18 assembly seats that go to the polls today.
The political chaos, admittedly, has been one-sided. The DMK camp had always known who Karunanidhi’s heir was. Stalin emerging as the clear successor might have caused disgruntlement among his relatives, and might have even reduced the party’s erstwhile leverage in the state. But by and large, the succession was smooth. At least one pole of the state’s political landscape has been established.
Despite the fact that both Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi’s successors will never enjoy the pan-state mass-appeal that the two veterans did, and that several smaller parties and both the national parties are using exactly that to make serious inroads into the state, it is hardly these factors that have caused the political chaos that the state has witnessed. This chaos has been caused largely because the other pole, Amma’s successor, hasn’t established himself or herself yet.
With 38 Lok Sabha constituencies and 18 Assembly constituencies going to the polls today, this is incumbent Chief Minister EPS’ golden opportunity to establish himself as the other pole. But it is a double-edged sword. He has only one chance to prove himself. For Tamil Nadu, the 2019 elections is a mandate on EPS. How the state votes today will determine whether the state has found a long-term leader to take on Stalin, or whether EPS will simply disappear into political oblivion.
EPS remains in pole position to take the mantle of the second pole in Tamil Nadu politics. He remains ahead of his competitors primarily because of 3 reasons. The first is that for decades, despite the corruption and the ideological fault-lines, the bipolar political landscape of the state provided immense stability. The state might instinctively choose to return to such a status-quo, and with EPS leading the biggest anti-DMK alliance, he will be the natural choice. The second is that EPS managed to stitch smart alliances. With the PMK and the BJP being very strong in certain pockets of the state, EPS will naturally get all the credit if the alliance performs well, especially in those pockets. The third is that despite the political instability, EPS has deftly outmanoeuvred both the Sasikala faction as well as the OPS faction, and remained at the helm of affairs for two years now. Remember that he was only the compromise candidate when he was chosen, but the fact is that every other player ended up making compromises for him. Moreover, his two years as Chief Minister have been largely uncontroversial. EPS might not be a mass leader as yet, but he has proven to be an MVP in the backroom. And he has, without doubt, become a household name, considering he has provided fairly stable governance for two years, amidst political turmoil.
There are 2 things that EPS will have to achieve today to become the second pole in the state’s politics. The first of course, is survival. Totally, 22 seats will elect their MLAs in Tamil Nadu (18 today and 4 in the last phase). Of these 22, he would ideally need around 10 seats for his government to survive comfortably and last its term. Second, he will be considered a serious player if the AIADMK wins 8 to 10 Lok Sabha seats, and the alliance wins 10 to 15. Nearly every survey conducted two months ago showed a near wipe-out of the AIADMK. EPS put his head on the line, and attempted to change that by striking alliances and putting up a brave, spirited campaign. If he successfully makes a mark, it is safe to assume that he will inherit Amma’s politics and legacy. It all depends on how Tamil Nadu votes in the polls today.