MADURAI, India - The ghosts of leaders past haunt Tamil Nadu as the southern state prepares to elect its government on Tuesday (April 6).
In Chennai, a woman eating idli froze as she heard the voice of the late Ms J. Jayalalithaa endorsing a candidate for her party, until she realised that the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) was simply running an old tape of the leader in a passing campaign van.
In Madurai, teashops blared a song about the late Mr M Karunanidhi's oratory in canvassing votes for his son MK Stalin, the leader of the current opposition party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
In Thiruvannamalai, Mr Jayaraj Duraimurugan, a medical student and first-time voter, wore a T-shirt with a line drawing of an old man with a great white flowing beard. This is radical social activist EV Ramasamy, or Periyar, from whose self-respect movement and social justice ideals in the 1920s the DMK and later the AIADMK emerged - he's the loudest of all ghosts today.
Tamil Nadu is having an election like never before. Its iconic, warring leaders are dead, leaving the two Dravidian parties grappling to find not just new faces, but also new direction. They're facing the might of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as it tries to expand its vote share in the progressive and fiercely autonomous Tamil state that has always rejected the Hindu nationalist party.
Even as they campaign furiously outside, the ultimate churn is on the inside of both Dravidian parties. A lot is at stake.
"With the BJP at the doorstep, this election is not just about choosing the next chief minister. It will determine the future of Dravidian politics and state autonomy in India," said Dr Ramu Manivannan, head of the political department at the Madras University.
Since 1967, only Dravidian parties have ruled here, prioritising Tamil cultural identity and social justice policies like reserving college seats and job opportunities for 'backward' castes, free meal schemes that boosted school enrolment, and industrial development that especially helped disempowered caste groups.
National parties like the Congress could subsist in Tamil Nadu only as allies of the regional parties. In 2021, the BJP has done the same, entering into an alliance with the ruling AIADMK, which faces a tough re-election after 10 years in power, the last few turbulent with factional infighting.
"For the past 20 years, DMK and AIADMK clashed on personalities, but both proceeded on the same Dravidian ideology. But the BJP's ideology is diametrically opposed to ours. To fight against it, we have to strengthen and propagate our own ideals," said DMK's organising secretary and parliamentarian TKS Elangovan.
DMK's IT wing chief PTR Thiagarajan, who is part of Mr Stalin's close team, has been at the forefront of this "return to values," as he calls it.
The former investment banker and grandson of a Dravidian movement founder launched the Dravidian Professionals Forum in December last year, a group of social scientists, accountants and lawyers to revive lost support among the educated upper middle class.
Listing the state's high per capita income and favourable social indicators like gender ratio, Chennai-based corporate lawyer Pugazh Gandhi, the coordinator of the Forum said: "Our aim is to inform educated, successful Tamils of the role equal-opportunity politics played in their success."
During the pandemic, the Forum held virtual book discussions on the economy and relevance of Periyar's works, and contributed to the DMK's election manifesto.
Meanwhile, the IT wing's over 26,000 members have, since 2017, sharpened the party's social media messaging to reflect a sharp anti-BJP stance. On April 1, for example, dozens of DMK election candidates tweeted invitations to Prime Minister Modi to campaign for their opponents to help widen their "winning margin" of votes.
"For a decade now, the party had lacked infrastructure, institutional memory and data to support precise decision making," Mr Thiagarajan said. Recently, it digitised and streamlined electoral data, did post-poll surveys and studied election mechanisms.
The DMK hopes these reforms will help distract from charges of the party being dynastic and corrupt.
The AIADMK, meanwhile, hopes to simply survive beyond this election. "This election will choose the next leadership of the AIADMK," said Mr Rabi Bernard, a member and former parliamentarian.
After Ms Jayalalithaa died in 2016, her close friend Sasikala Natarajan took the reins of the party but was jailed in 2016 for corruption. The party expelled her but began to crumble into factions.
To keep it together and return it to power, incumbent chief minister Edappadi K Palanisami joined hands with the BJP, the richest and most powerful party in India today. It's an uncomfortable alliance, say analysts, leading Mr Palanisami to cede more ground than any Tamil Nadu leader has before. When a BJP leader said their win would "end Periyarism" in Tamil Nadu, AIADMK leaders struggled to defend it.
To win public trust, AIADMK leaders on campaign now assure that they will protect state interests, like promising to revoke centralised medical exams and opposing the citizenship laws that it earlier controversially backed. In a Chennai campaign, Mr Palanisami quoted the AIADMK's "efficient relief work" during the pandemic, Mr Modi's free cooking gas scheme, and the opportunities for Tamil Nadu if it aligned with the nation's ruling party.
"If we get a majority, then this experiment with the BJP will go undisputed. But if the AIADMK is completely routed, then there will be a bitter battle for leadership," Mr Bernard said.
That battle might bring back the influential Mrs Sasikala, now out of jail but sitting out this election.
Whoever wins, Dr Manivannan hoped that the AIADMK would survive with a strong leadership. "If Dravidians vacate the opposition, it will be the Hindu nationalism versus Tamil nationalism, which is dangerous for Tamil Nadu and the country," he said.
For now, as medical student Mr Jayaraj said, "This election decides which white beard will rule over Tamil Nadu - Periyar's or Modi's."