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Tamil Nadu politics are hotting up ahead of the forthcoming Assembly elections, the date for which has now been announced: May 8.

In a stunning development, MDMK chief Vaiko last met AIADMK leader, Ms. Jayalalitha, and signed an alliance giving his party 35 of the 234 seats in the Assembly. Vaiko broke with the DMK’s leader, Mr. Karunanidhi, after the latter informed him - through the press - that he would not offer more than 22 seats against the MDMK demand for 25.

Vaiko’s decision comes as a major setback for the DMK-led alliance, given the grouping’s spectacular victory sweeping all the 39 Lok Sabha in the 2004 elections. Conversely, for a friendless AIADMK, it is a major boost. It was only a few days ago the ruling AIADMK got its first electoral partner – the Dalit Panthers of India, which has been promised nine seats.

Past election results indicate that alliances are crucial in Tamil Nadu politics - the margin between the winners and losers in a neck and neck race is less than 3000 votes in many of the constituencies.

The significance of the MDMK-AIADMK accord is that Vaiko’s party has units throughout Tamil Nadu capable of drawing that magic 3000 in numerous constituencies.

The AIADMK’s archrival, the DMK, is holding its political conference at Tiruchy this week and chiefs of its allies, including Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, are expected to participate.

But the positions of many parties will not be known till this week. Both the BJP and Vijayakanth’s new party have, for example, announced that they will fight the elections without any alliances.

However, they may also end up tying to AIADMK. The BJP cannot join the DMK since the Hindu nationalist party’s arch rival, the Congress party, is already a DMK ally. Vijayakant, meanwhile, is widely seen as more anti-DMK than AIADMK.

However, if both the parties decide to fight on their own it could prove very costly as there is almost room for a third political front between the two poles, the DMK and AIADMK. Amid the charged political battles between the pair, voters tend to ignore any third front - as the MDMK’s experience underlines; the party contested separately in 211 seats and was lost heavily.

On the other hand, the worrying factor for AIADMK is that Vijayakant’s campaign is drawing good crowds and if he sticks on to his decision of contesting independently he will only eat into AIADMK votes with both parties sharing an anti –DMK platform. And if the AIADMK decides to join hands with BJP then there is a risk of it losing the minority vote bank at the cost of garnering Hindu nationalist votes.

However, this being Tamil Nadu, nothing can be predicted as politicians habitually play their cards close to their chest. And as Jayalalitha observed last week: “In politics, there are no permanent friends or enemies.”