Tamil Nadu leader tipped for poll victory

Jayalalithaa seen to have edge despite rumours of ill health

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa has made very few public appearances over the past two years, fuelling rumours of ill health.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa has made very few public appearances over the past two years, fuelling rumours of ill health.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Public appearances by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa have been rare over the past two years, with her party trying to scotch rumours surrounding her health.

Still, the 68-year-old actress- turned-politician, who has been battling suggestions that she is suffering from a kidney or liver ailment, is seen to have the edge in the upcoming elections for 234 seats in the southern state.

A recent survey conducted by television channels Times Now and India TV, with pollster research organisation CVoter, has predicted 130 out of 234 seats for the alliance led by her party, the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). The rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Congress alliance is expected to win 70 seats, while the People's Welfare Front, an alliance of small parties that includes the Communist Party of India, is tipped to take 30 to 34 seats .

The southern state of Tamil Nadu is an auto-manufacturing hub that is one of India's most prosperous states. It grew by over 8 per cent last year and has been successful in attracting foreign investments, including from Singapore

But its politics has remained insular, dominated by the local DMK and AIADMK parties, which have alternated in power for over five decades.

National parties have little influence. The Bharatiya Janata Party did not win a single seat in the 2011 elections and Congress took just five, compared with 150 won by the AIADMK and 23 by the DMK.

In many villages and towns, the red and black flags of the DMK and AIADMK flutter from poles or are painted on the sides of houses.

The DMK is led by Mr M. Karunanidhi, a 93-year-old patriarch often seen with his trademark dark glasses. He is the face of the party, together with his son Stalin, named after the Russian strongman, who is in charge of day-to-day running of the party. The party remains confident it will come to power by unrolling a massive door-to-door campaign.

"The campaign is going really well... We are going door to door and every candidate is present on social media," said Mr J. Anbazhagan, a secretary of DMK's Chennai West District. "We are telling the people that... the government has not performed and that it is a one- person dictatorial party."

Still, in an election dominated by the two main southern personalities rather than any issue, political experts believe that Tamil Nadu could also mount a surprise.

Voters in this election have a third alternative in the People's Welfare Front, a new alliance. Although it is experiencing teething troubles, it could still hurt the bigger parties.

Said Chennai-based political commentator Gnani Sankaran: "This new formation did not happen in the last 20 years. There is a new trend. They may not win the polls but they will make a dent in the political structure of Tamil Nadu.

"There is no single dominating issue and anti-incumbency is not visible, but the point is you cannot predict elections in Tamil Nadu. Parties have lost power in (past) elections even though they have not had a negative record."

Although coming off the success of schemes aimed at helping the poor, such as the "Amma" or "mother" canteens that offer food at highly subsidised rates, Ms Jayalalithaa is not taking any chances.

She is personally selecting candidates for the assembly seats and even denying seats to some of her Cabinet colleagues. She is expected to hit the campaign trail on Saturday in Chennai's RK Nagar, where she is seeking re-election.

Unlike other parties where dissension is an issue, Ms Jayalalithaa's popularity remains undiminished even though she was briefly jailed in 2014 and lost her post following a graft conviction that was overturned by a High Court last year.

There is confidence of a return to power in the party.

"She is fit as a fiddle," said an AIADMK functionary who did not want to be named. "You will see, she will campaign extensively throughout Tamil Nadu."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 07, 2016, with the headline 'Tamil Nadu leader tipped for poll victory'. Subscribe