N Sathiya Moorthy 

 9 April 2024

Constituencies that are going to the polls in the first phase, slated for April 19, have just 19 days for campaigning and will have to wait for 45 days for the results. Contrast that with those going to polls in the 7th phase, notes N Sathiya Moorthy.

Political parties are not complaining, maybe they do not have time and energy for it, given the short campaign time in the Election Commission’s schedule for the first phase of the seven-phase polling for the Lok Sabha polls.

But the fact is that the states or constituencies that are going to the polls in the first phase, slated for April 19, have just 19 days for campaigning after the withdrawal of nominations, and will have to wait for a full 45 days for knowing the results, scheduled for June 4, on the completion of polling across the country’s 543 constituencies.

A total of 102 constituencies in 21 states and Union Territories have polling in the first phase.

That includes 39 in a large state like Tamil Nadu, with an add-on in the form of the adjoining Union Territory of Puducherry.

The worst hit among them are Independents, who within the stipulated time-frame are expected to popularise their symbols among the constituency’s voters, numbering around 1.5 million to 2 million.

The irony here is that Tamil Nadu’s three-time chief minister O Panneerselvam (OPS) is one of those independents, contesting in the coastal constituency of Ramanathapuram where the recent Katchatheevu controversy is located.

He is an ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, after courts refused to concede his demand to contest on the AIADMK’s ‘Two Leaves’ symbol.

OPS had once headed the party, which under his successor chief minister, Edappadi Palaniswami, has since expelled him.

OPS is an outsider to the constituency, having been forced to stay away from his native Theni constituency, where his son Raveendranath Kumar had won on the ‘Two Leaves’ symbol in the 2019 elections.

Raveendranath Kumar was the lone winner from the AIADMK-BJP alliance in 2019, the rest of them, including Puducherry going to the rival DMK-Congress combine.

According to reports, the BJP wanted OPS and his ex-AIADMK leaders to contest on the party’s ‘Lotus’ symbol.

Following in the footsteps of the two Dravidian majors, namely the ruling DMK and the Opposition AIADMK, the BJP’s strategy this time is to show a higher poll percentage on the ‘Lotus’ symbol, to claim the second place in the state — at least for the rest of the country to see — whether or not it is able to unseat the DMK-Congress combine.

Panneerselvam is not the only non-BJP candidate to contest as BJP’s ally but on an ‘Independent’ symbol.

He has been allotted ‘Jackfruit’ as his symbol — but he does not have enough time to popularise his symbol.

By itself his group does not have enough cadres in the constituency or elsewhere in the state, possibly barring his native Theni constituency.

Of course, the BJP has a substantial presence, but voters identify them with the ‘Lotus’ symbol.

They too may thus find it difficult to replace the associated voter image, from the Lotus to the Jackfruit this time.

OPS is not alone in the BJP alliance facing the predicament.

His estranged erstwhile AIADMK colleague T T V Dhinakaran has been allotted two seats by the BJP against the one that he confessed he had sought.

Behind the two-seat theory is the Election Commission rule that unregistered/unrecognised parties contesting in two constituencies alone would be entitled to choose a symbol from the Independents pool.

This way, Dhinakaran gets to retain his ‘Pressure Cooker’ symbol from his victory in the R K Nagar assembly constituency in Chennai, earlier held by the late AIADMK chief minister Jayalalithaa.

Of course, TTV had won from Theni, where he is an ‘outsider’ once earlier, but that was under the popular ‘Two Leaves’ symbol.

Though reports claim that TTV has been working in the constituency for the past two years, and hopes for support from the OPS clan in Theni, his camp accepts in private that they do not have adequate time either to popularise the ‘Pressure Cooker’ in the constituency, or to erase the voter memory that links TTV and his cadres to the ‘Two Leaves’.

But then, the BJP-National Democratic Alliance is not alone in it.

In the rival DMK-Congress combine, the MDMK’s Durai Vaiyapuri, son of party founder Vaiko, is facing the music in urban Tiruchi, where they count on local DMK strongman and senior state minister K N Nehru.

It is another matter that Nehru’s son Arun Nehru is the DMK candidate in the adjoining Perambalur constituency, but their collective problem is to popularise Durai Vaiko’s symbol ‘Matchbox’ against the MDMK’s traditional symbol ‘Top’, which it lost long ago after failing to meet any of the Election Commission criteria.

