Following the demise of Congress MLA Thirumagan Everaa, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has announced a byelection to the Erode East constituency on 27 February.
The byelection has grabbed the attention of voters in Tamil Nadu, with the political landscape changing a lot since the last Assembly elections.
Political observers consider this by-election to be a challenge for Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS), who is in a tussle with O Panneerselvam (OPS) for the AIADMK leadership.
It is also the DMK’s first byelection after assuming power. In the last elections, there was a wave in favour of the DMK and its alliance due to the severe anti-incumbency against the then-ruling AIADMK.
Now, according to political observers, there is growing anti-incumbency against the ruling DMK for various reasons, including the controversial speeches of its ministers, a hike in electricity charges, and a deteriorating law and order situation.
Further, the poll promise of monthly financial assistance of ₹1,000 to women heads of families has not been fulfilled yet.
What works in DMK’s favour is the fact that it is in power, and, generally, incumbent governments have an edge in byelections.
A Congress seat
On Thursday, 19 January, Tamil Nadu Congress president KS Alagiri said: “It is a seat (Erode East) won by the Congress and we will contest it again.” He added that the candidate would be announced “in three days”.
Alagiri has also started meeting with alliance leaders, seeking their support.
Highly placed sources in the DMK confirmed to South First that the constituency is allotted to Congress and it would announce the candidate’s name in the coming week.
In the last election, the late MLA Thirumagan EVR of the Congress secured 67,300 votes, whereas M Yuvaraja, the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) candidate who contested on the “Two Leaves” symbol of the AIADMK, secured 58,396 votes. The vote difference was 8,904.
The Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) secured 11,629 votes and actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) secured 10,005 votes.
Sources in the MNM told South First that the party would not contest the byelection and would lend its support to the Congress candidate.
The MNM had a decent vote share — 6.58 percent — in the last election, and if those votes are transferred to the Congress, it would give the party an added advantage.
Related: Tamil Maanila Congress gives up Erode East constituency for AIADMK
Real test for EPS
AIADMK’s Interim General Secretary EPS will be taking a bet on his political heft by testing the waters in the Erode East by-election.
Given its internal tussle, with EPS and OPS staking claim to leadership of the party, most political observers believe that if EPS fields a candidate, OPS, too, will field one of his choice.
This could potentially lead to the ECI freezing the party’s ‘Two Leaves’ symbol.
Speaking to South First, senior Journalist D Suresh Kumar said that, as of now, the ‘Two Leaves’ symbol can be allotted only through the joint signatures of EPS and OPS in Form B, and in the absence of consensus between the two, there is a possibility that the symbol may be frozen, leaving the candidates of the two leaders to contest on independent symbols.
“EPS wants to consolidate himself because he belongs to the western belt. A decision to contest the byelection will mean he has decided to show his strength, even if he loses. And one must not forget that the ruling party will always put all its ‘might’ to win the byelection,” he added.
Sources close to OPS said that they are waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court. OPS is firm about announcing a candidate, they said, even though he does not have a base in the western region. He will not give up his claim on the top position of AIADMK for a byelection.
Confusion for cadre
The AIADMK cadres will not have forgotten the RK Nagar byelection that was held in 2017. It was the second time in the history of the party that the ‘Two Leaves’ symbol was frozen because both VK Sasikala and OPS staked claim to it.
When South First asked if there would be discontent among the cadres and whether it would weaken the party if the ‘Two Leaves’ symbol was frozen because of OPS, a person close to his faction said that “EPS has to think about it”.
Pointing to the local body elections that were held last year, when OPS wrote to EPS that he was ready to sign Forms A and B for the party candidates so that they can contest under the ‘Two Leaves’ symbol and EPS turned down his request, he said: “OPS will not do it this time unless there is a compromise.”
Speaking to South First, the AIADMK Spokesperson Kovai Sathyan stated that the ‘Two Leaves’ symbol won’t be frozen since a verdict was expected from the Supreme Court next week.
“People are fed up with this 20-months’ (DMK) rule and there is an anti-family incumbency within the DMK cadre and anti-incumbency among the people. So this byelection will be different,” Kovai Sathyan said.
When asked whether the byelection was an opportunity to prove EPS’s strength within the party and in the Tamil Nadu political arena, Sathyan said: “The Dindigul byelection was crucial and it proved ‘the might’ of MGR, our founder. In the same way, this byelection will prove big for EPS.”
According to sources, AIADMK has decided to place KV Ramalingam or KS Thennarasu, the stalwarts of the party in Erode region, as its candidate in the by-election.
Also read: OPS tells SC that rules were tailored to make EPS general secretary
Annamalai’s power play
Hours after the byelection was announced, BJP constituted a 14-member committee to coordinate election-related work in Erode East Assembly constituency, which includes the sitting MLA C Saraswathi of Modakurichi constituency.
The interest shown by BJP in the byelection was evident and there is speculation that the party may go it alone, even though it is in an alliance with the AIADMK.
Speaking to reporters in Chennai on Thursday evening, Annamalai said he had given a detailed analysis to the party high command in Delhi on the Erode East constituency byelection and that it would take a final call.
Speaking to South First, state BJP Vice President Narayanan Thirupathy said: “We have already conveyed our thoughts to the BJP high command and we will be discussing it with the allies and also within the party. When the time comes, we will decide.”
Sources close to Annamalai told South First that he has told the BJP high command that, given the tussle between EPS and OPS, if one announces a candidate, the other would too.
“In such a case, the Two Leaves symbol would be frozen and it will be hard for the AIADMK or even the TMC to win the byelection without the symbol. In such a scenario the BJP could contest on its Lotus symbol,” the source said.
But the idea was brushed aside by AIADMK leaders when it was conveyed to them.
“To validate the growth of the BJP under his leadership, Annamalai could go it alone in the byelections as he did in the local body election,” the source added.
According to him, Annamalai also pointed out that the ruling DMK would use all the government machinery under its command and cash will flow freely, and only the BJP can counter this using its power at the Center.
Western belt politics
Journalist Suresh Kumar, who keeps a close watch on politics in the state’s western belt, pointed out that Annamalai belongs to the region and is also from the same community as EPS, as are a majority of the voters among whom he is emerging as a leader.
But he does not think it likely that the AIADMK would allot the constituency to BJP as its ally.
“I don’t think AIADMK will do that. If AIADMK leaders wanted to allot Erode East to the BJP, they would have asked BJP itself to speak to the TMC and AIADMK leaders would not have gone to GK Vasan,” Suresh Kumar pointed out.
However, Kovai Sathyan was clear: “We are heading the alliance and what the AIADMK decides, every other ally will fall in line with it. Whatever decision the AIADMK takes, the BJP will go by it.”
Asked about the possibility of the BJP dropping out of the alliance and going it alone in the Erode East constituency, Sathyan said that whenever a third front has formed in Tamil Nadu, it had benefited the AIADMK.
“The core vote bank of AIADMK will remain. And past election data shows that it is the DMK’s vote bank that has split because of a third front or party. The splitting of votes always favours the AIADMK,” Sathyan said.
Brushing aside the caste factor, Sathyan said the days when people voted purely on a caste basis are gone. Also, Erode East constituency is an urban area.
“The caste factor will never drive the election results in one’s favour. Now the highest population of voters is youngsters and they don’t believe in voting on the basis of caste or community.”