My baptism by fire in journalism in the late nineties coincided with the era of fractured mandates. That was when regional chieftains began to flex their muscles and traded their numbers for their pound of flesh – ministerial berths, special packages and hidden agendas. That was when Tamil Nadu held the key.
I'm sure it will this time around too. After covering 4 Lok Sabha and 4 Assembly elections from this State, I'm now away from the heat and dust of campaigns but watching with equal interest, all the twists and turns from the comfort of my drawing room. I didn't say arm chair!
This election has many firsts for Tamil Nadu. For the first time in more than a decade and a half, the two dravidian rivals – the ruling AIADMK and the DMK are solitary reapers, having wittingly jettisoned overtures from the Congress and the BJP. At least at the pre poll juncture.
For the first time a six cornered fight is on the cards, with the Congress, the Left and the Aam Admi Party vying as single entities. For the first time in several years, Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi's parties will be engaged in a straight fight in 35 out of the 39 seats.
For the first time we have what Tamilians calls 'Namma' Prime Ministerial aspirant. For the first time the BJP, which many years ago invited sardonic smiles for its 'Rockfort to Fort St. George' (the seat of power in the State) slogan, is now a force to be reckoned with, not merely because of the 'wave' but owing to a strong regional coalition it has managed to cobble together.
For the first time, a string of Congress heavyweights in the State have opted out of the race, aware and apprehensive of the 'underdog' tag. And yes, not for the first but for the second time, the DMK is going to the polls without the support of its Southern 'Braveheart', as its Madurai strongman M.K.Alagiri is sulking or rather seething after his suspension from the party.
The irony is that all these 'firsts' don't make the outcome unpredictable. No matter who their allies were, the two leaves and the rising sun have usually commanded a committed vote share of 25 to 27 per cent apiece – more than half the State's electoral pie.
In theory, the caste factor could make a dent for the AIADMK, with the BJP having collared the Vanniyar votes through the PMK, the Naidu votes of the DMDK and the MDMK's Tamil sentiments. But Tamil Nadu's electoral pitch always comes with the odd googly! Don't be too sure if the BJP alliance eats into Amma's vote bank or if it's the other way around – the undecided voters in these belts going with the AIADMK in places where the BJP isnt contesting in anticipation of a post poll Jayalalithaa-Modi tie up.
Although Congress leader P. Chidambaram has called the AIADMK the BJP's “B Team” and the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has not antagonised the saffron party in her 'first off the block' campaign, lambasting only the Congress and the DMK, this is a tricky proposition to stick your neck out. For analysts. And for Jayalalithaa herself. Will she reap possible dividends in 2014 by backing her friend Modi post 16th May at the cost of 2016? Remember she has carefully reached out to minorities – the traditional bastion of her arch rival, well before her assembly victory in 2011.
And has taken up the gauntlet for the Tamil cause, fishermen and farmers. Added to this is her own Prime Ministerial ambition and the recent endorsement she has got from other powerful regional leaders like Mamta Banerjee. The 'Amma-Didi' bonhomie may have been the reason for her cold shouldering of the Left and could well be the turning point in the event of the AIADMK bagging 'favourable numbers', say 25 plus seats.
The DMK too is keeping its options wide open. By calling Modi his “good friend”, Karunanidhi is also hedging his post poll bets.
Don't also discount the 'run-outs' caused by misunderstanding at the crease. What if the DMDK-PMK squabbling over the choice of seats translates into cross voting? What if Alagiri, who has predicted a rout for his party and has even gone to the extent of saying that his father M.Karunanidhi must be saved from 'evil forces', dents their poll prospects in the South? Unlike cricket, politics is no 'gentleman's game' (not that today's cricket is, you may argue!) and can have many 'ifs' and 'buts'.
What's clear at this stage is that Jayalalithaa is likely to get the most runs on the board in the Tamil Nadu clash. What that number is and how the national scene pans out will determine her next move. As for the 'wave', first watch out for the cross currents in less than two months.
(Sanjay Pinto is a lawyer, columnist, author and former television journalist)