Alliances in Tamil Nadu, conventional wisdom dictates, often decide electoral outcomes. In the 80s and 90s, an alliance with the INC was considered crucial. In the late 90s and early aughts, the PMK sought to portray itself as the deciding factor. In the past decade, the DMDK has tried to capture that space. Three of the possible four major formations have publicly sought the DMDK as an alliance partner for 2016 Assembly Elections. But how effective are these allies? In particular, how useful an ally is the DMDK?
Let’s consider the DMDK. It was part of the victorious ADMK combine in 2011 and was the second biggest party in the legislative assembly. But that is not a full measure of how good an ally the DMDK was. In constituencies that the DMDK contested, it got 44.84% of the votes polled. While its dominant partner, the ADMK, got 53.93%. That is, the DMDK underperformed its dominant partner by 9 percentage points. But that doesn’t give a full picture either. The four other junior partners in that alliance were: CPI, CPIM, PT and MMK. They only contested in 27 seats, put together, as opposed to the DMDK having contested in 41. But three of those four parties polled much better in the constituencies they contested in compared to the DMDK. The DMDK underperformed every party in the electoral alliance except the MMK in 2011.
Now, consider the Lok Sabha elections of 2014. DMDK had moved away from the ADMK alliance to the NDA; it was the dominant partner in that alliance contesting in 14 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats. In those 14 seats, the party got an average of 15.94% of the votes. The other NDA allies, in the seats they contested, got an average of 26.06% of the votes polled. That is, the DMDK underperformed its allies in an alliance in which it was the dominant party by over 10 percentage points!
It’s not even the DMDK’s case that it’s stronger in 2016 than it was in past elections. For a party that’s been a drag on all the alliances it has been part of, it’s a bit confusing as to why it’s sought after so much. If the DMDK were in a direct contest with ADMK, and it continues the trend of underperforming its own alliance by 10 percentage points, it needs a wave to win. Under regular circumstances, the ADMK will win comfortably in a direct contest with just its core vote.
The other complication that the DMDK presents to its alliance partners is: it seeks too many seats. The DMDK, unlike say the PMK, does not have a caste base as its core vote. This means its votes are diffused; that partly explains why it underperforms compared to more sub-regional parties. If the DMK were to ally with the DMDK and allotted 60 seats for the latter to contest(as it’s being speculated), that’s too much of a risk given the ADMK may well win most of them. Further, the DMDK voter by not being a caste bloc is more likely to not be additive to the dominant partner. The two Dalit parties (VCK and PT) and PMK, claim with some evidence, that their vote is transferable. That is their dominant ally can count on them. The DMDK, at least on the basis of past results, can make no such claims.
A good example of the complicated caste dynamic making PMK a good ally is the 2014 Chidambaram Lok Sabha result. The ADMK won that seat; but what is interesting is that its vote share for the constituency is one of the lowest among the seats it won at 42.5%. The DMK alliance did particularly well as Thol Thirmavalavan contested here as an ally and got 30.26% of the votes. But what is of importance is that the PMK did much better than its average performance elsewhere; it got 27% of the votes at over 5 percentage points higher than the alliance’s mean vote share. The only explanation that people who’ve studied Chidambaram will give is: the Vanniyars rallied behind PMK because they did not want Dalits to win. That kind of effect, had the elections been close, would have been crucial. The DMDK simply does not have a story like that to sell.
There are only 5 parties in Tamil Nadu that bring with them a transferable vote: PMK, VCK, PT, CPI and CPM. Of these, the VCK and PMK are incompatible as allies owing to caste factors; the PMK has also announced it won’t ally with either Dravidian party. So, if the DMK wants to win, allying with the Left and two Dalit parties appears a much better option compared to the DMDK. But those smaller parties have announced a new alliance among themselves called PWF with the VCK wanting a Dalit Chief Minister; which, one agrees, has to happen.
Unless there’s some secret sauce that the DMDK hasn’t made public yet, the only reason well informed politicians have to talk the DMDK’s stock up is to make it seem dearer to the opposition.
PS: Here’s the Data Source.