Tamil Nadu is well known for its many smaller parties. Competitive elections and the pragmatic political culture of the state encourage entrepreneurial leaders to form new parties. Most of these political entrepreneurs hope to get a place for their outfit in a larger alliance. A few, such as Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, have their eyes on bigger prizes. In terms of seats small parties did poorly in 2016. Only those in alliance with J Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and M Karunanidhi’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam won seats.

Vijayakanth did particularly badly, coming third in his own constituency. His party as a whole won a meagre 2.4% state-wide vote share. This was a slump from a vote share of 7.9% in 2011 and 8.4% in 2006.

The bigger picture

Yet the overall picture is slightly more complicated. Taken as a whole, small parties gained a respectable vote share. However the first-past-the-post voting system punishes smaller parties. This is why small parties outside of a large alliance took a 16.1% vote share but no seats.

The People’s Welfare Front was formed in October 2015 to take on the larger parties. It included Thol Thirumavalvan’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India and Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. In March, weeks before nominations opened, Vijayakanth allied his Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam with the Front. GK Vasan also brought his Tamil Maanila Congress into the alliance later.

The expanded People’s Welfare Front campaigned against the corruption of the two main Dravidian parties, advocated total prohibition, coalition government and corruption-free rule. It tried to capitalise on the weaknesses of the main Dravidian parties but their challenge was limited by uncertain leadership and a lack of resources. The public image of Vijayakanth, and to an extent Vaiko as well, has deteriorated since the last Assembly elections.

A troubled captain

Vijayakanth, also known as captain, was targeted by the DMK, which, in 2011, had engaged the comedian Vadivelu to tour the state mocking the DMDK leader. Vijayakanth’s eccentric behaviour in public was picked up by hostile television channels this time too. These attacks were amplified as satirical videos and jokes about the DMDK leader also circulated on social media.

Vijayakanth’s party also had its own problems. Discontent with party management led several senior leaders to leave the DMDK. Some resent the dominance of members of Vijayakanth’s family. Many middle-level leaders were keen on a DMDK-DMK alliance and they made their displeasure known when Vijayakanth opted for the People’s Welfare Front. Grassroots members have been drifting away from the party as well, citing poor leadership.

Vaiko’s MDMK was a logical partner for the other parties in the People’s Welfare Front. He had shown enthusiasm for progressive causes and engaged in a number of principled protests on issues like Tamil eelam in the past. However, the popularity of the MDMK has been fading since his party polled 6% in the 2006 Assembly elections. Some of Vaiko’s fire has been stolen by younger Tamil nationalist leaders, like Seeman of the Naam Thamizhar Katchi, or NTK.

Vaiko also stumbled in the election campaign. He had to apologise to DMK leader Karunanidhi for personal comments made in a campaign speech in April. Fellow alliance members were dismayed when Vaiko decided, at the last-minute, not to contest a seat himself.

Overall the expanded People’s Welfare Front suffered from a lack of resources. They could not match the money spent by the two main alliances. The VCK campaigned vigorously but its leader Thirumavalvan fell just short of winning his own contest in Kattumannarkoil. The DMDK-PWF-TMC alliance did poorly, with the six parties together securing just 6.1% of the vote.

Opportunities lie ahead

The Pattali Makkal Katchi lined up to fight the election independently of the AIADMK and the DMK. A decision was taken in 2014 to project Anbumani Ramadoss, son of the party leader, S Ramadoss, as the candidate for chief minister. Anbumani attempted to fashion a new, modern image for the party, distancing himself from its orientation to the Vanniar caste group.

The PMK stretched itself with 234 candidates and a heavy commitment in the Pennagaram seat where Anbumani was the candidate. The PMK failed to win any seats, but it did secure 5.3% of the statewide vote with a concentration of support in the northern part of the state. It came third in 68 seats, which gives it a good position in future alliance negotiations.

The Bharatiya Janata Party was not able to secure a major ally and fell back on its core support. It improved its concentration of support a little over the 2011 results, picking up four second places in Kanyakumari district and stood ahead of other small parties to take third place in a number of seats in Chennai and Coimbatore. However, with a statewide share of the vote of 2.8% the BJP remains a minor player in state politics.

Even though the small parties won very few seats, it is too soon to write them off. The DMK gave seats to Congress and seven other small parties. The AIADMK gave tickets to candidates from six small parties.

The 2016 election was closely fought and the AIADMK secured its majority with a very narrow margin in terms of vote share (1.1%). The alliances of the AIADMK and DMK took a combined 80.5% share of the vote (down from 90.9% in 2011). The two main Dravidian parties will almost certainly seek expanded alliances to increase their chances of winning the next Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. The leaders of smaller parties still see opportunities ahead.

Andrew Wyatt teaches Indian politics at the University of Bristol, and is the author of Party System Change in South India. C. Manikandan is with the Department of Politics and International Studies, Pondicherry University. With support from the Trivedi Centre for Political Data.