Ideology? Scams? Corruption? Inflation?
No, none of these are issues that seem to matter to parties ahead of the Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu.
The 2011 polls are all about caste-based arithmetical calculations in almost every constituency.
Never before has caste played such a big role in the Tamil Nadu elections.
Even the two main parties, DMK and AIADMK, have been relying on the caste mantra to upset the calculations of the rival camps.
Only once before 2011 - in 1980 - did the DMK contest only half the number of seats. This year, the DMK has so far allotted 115 of the 234 seats to its allies, a large number of them on the basis of caste alone.
The AIADMK, too, in a bid to outsmart DMK chief M Karunanidhi's strategy, has tried to take on board as many caste outfits as possible.
Trouble began for the DMK when the Congress put up roadblocks in its election plans. In a bid to cut the Congress down to size, the DMK ended up cutting its own nose to spite it.
Instead of reaching an agreement with its largest ally, the Congress, first, the DMK allotted 30 seats on a platter to the Vanniyar-dominated Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) at a time when the AIADMK clearly didn't want the PMK to be part of its front.
Secondly, the DMK went a step further in the hurt-Congress political swipe by allotting the Dalit-based Viduthalai Siruthalaigal Katchi(VCK), 10 seats much to the surprise of even the VCK.
The Gounder-dominated Kongu Naada Munnetra Kazhagam, largely confined to the west, was given a generous seven Assembly seats.
The Muslim-dominated Indian Union Muslim League got three seats. The Thevar-dominated Moovender Munnetra Kazhagam of Sridhar Vandayar got one seat and the Nadar grouping Perunthalaivar Makkal Katchi ( N R Dhanapalan) will make its electoral debut.
This comes to an abnormally high number of 52 seats.
The AIADMK, too, has been extra-liberal towards caste-based parties. The Nadar-dominated All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi of actor Sarathkumar has been given two seats as also the Dalit-dominated Puthiya Tamizhagam.
In addition, the AIADMK has provided one seat each to the Dalit-backed RPI, the Thevar-dominated Forward Bloc, the Moovendar Munnetra Munnani of Dr Sethuraman and the Gounder-based Kongu Ilaignar Peravai.
So, the strategy is that if the DMK ties up with the VCK, the AIADMK will retaliate with a C K Thamizharasan of the RPI and the Krishnasamy-led PT . If the DMK gives a seat to a Moovendar group to woo the Thevars, the AIADMK will do better by giving two groups representing the same community a seat each.
In fact, the AIADMK wanted to provide a seat to another Thevar-led party called the Akila India Naadaalum Makkal Katchi of actor Karthik. But he fell out with the AIADMK after seeking at least three seats. If the DMK clinched a deal with the Gounder-led KNMK, the AIADMK wooed another Kongu leader and finalised a deal with the Kongu Ilaignar Peravai.
The list doesn't end here. When Sarathkumar sets up a Nadar platform comprising several caste-based groups, he settled for an alliance with the AIADMK for two seats. The other Nadar groups were upset and some of them are backing N R Dhanapalan to contest against Sarathkumar on behalf of the Perunthalaivar Makkal Katchi in alliance with the DMK.
The DMK has lined up several other caste parties like the Puthiya Needhi Katchi, a Mudaliar-dominated group, led by former minister A C Shanmugham, and several smaller caste-based parties to campaign for the alliance though they couldnât be provided seats.
When the DMK formed an 18-party front for the 2001 Assembly elections, many eyebrows were raised. Even former Union Minister Murasoli Maran, Karunanidhi's nephew, questioned this policy and at one stage threatened to keep off the campaign. The DMK's strategy did not work then and most of the candidates of the casteist parties were trounced.
In the AIADMK camp too, the DMDK and the MDMK have been subtly playing the Naidu card although they deny a casteist approach. There is no denying the fact that Naidus are being wooed by these parties. The DMDK is also targeting the Dalits, especially in northern Tamil Nadu.
The Congress draws its support base largely from the Nadar and the Dalits besides the minorities. When the DMK and the Congress are together as now, they tend to poll a high percentage of the minority votes. And that is why the AIADMK has roped in a Muslim outfit, too - the Manidha Neya Makkal Katchi, which has been given three seats.
When such a large number of parties draw heavily on caste or religion, there would be little surprise if the real battle is not on political issues, but on the pulls and pressures of dominant caste groups.
It's no secret that when it comes to choosing candidates, the major parties tend to opt for candidates with larger support base among the dominant or major communities.
However, there is a flip side too. Sometimes, excessive reliance on casteism or a sharp leaning towards a certain caste can trigger a backlash from the other dominant or major community in the area.
Much as one would like to wish away the caste factor, it's a fact that caste has come to stay on the political scene and its influence has peaked this year.
2011 also marks the first time the PMK and the VCK have come together in an alliance though they have been speaking about it in the past. It remains to be seen if they will indeed work together and bring about mutual gains.
The Vanniyars and the Dalits together constitute about 60 per cent of the electorate. If a polarisation does take place on caste lines, northern Tamil Nadu could bring about major gains for the DMK-led front.
Cast(e) your net far and wide. That's the name of the game.
By the same author: Watch out for the minnows!