Close encounters of the worst kind

On the freebies front both the DMK and the AIADMK have achieved near perfect parity, give or take a mixie or a fan or a few kgs of rice. In any case the anomalies are minor and are already being addressed. Cash distribution is a different ball game and the ruling combine seems to have a clear edge, what with the EC itself alleging that some cops themselves have turned carriers and even couriers. Incidentally, that is a pleasant reversal, getting paid by a cop instead of the other way round as is usual! But let us assume that with a vigilant EC, the movement of at least the small change will get restricted thus reducing the gap between the two fronts. So with the scales almost even vis-a-vis the two ‘critical issues’ that matter most to the rational voters of TN, how do they now exercise their choice?

I will, of course, refrain from advocating any of the fronts as being ideally eligible for your vote. Now, let not the readers read some kind of journalistic ethic in this restraint. While it tickles the ego to believe so, the facts behind the caution are different. First, I do not think voters rely on recommendations from mediamen. There is such a surfeit of media and a slew of analysis that any voter who takes all of them seriously will need indelible ink on many fingers to split his own verdict! On the contrary, most voters, including the discerning ones, who are not swayed by the above ‘critical’ inputs, would have decided long before polls and only look for some arguments and articulation from the media. Indeed, the latter actually faces a test similar to the vote seeker. This is not to suggest that the voter’s wisdom is superior but rather that the media’s could be as bad.

More so when much of the media output in this State actually emanates from party quarters, even headquarters! These ‘kept’ media actually land more eyeballs than even the so-called neutral media so long as the diet of soaps, serials, sensation and celluloid keep coming. While the DMK ‘typically’ has two sets of media vying to boost its prospects, the AIADMK, PMK, Congress and even the DMDK have their own. Most of them bear the names of their leaders or flaunt party symbols as logos, making their origins and allegiances clear even to the irrational or rank outsiders. Print and particularly satellite have become parallel battlefields and overflow with unabashed propaganda round the clock. Political ‘debates’ are a fun to watch, what with the anchor, the prime guest and panelists excelling one another in proving a pre-approved point. Now, with the EC imposing numerous restrictions on media content vis-a-vis news and advertisements, it beats one how these blatant political promotionals, that involve huge costs in terms of airtime value, have not raised a single official eyebrow. Next to doles and money, the media too stands neutralised as a means of influencing voters.

Of course, there are the familiar factors like alliance arithmetic and anti-incumbency. Since 1991, the Dravidian party that had the strongest array of allies had won with transfer of vote banks taken as a certainty. And post MGR, neither the DMK nor the AIADMK has won two successive polls, establishing the incumbency jinx firmly over two decades. Now, one does not know if the allies like Cong, PMK, MDMK and the Left made the arithmetic work or if they read the incumbency right and landed on the right side. But what we do know is that they have been consistently switching sides. The point is arithmetic has kept in sync with the incumbency factor. But this poll is a muddle even on that count. With the DMK alliance more or less intact save for the Left, the arithmetic of ‘06 must remain the same. But then the AIADMK’s spoil sport of ‘06 and ‘09 LS polls, V’Kanth is now friends with that party, despite being dubbed as a sort of ‘vice’ captain. That shakes up the arithmetic and there is also this looming shadow of the ominous incumbency factor.

Apart from these obvious factors, there are some subtler undercurrents working in the voters’ minds. Let us call them the ‘Lesser evil’ and ‘Latest evil’ syndromes, illusions wrought by time and political tide. TN people are remarkable for their forgiving and forgetful nature. Both prima donnas have banked on and benefitted from these liberal characteristics of their electors alternately. The incumbent gets so sinful while in power that he or she makes the predecessor seem like a saint. Or at least less sinful and therefore eligible for forgiveness. Also, the latest sinner lingers most in memory while the earlier one is almost forgotten. Such collective amnesia always leads to electoral amnesty. Just play out the vignettes of the last two decades on your mental screens and you will realise that while the prime actors on stage vary, the scenes and scripts are somehow the same. While the voters have quite a choice of freebies to dip into, such choice does not extend to the stock of leaders. Small wonder, in TN, any change invariably leads to status quo.

This week the compressed polls will attain critical mass. The campaigns will hit a crescendo but you don’t have to hit the streets, just switch on the screens, to hear the familiar harangues. A word of advice: I know you are all smart enough not to believe the boasts. But trust every word of criticism said of the opponents. In that, all parties and political leaders are right!

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Jawahar T R