Already, the not-so-politically experienced Durai Vaiko/Vaiyapuri had an avoidable run-in, that too in front of the camera, when at a joint cadre meeting of the INDIA bloc a fortnight before he was allotted the ‘Matchbox’ symbol, an anxious lower-level office-bearer of the DMK told him to his face that it would have been easy for them to take his symbol to the voters if he had contested on the DMK’s ‘Rising Sun’ symbol, and Vaiko’s sentimentally-touchy son swore that he would rather die if he could not contest on his party’s symbol.

It required a lot of prodding at higher levels to pacify the DMK cadres, who predictably are upset that the new symbol is not even the traditional one of the MDMK.

Nothing explains the problems faced by political party cadres in popularising new symbols to the voters within the available time, which is less than three weeks.

Worse still, over the past two decades and more, the Election Commission’s restrictions have cut into the campaign period, from months to weeks to days, and daily timing only up to 10 pm.

With the number of two-income families increasing exponentially in the post-Reforms era, especially in ‘developed states’ like Tamil Nadu, the restriction on campaign period and daily timing has denied a ‘level playing field’ for all Independent candidates to popularise their symbols.

According to insiders in both the DMK and BJP-led alliances, if their otherwise well-known candidates lose, then it would owe mainly to their symbols, or lack of time to popularise it among a large electorate spread across six assembly segments, in towns and villages alike.

As may be recalled, Tamil Nadu is the fastest-urbanising state in the country, with a 50+ per cent urbanisation.

Statistics recently showed that half the women factory workers in the country reside in the state.

Then, there are issues like the large fisher population in OPS’s Ramanathapuram being out at sea for all day and at times night, running up to early morning hours and beyond.

In Dhinakaran’s Theni, mountain-villages are hard to access, that too in the summer.

Less said about Durai Vaiyapuri’s urbanised Tiruchi, where people are always on the move because of central PSU jobs, factory and farm work, alike.

Like Dhinakaran, you have a DMK ally in Thol Thirumavalavan’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi.  He was made to wait until the very last minute — though thankfully not beyond — to obtain the earlier symbol ‘Pot’.

In 2019, one of the VCK’s two MPs contested and won on the DMK’s ‘Rising Sun’ symbol.

Thirumavalavan alone won his Chidambaram (SC) seat on the ‘Pot’ symbol.

It took the VCK’s petition before the Madras high court and also the fact that the party has four MLAs in the state assembly who had won their seats on the ‘Pot’ symbol in the DMK alliance, before the Election Commission relented.

The delay has meant loss of valuable campaign time, required to popularise the symbol across extended Lok Sabha constituencies with six assembly segments each.

The ultimate loser in this symbolic game of symbols is actor-politician Seeman’s Naam Thamizhar Katchi (NKT).

It’s ironic that the party and leader who had named their candidates for, yes, all 40 constituencies, including Puducherry, weeks ahead of the rest, and who have been actively campaigning across the state without respite after every election, was denied the old symbol of ‘Sugarcane Farmer’.

The reason? The Election Commission claimed that Seeman, whose party was not ‘recognised’, was late in seeking the ‘reserved’ symbol, and a Karnataka outfit had sought and obtained it months earlier.

According to the Election Commission, the Karnataka party that got the ‘Sugarcane Farmer’ symbol also intended contesting in Tamil Nadu.

According to news reports, the party held a news conference to announce that it planned to do so.

Now, after the closing of nominations and allotment of symbols, the claim needs verification.

One may contest Seeman’s style of politics and campaign, and more so his pan-Tamil political ideology and philosophy, but everyone is stumped by his never-say-die electoral attitude, and his ability to return to the political arena after every defeat, like only DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi had done before him.

As if on cue still, the Election Commission has allotted the ‘Mike’ symbol to the NKT as Seeman’s imagery in individual minds is always about his standing in front of a mike or holding a mike and addressing those before him with an aggressive face and an assertive tone.

Yet, insiders concede that it will still be difficult for them to popularise the new symbol across all constituencies as the fewer number of cadres compared to the DMK, AIADMK and even the BJP combines would have to be spread across all 40 constituencies.

Their hope is that some of the anti-Centre, anti-Modi votes that the ‘DMK has been able to reap the last time round’ may come their way because of the anti-incumbency factor against the ruling party in the state.

