The assembly polls in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu will mark as one of the hotly contested and most unpredictable elections in decades.
Local issues, showers of freebies, perceived corruption, voter-bribing allegations, anti-incumbency factor and squabbling between the various allies over seat sharing are expected to feature in this election prominently.
The state went into polls on Wednesday for the 234 assembly constituencies, with around forty million voters expected to decide the fortune of 2,773 candidates.
Political heavyweights whose fate will be sealed in Tamil Nadu, one of the key states playing king-maker role in national politics, include incumbent Chief Minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M Karunanidhi, his opponent and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) chief J Jayalalithaa, Karunanidhi's son and Deputy Chief Minister M K Stalin and DMDK founder, actor Vijayakanth.
The ruling DMK party is a key federal ally of the Congress, which has been out of power in Tamil Nadu since 1967. Karunanidhi, 87, also a film script writer, is seeking election to the assembly for a record twelfth time and as chief minister for the sixth time.
The DMK patriarch, who has never successfully defended his incumbent status in recent times, is seeking mandate for another term saying he fulfilled the party's 2006 electoral promises such as giving free color television sets, rice at one rupee a kilo and a host of other welfare measures. This time around, he has promised mixers or grinders to women and laptops for college students.
However, the party is defensive over the controversial mobile phone licensing or popularly known as 2G spectrum scam that has cast a cloud over its prospects in the elections. The matter is before the court and the party said it would face it.
This time, the DMK, which had seat sharing problems with India's ruling Congress party, is also plagued with local issues such as rising prices and power shortages that are likely to influence the judgment of voters.
Further, the DMK is riddled with allegations of having distributed money for votes.
However, Karunanidhi has put on a brave face and said: Our prospects are as bright as the Rising Sun (DMK's symbol) and we will win as many seats as we require to form government... It could either be our own or a coalition, he told reporters here after casting his vote on Wednesday.
Jayalalithaa, often described as arrogant by detractors, sought to outdo her arch rival, offering both mixies and grinders, plus a fan to each woman in the state. The former film star has also promised four grams of gold to poor voters, apart from cable TV connections at subsidized rates.
The AIADMK chief was, however, confident that her party would come to power. After casting her vote, she said, We will see a landslide victory and sweeping victory for us. We are confident that we will get a clear majority to rule the state. She said the people of Tamil Nadu want a government which is clear from corruption that she said DMK has brought in.
Cho Ramaswamy, a well-known political commentator, called the populism an inevitable part of the electoral race. When the ruling party continues to play populism, how can the opposition keep silent. It has become an inevitable game, he told Times Of India.
The political analyst says freebies have lost their “sheen” and aren’t likely to resonate with voters, who are picking from a menu of giveaways. So this shouldn’t matter one way or the other, Ramaswamy told Rupa Subramanya Dehejia of India Real Time.
In an effort to mark its presence in the state, the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has promised to offer stationery to students, sanitary napkins to women and 100,000 rupees in deposit for female children born in a below-poverty-line family. But it is unlikely to make an impact with no powerful local ally.
An opinion poll, by the People’s Studies department of Loyola College in Tamil Nadu's capital Chennai, showed that 48.6 percent of those polled would vote for the AIADMK alliance and 41.7 percent for the DMK combine.
But, the squabbling with allies over seats and constituencies could dampen the fortunes of the AIADMK-led alliance considerably, according to analysts.
Historically, however, voters in the state tended to hand big victories to one side or the other.
Will Jayalalithaa offer the people anything different from what Karunanidhi did? Absolutely nothing,” says Venkatesh, a media professional to DNA daily. She will just take over where Karunanidhi and his family left off, and after some years, she will be booted out and it will again be the DMK’s turn to mint money. Sad part is people here don’t have a real choice.
Echoing the sentiment, Aravind, an engineer from Chennai says he is fed up with both the parties and had expected the formation of a third front headed by Vijayakanth to rival DMK and AIADMK. However, Jayalalithaa teamed up with her foe-turned-ally Vijayakanth on grounds of coalition compulsion, he says.
Given the current political scenario, the option is to choose better of the worst.
Nevertheless, the poll results from Tamil Nadu to be out exactly in a month's time will have a long-lasting impact on national politics.