Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Tamil Nadu Deputy Chief Minister O Paneerselvam, right, and Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami. Photo: India Today

As India’s April general elections inch closer, the key political parties are stitching up formal alliances. At stake is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempt to gain a second period in government after his 2014 formation of the first majority government in India in 30 years. While his party, the BJP, made major gains last time, it is now anticipating the loss of a large number of seats won in 2014.

This means that the first round of major alliances formed are seen as an effort to shore up falling numbers. In the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where the BJP has virtually no presence, it announced a key pre-poll alliance on Tuesday.  A careful assessment of the BJP – All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) – Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) alliance for the upcoming general elections reveals that it can at best hope to make an impact in only a handful of constituencies in Tamil Nadu. The alliance is likely to include a couple of other smaller regional parties in the state.

Firstly, the BJP by itself has only a marginal presence in Tamil Nadu, and its base is confined to two or three constituencies like Kanyakumari in southern Tamil Nadu and Coimbatore in western Tamil Nadu.

This is reflected in the fact that the BJP has been allotted only five seats whereas the PMK has been given seven seats. The AIADMK will contest 27 out of a total of 40 seats, 39 in Tamil Nadu and one in Puducherry, a neighboring union territory. The AIADMK may allot a further two or three seats to other smaller forces joining the alliance.

The seat sharing arrangement only emphasizes that the BJP is entirely dependent on its allies in Tamil Nadu to win even a single seat.

While it has a presence in Kanyakumari and Coimbatore where it is likely to field candidates, its own voter base in these constituencies is not sufficient to get the BJP first past the post. This makes it important to carefully understand the PMK and the AIADMK in order to assess the strength of this alliance.

The PMK has a strong base with the Other Backward Castes (OBC) Vanniyar caste base, but is largely confined to a few parliamentary constituencies in northern Tamil Nadu.

Going by a re-calibration of data from the 2016 assembly elections, the PMK polled a 10% or greater share of the vote in only eight parliamentary constituencies. Its highest vote share was 23.8% in the Dharmapuri constituency and in the other seven it was between 10% and 17%.

PMK’s voter base

The PMK’s voter base represents value to the alliance, irrespective of the side the party takes. Since the 1990s, the PMK has hopped from the DMK to its arch rival, the AIADMK, taking its voter base along with it. This means it is considered a powerful force to ally with. It was part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments at the federal level and had pre-poll alliances with the DMK or the AIADMK in the assembly elections. But since 2009 it has tried contesting seats alone, without making any impact.

This may mean that even the PMK needs the AIADMK vote to win seats in its stronghold as it cannot do so alone. In fact, in 2014, the BJP and PMK formed an alliance and polled just 5.5% and 4.4% of the vote respectively to win one seat each, whereas the AIADMK, under the late chief minister J. Jayalalithaa, went alone and polled 44% of the vote to win 37 of Tamil Nadu’s 39 seats. But the gain for the AIADMK or the BJP, if any, from the PMK will be minimal.

It is true that the PMK has a small voter base in a few other constituencies that will transfer to alliance candidates, but the major impact of the PMK joining this alliance will be for its candidates and not for its allies. This means that the success of this alliance rests almost entirely on the performance of the AIADMK.

AIADMK turmoil

The AIADMK has been in turmoil since the demise of its leader J Jayalalithaa in 2016, and a section of the party led by TTV Dhinakaran has broken away to form the parent party. During the by-elections for the assembly seat that became open following Jayalalithaa’s death, it was Dhinakaran who won by a huge margin and not the ruling party group. This was also the only election held in Tamil Nadu since the death of Jayalalithaa.

Now, the BJP alliance is with the ruling AIADMK and is unlikely to bring in the Dhinakaran faction. Hence, it is not clear if the ruling AIADMK alliance can hold onto the entire AIADMK voter base or even a majority of it. This hints that the BJP will not make the inroads in the state that it hopes for.

While the AIADMK polled 44% of votes in the 2014 parliamentary polls – one of its best ever performances – in the coming general election its voter support is expected to drop sharply in the absence of Jayalalithaa. A further split in the voter base could leave the AIADMK component of the alliance arithmetic in shambles.

DMK-Congress alliance

Opposition parties Congress and the DMK, on Wednesday, announced their alliance a day after their rivals.

The Congress party has been allotted nine seats in Tamil Nadu and one in Puducherry by the DMK. The announcement was made at the DMK headquarters in Chennai where KC Venugopal, general secretary of Congress said: “The country very much needed this alliance. The country is disappointed at Narendra Modi. What he promised in the election, nothing has been fulfilled in the last five years…We are not first-time allies. Congress and DMK are long-term partners… We are expecting a very good result in Tamil Nadu. We are expecting 100 percent result in Tamil Nadu. We are going to have a very strong victory in Tamil Nadu. In the coming days we will finalize which seats we are going to contest.”

The DMK, in the aftermath of the 2G scam, achieved its worst ever share of the vote in 2014 after the party broke away from the Congress party and was routed in terms of seats. The Congress too, was at its lowest with a 4.3% vote share.

In fact, in the 2016 assembly polls, the Congress and the DMK together polled a vote share of around 38%.

These facts show that even if the AIADMK vote share drops by close to 10% from 2014 – let alone the fact that even that may be split into factions – it could prove disastrous for the alliance with the BJP. This may especially be true as Tamil Nadu is a “sweep state”, where the alliance that has the voter share arithmetic has registered massive victories in the past. In 2004 the DMK alliance won all 39 seats and in 2014 Jayalalithaa took 37 seats.

In the final analysis, the BJP has little to lose in Tamil Nadu, but at the same time it cannot to hope to gain much, as the alliance arithmetic may not be very strong on the ground. This means that hopes of its anticipated losses in the north being balanced out by gains in the south remain a chimera, at best.

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