Tamil Nadu: Congress

Alone and aimless

Print edition : May 16, 2014

Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram campaigning for his son Karti at Panankulam village in Pudukottai district. Photo: A. MURALITHARAN

Mohan Kumaramangalam leading an election rally in Salem on April 19. Photo: E. LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

THE year 2017 will mark 50 years of the Congress’ exit from power in the State. Ever since the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) formed its first government in 1967, the State has elected only the two main Dravidian parties, the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), in the Assembly elections. The Congress’ strategy, right from 1971, was to contest the Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu in alliance with either of these two parties. For the first time in 2014, the DMK and the AIADMK have called the Congress’ bluff. Even regional parties such as the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) led by Dr S. Ramadoss and the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) led by Vijayakant have spurned the Congress. As a result, the grand old party finds itself totally isolated in the southern State. It is without allies in the ongoing elections.

Yet, in a show of bravado, the Congress high command decided to field its candidates in all the 39 constituencies and the one in the neighbouring Union Territory of Puducherry. A desperate Congress leadership issued a fiat that all its eight sitting Members of Parliament, with the exception of Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, should contest from their respective constituencies.

The party is in such dire straits that its senior leaders such as Chidambaram, Shipping Minister G.K. Vasan, K.V. Thangkabalu and Jayanthi Natarajan have turned their back on the battle. Chidambaram has “boldly” fielded his son Karti in Sivaganga, from where he was elected in 2009. Vasan, who heads the dominant faction in the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC), did not enter the ring, stating that he wished to tour all the constituencies to drum up support for the party’s candidates. Thangkabalu, who heads a minor faction in the TNCC, has fled his home turf of Salem.

Groupism and factionalism

A Congress leader blamed “groupism” and “factionalism” in the TNCC and “lack of guidance” from the party high command for the weakness of the State unit. “We do not even have the autonomy to appoint office-bearers at the block level. The AICC [All-India Congress Committee] did not consult any senior leaders from Tamil Nadu about the strategy for the Lok Sabha elections. Even after the AIADMK and the DMK made it clear that they would not align themselves with the Congress, our high command showed no urgency in stitching up an alliance with Vijayakant’s party. This despite the efforts Vasan took to form an alliance with Vijayakant,” another Congress leader said.

Yet another leader was pained at the short shrift that the State Congress had received from party president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi. “While Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi addressed only one election meeting each [Kanyakumari and Ramanathapuram respectively], Bharatiya Janata Party leaders such as Narendra Modi, L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh and Nithin Gadkari are criss-crossing the State. Each of them has addressed several meetings in the State. It shows that they are trying to build a strong base for the BJP in the State,” he said.

A Congress leader from Salem was angry that “Thangkabalu’s supporters are making a show of working for Mohan Kumaramangalam”, the Congress candidate from Salem. Although Mohan Kumaramangalam is “an excellent candidate and has a good name in the constituency, Thangkabalu’s men are pulling the rug from under his feet,” the Congress leader said. Mohan Kumaramangalam is the grandson of the late Mohan Kumaramangalam and son of the late Rangarajan Kumaramangalam. Both his grandfather and father were Ministers in Congress governments at the Centre.

Why does the Congress find itself shunned by every party? Although it is easy to blame it on the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s firm opposition to the unanimous demand from political parties in the State for an international investigation into the Sri Lanka Army’s crimes in the last stages of its war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009 and its alleged indifference towards the issue of Tamil Nadu fishermen being attacked and killed by the island’s navy, the fact remains that the AIADMK, the DMK and the PMK had made up their minds not to ally themselves with the Congress several months before the elections were announced.

The AIADMK and the DMK had their own reasons for this. Chief Minister and AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa, for instance, announced at the party’s general council meeting on December 31, 2012, that her party would not align itself with the Congress or the BJP for the 2014 elections. Reason: the Congress and the BJP in Karnataka were united in “not giving a drop of the Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu”, according to her. She brought this up in her election campaigns too. Jayalalithaa reiterated that if Tamil Nadu were to win the rights to Cauvery waters and ensure that the districts irrigated by the Cauvery did not turn into a desert, the AIADMK should contest without any allies in all the 40 Lok Sabha constituencies, emerge victorious, and “thereby ensure that we have the authority to take all decisions” at the Centre.

The Congress has shared a love-hate relationship with the two Dravidian parties. If one looks at the history of the electoral alliance between the Congress and the DMK, and the Congress and the AIADMK, a pattern emerges. While the Congress has used the two Dravidian rivals to capture power at the Centre, the DMK and the AIADMK have alternately used the Congress to ride back to power in the State.

A Congress leader said: “It is not the Congress alone that used the DMK or the AIADMK. The Congress’ votes were the deciding factor behind the DMK or the AIADMK returning to power in the State.”

In the 1971 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, flush with confidence after India’s victory over Pakistan in the Bangladesh liberation war, the Congress under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi partnered the DMK headed by M. Karunanidhi, who was then Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister. The alliance saw the Congress returning to power at the Centre and the DMK in the State. In the 1977 simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, held in the aftermath of the Emergency, the Congress aligned itself with the AIADMK, which was founded in 1972 by M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), who broke away from the DMK. The AIADMK captured power in the State, and MGR became the Chief Minister, while the Congress led by Indira Gandhi lost power in the Lok Sabha elections.

