After the death of former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa in December 2016 and her arch rival M Karunanidhi in August 2018, many wondered if space would open up for a political alternative in the state.

As the campaign for the 2021 Assembly elections rolled on, it became clear that the duopoly of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which have been ruling the state since 1967, remains deeply entrenched with no real challenger on the horizon.

On April 6, all 234 constituencies in Tamil Nadu will go vote in a single phase, with results not expected until May 2.

The Assembly elections are seen as a do-or-die battle for both the Dravidian parties.

On the one side is the AIADMK led by Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami. From falling at the feet of Jayalalithaa’s former aide VK Sasikala in February 2017 when he was elected the leader of the AIADMK legislative party, to easing the Sasikala clan out and turning into the party’s number one leader, the man who claims to be an “ordinary farmer” has come a long way in the state’s political field. Winning the election would be crucial for Palaniswami to show that becoming the chief minister was not merely a play of luck.

On the other side is DMK chief MK Stalin. After decades under the shadow of his father Karunanidhi, Stalin finally has the chance to occupy the chief minister’s chair. Having lost two consecutive elections to the AIADMK in 2011 and 2016, the DMK cannot afford to lose one more. Several opinion polls in the run up to the elections have shown Stalin taking a huge lead in the perception battle with Palaniswami.

But like any big state, election results in Tamil Nadu depend on complex factors. Here are a few:

Competing promises

DMK chief MK Stalin on March 4 declared that the DMK manifesto will emerge as the “hero” of the election. The party has loaded the document with promises of strong welfare measures, including a monthly payment of Rs 1000 for female heads of households, 10 lakh jobs annually, a Covid-19 relief of Rs 4000 for ration card holders, construction of 20 lakh concrete houses, tablets for school and college students and tripling allocation for health and education.

The DMK has also promised measures to scrap the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test for medical education.

On his part, Chief Minister Palaniswami called the AIADMK manifesto the “genuine currency” as opposed to the “fake currency” that is the DMK’s manifesto. The party has promised Rs 1500 for women heads of families, washing machines, six free LPG cylinders and government jobs for at least one member of every family.

Taking a big U-turn, the party that voted in favour of the Citizenship Amendment Act in Parliament in 2019 said it would press on the Centre to repeal the law.

The BJP factor

All through the campaign, Stalin repeatedly claimed to the electorate that every legislator who gets elected on an AIADMK ticket would actually be a Bharatiya Janata Party MLA. The point being that the AIADMK was so subservient to the BJP that there were no differences between the two anymore.

The BJP’s presence in the AIADMK alliance is expected to have a profound impact on minority votes. Muslims and Christians constitute about 10% of the voters. And losing this vote could turn out to be the crucial difference between the two fronts.

In fact, some see the AIADMK’s promise to press for the revoking of the Citizenship Amendment Act as an attempt to minimise the damage of the BJP’s presence in the alliance. However, just hours after the AIADMK manifesto was released March 15, BJP leaders made it clear that there was no question of taking back the CAA.

For its part, the DMK kept up the pressure throughout the campaign, even taking out ads in newspapers asking voters to reject fascist forces, a label that Stalin has repeatedly used for the BJP. So sure was the DMK about BJP being a liability to the AIADMK, its candidates went on Twitter requesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to campaign in their constituencies so that it would boost their chances.

Palaniswami has dismissed the criticism that he was being subservient to the BJP and has reiterated his stand that a cordial relationship between the Centre and the state is essential for the progress of Tamil Nadu.

It is worth recalling that in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the AIADMK-BJP front was all but wiped out with the DMK alliance winning 38 of the 39 seats in the state.

The Vanniyar quota

Just minutes before the Assembly poll dates were announced on February 26, the AIADMK passed a law that gave 10.5% internal reservations to the Vanniyars in the Most Backward Classes category.

The move was seen as a response to the agitation and pressure mounted by the Pattali Makkal Katchi, an ally of the AIADMK that largely represents Vanniyar interests. It was seen as Palaniswami’s way to ensure the continuance of the PMK in the alliance, given that the DMK had managed to form a multi-party front and had an advantage in the arithmetic.

But found that in three districts of northern Tamil Nadu, while many Vanniyars were euphoric about the reservation, there were signs of counter-mobilisation, with members of other communities expressing shock at the manner in which the AIADMK made the decision to allot a large chunk of the MBC quota to the Vanniyars.

To control the damage, AIADMK leaders made it a point to reiterate that the quota was only temporary and that the numbers would be revised after a caste census. The AIADMK manifesto said all communities will get quotas proportional to their population. Irked by this stand, the PMK came out with statements painting the quota as permanent.

Given how reservations are an emotive issue in the state, it remains to be seen how this decision of the AIADMK government plays out at polls.

The others

While the main fight largely remains a contest between the AIADMK and the DMK, there are multiple players in the fray who could play spoilsport for either of the parties in case of a close contest.

These include the Naam Tamilar Katchi of Seeman, a Tamil nationalist party, the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam of TTV Dhinakaran, which could draw some of the AIADMK votes, and the Makkal Neethi Maiam of actor-turned politician Kamal Haasan.

The AMMK put up a strong show in the southern districts in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. For the Assembly elections, it has put up an alliance that consists of parties like the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam of actor Vijayakant and All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen of Asadudin Owaisi.

The MNM fared much better in urban pockets of the state in 2019 and would hope to better its vote share. Haasan has largely focused his campaign on alleged corruption by both the AIADMK and the DMK.

Unlike these two, the Tamil nationalist Naam Tamilar Katchi is contesting the polls alone and has fielded candidates in all 234 constituencies, half of whom are women.