The MDMK, formed in 1994, has underperformed by any and all measures ever since.

The Dravidian Movement edged the Congress out of power in the 60s. That part of Tamil Nadu’s political history is now well explained — the DMK had an issue, had charismatic leaders and the ruling party was a sitting duck. If anything, one only needs to ask why other southern states did not emulate the Dravidian Movement earlier. Yes, Kerala went on a different path and chose revolution — possibly because of their history; one can explain Communism as an offshoot of the Princely State, if one tries hard. However, it is Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh that leave a lot to be desired — if one looks at them through a federalist’s prism.

Through the 70s and 80s — the arithmetic in Tamil Nadu was simple. Or so the conventional wisdom assumed. The DMK and the AIADMK had about 40% vote share each while the Congress had the remaining 20%. That simplistic statement and does not take into account how the state voted differently for Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections. MGR figured that pattern and the magic formula for alliance and arrived at a compromise in seat sharing with the Congress that is now belatedly emulated across the nation. It is one where the regional party will contest in a majority of the seats for the Assembly election and the national party will get its due in the Lok Sabha election — all calculations relative to parties’ perceived vote shares.

The Congress decline of the 90s was exponential from an already small base in Tamil Nadu. The result has been: smaller regional parties have usurped the Congess into becoming third, fourth and possibly even fifth in terms of vote share. The PMK, the MDMK and the DMDK have not only taken over from the Congress as important parties to consider for alliance arithmetic, they have also changed the dynamics of the MGR formula simply by virtue of being smaller regional parties.

Stunningly though, the State has largely had one party rule. Possibly, that’s a result of arithmetic again — the pre-poll alliances in Tamil Nadu ensure a two person race. Consequently, the winning party gets a disproportionately large number of seats. Since the 90s, the state elections have been reduced to something analogous to an American Presidential System of voting. The national party in the alliance obviously loses most if terms of sharing power — because the overall spoils for the smaller parties have now come to mean ministerial births at the Center. And, important ones at that.

The PMK has typified this theory. It has been one of the biggest small regional parties — and has played its cards cleverly. The party has been on the winning side in all elections since 1998. And in the process, has earned a reputation for being some sort of a bellwether. The truth though, one is inclined to conclude, is that the party is simply doing what it should. In this case, it is switching sides each election. The opposition formation will win the election if it crosses over by sheer arithmetic. When the stakes are this apparent, one expects a reasonable politician to play the part. Which is exactly what the MDMK does not.

The MDMK started by being a political party as opposed to the PMK which was originally a caste conclave. As a political party, Vaiko possibly thought he could leverage commitment to ideology – in an atmosphere where the population was getting increasingly cynical of the major parties. What he did not anticipate or didn’t manage well if he did anticipate was that the posture had huge costs. The worst part of that cost was that almost all of it was in the form of short term pains while all possible gains were long term political capital. This strategy, in gambling parlance, was akin to doubling one’s bets at each loss. While it is a mathematical certainty that doing so will ensure victory eventually, the endless liquidity required for that strategy in a political scene is not even possible – let alone being feasible.

Consequently, Vaiko decided to copy the PMK strategy late in the game, in reverse. That meant an alliance the AIADMK in the last assembly elections which only made matters worse for the MDMK. It lost its USP, namely being trustworthy. In essence, what the MDMK now has is Vaiko. Or, his Dravidian method. The party has lost too much time to fancy itself for anything bigger. In that predicament though, the MDMK sticking with the AIADMK may yield greater results for reasons discussed previously.

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