For the 1980 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress and the DMK became partners once again, and the Congress, headed by Indira Gandhi, stormed back to power. But in the 1980 Assembly elections, held after Indira Gandhi dismissed the MGR government, the alliance between the Congress and the DMK did not yield dividends. The AIADMK headed by MGR rode back to power.

In 1984, the Congress was shaken by Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the AIADMK by MGR’s ill health. Elections to the Lok Sabha and the Assembly, which were scheduled to be held in 1985, were advanced to December 1984. The alliance between the Congress, under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi, and the AIADMK endured, and the Congress returned to power at the Centre with Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister. The AIADMK retained power in Tamil Nadu, with MGR as Chief Minister. However, following MGR’s death in December 1987, the AIADMK split, with one faction headed by MGR’s wife Janaki Ramachandran and the other by Jayalalithaa.

The Congress and the DMK fought the January 1989 Assembly elections separately. The DMK was voted to power. Meanwhile, the two AIADMK factions merged and Jayalalithaa became the unified party’s general secretary. In January 1991, the Chandra Shekhar government dismissed the DMK government headed by Karunanidhi. In the May 1991 simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and Tamil Nadu Assembly, which came immediately after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the Congress and the AIADMK became allies again. The Congress returned to power at the Centre and the AIADMK came to power in a landslide victory with Jayalalithaa as the Chief Minister of the State for the first time.

The AIADMK under Jayalalithaa’s leadership aligned itself with the Congress for the 1989, 1991, 1996 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections, but her relationship with the Congress headed by Sonia Gandhi started souring from August 22, 1999. On that day, Jayalalithaa failed to turn up for an election meeting that she and Sonia Gandhi were to address jointly at Villupuram. Sonia Gandhi waited for about 45 minutes before delivering her speech. AIADMK leaders claimed that Jayalalithaa was “stuck in a sea of humanity in Chennai” and so could not reach Villupuram.

Three years later, on August 28, 2002, Jayalalithaa raised the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin and observed that it would be a disaster to make her Prime Minister. Jayalalithaa told a press conference in New Delhi: “It is a crying shame and moral bankruptcy of the Congress party that its leaders, who were at the forefront of the freedom struggle and fought against the foreigners, should think of having a foreigner as the Prime Minister.” Jayalalithaa and Sonia Gandhi were never friends again, and their parties have not forged an alliance since the 2001 Assembly elections.

The DMK was quick to cash in on this estrangement. A few weeks before the 2004 parliamentary elections, it walked out of the A.B. Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government and entered into an alliance with the Congress after a gap of 24 years. The DMK led the alliance in Tamil Nadu, which included, apart from the Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) headed by Vaiko, and the PMK.

In the elections held in April-May 2004, the alliance won all the 40 Lok Sabha seats, dealing a crushing blow to the AIADMK and the BJP. The DMK became a partner in the UPA government at the Centre. The DMK-Congress partnership endured for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, which saw the UPA return to power. The relationship, however, started souring in November 2010 in the wake of the 2G spectrum scam. On November 14, 2010, A. Raja of the DMK, who was Union Minister for Communications and Information Technology, resigned for his alleged role in the scam.

Jayalalithaa tried to use the opportunity to ingratiate herself with the Congress. She wanted Sonia Gandhi to forget the past misunderstandings between them. “…In politics, if you keep harping on the past and looking back, you cannot move forward,” she advised Sonia Gandhi. In lieu of the support of 18 DMK MPs, Jayalalithaa offered the support of nine AIADMK MPs and nine more from friendly parties. The Congress ignored her offer.

Meanwhile, the relationship between the DMK and the Congress turned bitter when the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested Raja on February 2, 2011, for his role in the grant of telecom licences and the allocation of 2G spectrum in 2008 in violation of established guidelines and procedures. The DMK was appalled at the fact that the arrest of Raja took place a day after Karunanidhi met Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi and formalised the alliance between the DMK and the Congress for the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections scheduled for May 2011 ( Frontline, December 17, 2010, and March 11, 2011).

Soon after the arrest of Raja, the CBI raided the office of Kalaignar TV in Chennai on February 18, 2011. Karunanidhi’s wife Dayalu Ammal and his daughter and Rajya Sabha member Kanimozhi were shareholders in Kalaignar TV.

It was against this background that the Assembly elections were held on April 13, 2011. The Congress forced the DMK to allocate 63 seats for it, 18 more than the number it was allotted in 2006. It also cherry-picked the seats it wanted to contest. The DMK-Congress combine lost the elections.

The relationship between the Congress and the DMK worsened with the arrest of Kanimozhi. The DMK began preparing the ground for leaving the UPA, using the Sri Lankan Tamils issue as an excuse. On March 19, 2013, when it became clear that the Manmohan Singh government would not accept the amendments suggested by it to the United States-backed resolution on Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council, the DMK pulled out of the UPA. Thus, the Congress is now ploughing a lonely furrow in Tamil Nadu.

“If we had somehow persuaded the DMK to renew its alliance with us, we could have put up a big fight. But Stalin [Karunanidhi’s son and DMK treasurer] was dead set against the DMK having an alliance with the Congress. Besides, our high command failed to rope in Vijayakant,” said an anguished TNCC leader.

T.S. Subramanian

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