With just two months to go for the Lok Sabha polls, election strategising Tamil Nadu is well underway. In recent weeks, the Congress has been in talks with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, while the Bharatiya Janata Party has been conducting discussions with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in an attempt to formulate agreements on sharing the state’s 39 Parliamentary seats.

In addition, both the Dravidian parties have been conducting negotiations with smaller parties in the state.

In the midst of the negotiations, the regional Pattali Makkal Katchi party has emerged as an important piece of the puzzle. Led by S Ramadoss, the Pattali Makkal Katchi has a solid base in the Vanniyar community-dominated belt of northern Tamil Nadu. In the 2014 general elections, it was part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, which formed a Third Front in the state.

On Saturday, leaders of the both Congress and the BJP said that the Pattali Makkal Katchi was in discussions with officials in each of these fronts.

‘Crucial stage’

Even as a senior leader in the Congress said that talks in New Delhi with Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leaders Kanimozhi and TR Balu in New Delhi had reached “a crucial stage” on Saturday night, negotiations were complicated by the Pattali Makkal Katchi talks with the Dravidian party last week.

According to the leader, the Congress initially wanted nine seats in Tamil Nadu and the lone seat in Puducherry, where the party is in power. However, with the Pattali Makkal Katchi showing an interest in the alliance, the Congress feels it may lose “two to three seats” from its share.

The Congress leader said the Pattali Makkal Katchi has demanded six Lok Sabha seats and the promise of a Rajya Sabha seat. This Upper House seat will allow the Pattali Makkal Katchi to send Sowmiya Anbumani to Parliament, say officials of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Congress. Anbumani is the wife of former Union Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief MK Stalin at the unveiling of M Karunanidhi's statue in Chennai in December. The two parties are in talks for an alliance in Tamil Nadu. (Photo credit: PTI).

Wooing PMK

Leaders in the Tamil Nadu BJP have claimed that the Pattali Makkal Katchi is also in talks with them.

Last week, Union Minister Piyush Goyal, the BJP official in charge of Tamil Nadu, visited Chennai and held talks with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leadership, including Chief Minister E Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O Pannerselvam.

The BJP apparently started the talks with a demand of 15 seats. This was rejected outright by the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. A senior BJP leader said the party is likely to get “seven to eight seats” in the alliance. Of the expected eight, the BJP is likely to contest five and leave three for smaller parties. “We are trying to convince them to contest on the lotus symbol,” the leader said.

One of these parties is the Puthiya Tamizhagam of K Krishnaswamy, a leader from the Devendra Kula Velalar community, which has a strong presence in South Tamil Nadu. The BJP has tried hard to woo this community, and has promised to meet its demand that it be removed from the Scheduled Caste list and placed under the Other Backward Classes category. Krishnaswamy is likely to contest from Tenkasi.

The senior BJP leader said that the Pattali Makkal Katchi has sought six Lok Sabha seats and one Rajya Sabha seat from them as well.

The BJP believes that an alliance that involves both the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Pattali Makkal Katchi would make it a formidable front in the northern and western districts of Tamil Nadu, given that members of the Gounder and Vanniyar communities form the majority in constituencies in these areas. Chief Minister Palaniswami is from the Gounder community. In the 2016 Assembly elections, western Tamil Nadu overwhelmingly voted his All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

‘Caste calculations’

It is for the same reason that many in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam want the Pattali Makkal Katchi to be part of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. “This boils down to caste numbers,” a former Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam minister said on condition of anonymity.

The prospect of the Pattali Makkal Katchi being part of its alliance, however, presents the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam with a dilemma. One of its potential partners, the Thol Thirumavalavan-led Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi is a rival of Ramadoss’s party in the region. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi is a predominantly Dalit party, with its base in the northern districts. If the Pattali Makkal Katchi joins the Congress alliance, Thirumavalavan may be forced to reconsider his position in the grouping.

A Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader said formal seat-sharing talks with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam are yet to begin. If the Pattali Makkal Katchi is accommodated in the alliance with five or six seats, Thirumavalavan’s party is bound to demand more than the one or two seats it is expected to get.

Meanwhile, the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam led by TTV Dhinakaran is also trying to form an alliance. A party leader said they will be eager to welcome Thirumavalavan into its alliance if he decides to part ways with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O Pannerselvam. The ruling AIADMK is in talks with the BJP. (Photo credit: PTI).

Battle within the battle

While talks between the BJP and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam have reached a crucial juncture, officials of the Dravidian party said there were questions about whether Palaniswami was convinced about having the saffron party in the alliance. “Panneerselvam is much more eager to establish this front than the chief minister,” a senior All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader said.

Many members of the ruling party feel that there is a strong undercurrent against the BJP in Tamil Nadu. “If the PMK [Pattali Makkal Katchi] is not on board, this could backfire on us,” said the leader. The BJP is trying to conclude the alliance talks before the visit of its president Amit Shah to Tamil Nadu next week and hopes to put up a strong show during campaign meetings to be addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the first week of March.

For Panneerselvam, the coming elections will be a crucial test of his popular support. The equation on the ground has been complicated by the emergence of Dhinakaran, who belongs to the Thevar community, just like Panneerselvam. This is expected to split the community’s votes.

The BJP has also opened talks with the Vijayakant-led Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam. The regional party’s leader Premalatha Vijayakant said last week that both sides have approached it. A Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader, however, said: “DMDK is not the first priority in the alliance talks at the moment.”

S Ramadoss (left) of the Pattali Makkal Katchi and Thol Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi.

Congress seats

A senior Congress leader said it has shortlisted several seats for the agreement with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The foremost of these is Kanyakumari, where the Congress is hoping to field Ruby Manoharan, a real-estate promoter, against Union Minister Pon Radhakrishnan.

“We want to field a Christian in the constituency this time,” the leader said. Unlike other parts of Tamil Nadu, Kanyakumari remains a bastion of the national parties.

In Sivaganga, Karti Chidambaram, the son of former Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram, is likely to be fielded. The party wants CR Kesavan, the great grandson of C Rajagopalachari, to contest from South Chennai.

A senior BJP leader is likely to contest from the South Chennai seat. A BJP leader said if the alliance with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Pattali Makkal Katchi is confirmed, the party could consider fielding Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the urban constituency. If Sitharaman decides not to contest, the seat could go to BJP state president Tamilisai Soundararajan.

Other seats the Congress wants include Cuddalore, Virudhunagar, Erode and Theni. A Congress leader said Virudhunagar could go to former MP Manicka Tagore as Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief Vaiko, another alliance partner, is likely to contest from Tiruchi. However, Vaiko’s party colleagues refused to confirm this.

In Salem, the Congress wants to field Mohan Kumaramangalam, the son of former Union Minister Rangarajan Kumaramangalam. But the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is unlikely to give this seat up easily.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is likely to give the two Communist parties and the Indian Union Muslim League a seat each, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam two seats and the Kongu Nadu Makkal Desiya Katchi one seat. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi is likely to demand two seats, with Thirumavalavan set to contest from Chidambaram constituency.