New leader in Tamil Nadu, incumbent retains Kerala in state elections

An electoral official holds an electronic voting machine to display the number of votes at a counting centre for the Tamil Nadu's state legislative assembly elections in Chennai on May 2, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

BANGALORE - India's southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala have voted for political alliances that campaigned on messages of efficient governance, and regional and linguistic pride.

Votes cast in the state elections on April 3 were still being counted last night, but the Election Commission's results as at 7pm on Sunday (May 2) showed that in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Congress alliance was leading in 155 seats, more than half of the 234 constituencies.

The incumbent All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) that was allied with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for this poll had 79 seats.

This was Tamil Nadu's first state election without the warring stalwart leaders M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa, who died in 2018 and 2016, respectively.

Mr M.K. Stalin, leader of the DMK, is now set to helm the state. The 68-year-old led an election campaign that banked less on his charisma and more on a concerted grassroots campaign. He said that a vote for the DMK is "a vote for stability, experience, secularism and, most of all, Dravidian values".

Actor Kamal Haasan, who started the Makkal Needhi Maiam party and led a third alternative, may win no seats, including his own.

AIADMK will now lead a strong opposition, but riddled with factions, especially one led by Ms Jayalalithaa's close friend V.K. Sasikala, its leadership is still in question.

The BJP may win only a couple of seats in Tamil Nadu, but its alliance leads with 14 of 30 seats in the Tamil-speaking union territory of Puducherry.

In Kerala, the incumbent Left-led alliance retained power, sailing past the majority mark in the 140-seat assembly. At 7pm, the Left Democratic Front was leading in 99 seats as counting continued. The Congress-led alliance was leading in 41 seats.

In keeping Kerala, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has broken a 40-year-long trend of the state changing hands between the two alliances at every election.

BJP won no seats at all in Kerala.

The party's state president K. Surendran, who led protests against allowing women entry into the Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala - the BJP's major poll message for Hindus in the campaign - lost both seats he contested in.

One of the BJP's most recognised faces, the 88-year-old engineer Mr E. Sreedharan, lost to the young Congress incumbent Shafi Parambil in Palakkad. Mr Sreedharan had promised jobs and development but also made controversial statements alleging that Muslim men married Hindu women to forcibly convert them to Islam.

Political experts noted Kerala's voters have routed all politicians whose campaigns sought to polarise voters on religious matters.

Instead, voters have gone for leaders like Health Minister K.K. Shailaja, who helmed the state's tough battle against Covid-19. She is set to win in her home town with a record 61,000 votes.

The new governments in both Tamil Nadu and Kerala will assume power at the peak of the pandemic's devastating second wave. The two southern states have handled Covid-19 relatively better than most in India, by expanding hospital capacity, sanctioning hundreds of new oxygen plants and organising state response even when infections plateaued in December.

But new infections and deaths are soaring, worsened especially by mass gatherings during election campaigns in March. Mr Vijayan will likely redouble existing efforts in Kerala, but Mr Stalin, who takes over from a different regime, will have to formulate fresh strategies.

Both leaders told party members to have subdued celebrations. "Let the streets be deserted, hearts fill up with joy," Mr Stalin said, but hundreds thronged the DMK office in Chennai last night, stuffing laddoos into one another's mouths.

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