But they are not sure if those votes would actually be cast because of the symbolic confusion over the party’s symbol.

For candidates, the problem of identification does not stop there.

This is especially so for OPS in Ramanathapuram, whom the EPS camp wants defeated, squarely.

When it all started, the perception was the DMK combine would sweep all 40 seats and the AIADMK would lag far behind, possibly in third place behind the BJP-NDA.

A solo victory for OPS and a state-wide reversal for the parent party would have meant a churning within the AIADMK about the effectiveness of EPS as a vote-getter, after his leadership having lost two elections, in 2019 and 2021 — though in the BJP’s company, when the Tamil voter was anti-Hindutva (and still remains so, according to some). Guess how the EPS camp handles the situation?

As if the ‘Jackfruit’ symbol was not enough of a problem, OPS is faced with four other candidates bearing the same name, ‘O Panneerselvam’, all of them contesting as Independents with different symbols.

Imagine a semi-literate voter in a remote village looking for an identifiable symbol, even Jackfruit, but finds it mixed up with similar names…..

The situation is no better for the BJP’s A C Shanmugam with his own ‘New Justice Party’ but contesting on the ‘Lotus’ symbol.

Shanmugam lost to the DMK’s Kathir Ananth, party general secretary and senior minister S Duraimurugan’s son, in a countermanded poll in 2019, after election monitors recovered cash for distribution to voters, from the victor’s factory premises.

Kathir still managed to win by a low 8,000-vote margin while most DMK alliance victors had recorded huge margins.

This time, there are five Shanmugams contesting for the Vellore seat, four of them Independents.

If the AIADMK is seen as being behind fielding four OPS in Ramanathapuram to spite the ‘real OPS’ and confuse the voters, the party local strongman is said to have followed the tactics in Vellore after A C Shanmugam told voters that the AIADMK man, then a senior minister, had ‘stabbed me in the back’.

Likewise, Congress MP Jothimani in Karur constituency has three Independents with her name contesting as Independents.

In 2019, Jothimani had defeated then deputy speaker Thambidurai by a massive 450,000 vote-margin.

Her fate is said to be hanging in the balance after she visibly antagonised the local DMK cadres, starting with local strongman, jailed former minister Senthil Balaji.

The introduction of three more candidates by the same name may not upset the Congress candidate, as her ‘Hand’ symbol is very well known.

If she wins, it would be because of rival Modi and the alliance DMK cadres on the one hand, and her party’s ‘Hand’ symbol on the other.

Discounting the INDIA bloc’s allegation that an independent constitutional authority like the Election Commission, too, was functioning as an extension of the ruling BJP, there is a real question that it would have to address and find answers for.

On the face of it, it is all about the lack of time available to candidates, especially ‘Independents’, that too in the first-phase of polling, thus denying them a ‘level-playing field’.

But the larger question is the way in which the late T N Seshan’s ways of restricting campaign days and time per day has contributed to the electoral autocracy of established parties and their entrenched leaderships.

Narendra Modi definitely does not belong to a political dynasty like the rival Congress leadership and those of many regional outfits arrayed with him and more so, against him.

But Modi is still a brand, and his word is law, not only in the country when he is PM but also in his BJP.

So is M K Stalin in Tamil Nadu, and a host of other leaders, whether belonging to a political dynasty or not, across the country.

That should include Seeman and his NKT, which polled 3.90 per cent, which went up to 6.58 per cent in the assembly polls two years later, in 2021.

Unknown to the parties and the Election Commission, which is tasked with ensuring greater democratisation in the nation’s polity and society, the idea of restricted campaign time has led to a situation where the party’s flag, symbol and the leader’s branding alone can win or lose an election, be it for the Lok Sabha or for the state assembly.

Gone are the days when parties chose candidates who had a solid cadre and voter-backing to call his own, to which the institutionalised support system added much more, to try and make him a victor.

Ask party cadres, and they would tell you how greater urbanisation and shorter time-period for ‘introducing the candidate’s face — and at times, symbol — has led to a system of ever-increasing bribes for voters, as they otherwise do not get to see the candidate, in many cases even once before the election.

Lately, the ‘incentive’ is only for the voter to go to the polling booth and invariably, he or she votes on his or her ‘free will’ uninfluenced by competitive bribes that he or she had been offered by competing political parties.

This time, there would be independents too, doing it even more vigorously.