M Karunanidhi can't lift himself. J Jayalalithaa can't stand up. And Vijayakanth cannot walk straight. Vikatan TV's P Thirumavelan couldn't have summarised the state of Tamil Nadu's geriatric election better. "Are we having a state election or a health election?" he asks. And, while it may be uncomfortable to question people about their illnesses, the criticism is more than valid for anyone running for public office.
Consider this: A victory for the Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam will mean M Karunanidhi – now 93 years old – becoming the state's chief minister again. Asked whether he would give way to his son and political heir, Karunanidhi said, "Stalin can become chief minister only if nature does something to me."
Stalin is himself not the most able-bodied politician in the fray. Although he remains the secretary of the party's youth wing (a post he has held for decades now), the 63-year-old scion suffered a stroke in 2011 and has battled rumours about his own health for a while.
Then there is chief minister J Jayalalithaa. Nobody officially talks about the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief's illnesses – for fear of sedition charges from the most vindictive, trigger-happy chief minister in the country – and yet this vacuum of information means rumours of her sickness abound. Is it her kidneys or her liver? Is the 68-year-old unable to climb stairs? Why does she need to fly back to Chennai every evening?
DMK vs AIADMK
These concerns don't matter as much for the election that is around the corner on May 16, despite Thirumavelan's intervention ("Are you picking people for the chief minister position or sending them for a health check up?"). But five years is a long time and the state will at some point have to face politics without either of these stalwarts.
It's almost impossible to imagine Tamil Nadu elections without Amma and Kalaignar. Karunanidhi was first elected to the state assembly in 1957, almost six decades ago. Jayalalithaa meanwhile, first contested, elections in 1983. The state has see-sawed between the two major Dravidian parties since the 1960s, with both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa getting turns running the state.
What happens when the two of them are gone?
The answer can be found in the talk of a four- or five-cornered contest in Tamil Nadu. Aside from the AIADMK and the DMK, which is contesting with the Congress, those corners are:
- The People's Welfare Front: With the Desiya Morpokku Dravida Kazhagam's Vijayakanth as its chief ministerial candidate, this grouping also includes the communist parties, the Tamil Maanila Congress, Thol Thirumavalavan's Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and Vaiko's Maarumalarchi Dravida Kazhagam.
- The Pattali Makal Katchi, run by former Union Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss.
- The Bharatiya Janata Party, which jumped in with much fanfare in putting together a rainbow alliance in 2014, but has failed to achieve much since.
Only the Congress has chosen to ally with the DMK and in doing so it has given a huge leg up to Stalin, who was seen sharing a stage with Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi during the campaign. The leadership battle within the DMK is more than settled giving some continuity to the party, and Stalin has worked hard to burnish his own image through the Nammaku Name campaign.
Yet Stalin without Kalaignar backing him up is, naturally, an untested commodity and it is impossible to predict what happens to the DMK after its leader of more than five decades is gone.
Meanwhile, an AIADMK without Amma – whether because of illness or the Supreme Court corruption case coming back to bite – is hard to imagine. Jayalalithaa has ensured no one can challenge her supremacy in the party, with suspicions falling even on the interim chief minister that she anointed while in jail.
Watch the vote share
All these conversations about a multi-cornered contest this year have little to do with the next goverment. Nobody is seriously expecting anyone other than either the AIADMK or the DMK to be running Tamil Nadu for the next five years. The chief minister will be either Jayalalithaa or Karunanidhi.
But it is likely that many constituencies will have close battles, allowing some of the others to play spoiler or king-maker. Moreover, from Ramadoss to Vijayakanth to the Tamil nationalist Seeman, all the smaller players are seeing this election as an opportunity to build a platform that can turn into a launch pad a few years down the line.
Which is why, while the battle between DMK and AIADMK continues, the real metric to watch this election will not be seats but vote share. Any of the alternatives to the Dravidian majors that is able to manage a decent number of votes, even if that doesn't convert into seats, will be hopeful that it is building the blocks for a post-Amma-Kalaignar Tamil Nadu.