Not losing is sometimes more important than winning. For the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the emphatic win in the Thirumangalam by-election in Tamil Nadu should be most satisfying, if only because a loss so close to the Lok Sabha general election would have demoralised cadres and scared away allies. With a victory margin of 39,266 votes, the party answered opposition parties who saw in the election an opportunity to demonstrate that the ruling party’s political stock had plummeted. Initially, the DMK did not seem keen on facing this by-election, and Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi registered his displeasure at not being consulted by the Election Commission. The party would certainly not have minded a run-up to the general election free from by-elections. But once the main opposition, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, decided to contest the seat (which had been won by its ally, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, in the Assembly election), the DMK knew the stakes were disproportionately high in this contest. Quite understandably, the AIADMK, boosted by its newly formed alliance with the Left parties, was eager to project the by-election as a referendum on the government’s performance. From then on, the DMK knew it could just not afford to lose. The party placed huge resources in the hands of its election team, and the Election Commission of India had to crack the whip against officials seen as tilting towards the ruling party. The ECI adopted a no-nonsense approach and even ordered the registration of a case against Local Administration Minister M.K. Stalin on charges of distributing money to voters. In the event, Thirumangalam saw an incident-free election with a very high turnout.
The victory does not change the arithmetic in the Assembly, where the DMK is the single largest party but is short of a majority of its own and relies on the support of the Congress for survival. But for the DMK, the importance of the victory goes beyond mere numbers in the Assembly. At a time when allies were deserting its Democratic Progressive Alliance, the DMK made sure the by-election betrayed no signs of popular disenchantment with the government. The Pattali Makkal Katchi, which the DMK tried to woo back into the DPA, was among the parties keenly watching the poll outcome. The PMK, which has managed unerringly to be on the winning side over the past decade, found in Thirumangalam no pressing reason to switch to the AIADMK camp; its posture was clearly one of wait-and-see neutrality. The DMK alliance has now won all three by-elections held after the 2006 State Assembly election. As far as perceptions go, the Opposition still has a lot of catching up to do.