Friends and foes

Published : Mar 11, 2011 00:00 IST

Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi with Congress president Sonia Gandhi at an election campaign rally in Chennai in May 2009. - BABU/REUTERS

Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi with Congress president Sonia Gandhi at an election campaign rally in Chennai in May 2009. - BABU/REUTERS

A. Raja's arrest a day before the DMK general council meeting and the CBI raid on Kalaignar TV deepen the fissures in DMK-Congress ties.

TAMIL NADU Chief Minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi must be ruing his words in Chennai on February 1. The sky is clear and there are no hurdles in our way, he said after his meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi in which the alliance between the two parties for the elections to the State Assembly, scheduled for May, was formalised.

The next day, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested A. Raja of the DMK, former Union Communications and Information Technology Minister, for his role in the grant of telecom licences and the allocation of 2G spectrum in 2008 in violation of established guidelines and procedures. Raja had resigned from the Union Cabinet on November 14, 2010. According to the Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) report, the irregularities in the spectrum allotments had caused a presumptive loss of Rs.1.76 lakh crore to the exchequer.

Raja's arrest deepened the fissures that first surfaced in November between the Congress and the DMK ( Frontline, December 17, 2010). What angered the DMK was that it came a day ahead of the DMK's crucial general body meeting on February 3 in Chennai. Karunanidhi admitted that the arrest rattled the party to an extent.

After Raja's arrest came the CBI raid on the office of Kalaignar TV in Chennai on February 18. A team of CBI officers from New Delhi descended on the television channel office on Anna Salai, and the search lasted from 00-30 a.m. to 5-30 a.m. The officers seized documents and questioned Sharad Kumar, managing director of Kalaignar TV.

There was more bad news for the DMK: on February 17, Special Judge (CBI) O.P. Saini remanded Raja, who was lodged in Tihar jail, in judicial custody for 14 days.

The CBI raided the Kalaignar TV office after it came across an alleged transfer of about Rs.214 crore from Cineyug Films to the channel company. The money, CBI officers said, was arranged by Cineyug Films from Shahid Balwa's DB Group, the promoter of Etisalat DB and one of the main beneficiaries in the 2G scam. (The CBI arrested Balwa on February 8.) A Kalaignar TV official had earlier said that the television channel had returned with interest the money it had borrowed from Cineyug Films. He made this statement even before the CBI raid.

If Raja's arrest and the raid on Kalaignar TV strained Congress-DMK ties, the DMK acted fast to bring the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) into its alliance, which includes the Congress, the Dalit Panthers and the Indian Union Muslim League. On February 18, as television channels went to town with the CBI search of the Kalaignar TV office, the alliance was clinched after PMK founder Dr S. Ramadoss and president G.K. Mani met Karunanidhi for two hours in Chennai. Ramadoss said he was very happy with the DMK's offer of 31 Assembly seats and one Rajya Sabha seat to the PMK. His son, Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, former Union Health Minister, had met Sonia Gandhi a couple of days earlier in New Delhi.

Informed DMK sources said the move was a signal from the DMK to the Congress that it should not pitch its demand too high for seats in the elections. Congress workers and district presidents have been demanding that the DMK should let the Congress contest 80 of the 234 constituencies. More importantly, Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC) leaders insisted that Karunanidhi should announce before the elections that a DMK-Congress coalition government would be formed if the front was voted to power. In 2006, the Congress contested from 48 constituencies in partnership with the DMK.

Karunanidhi reportedly told Congress leaders that any announcement on the two parties sharing power in the State depended on the election results and would have to wait for the elections to be over. The Congress' demand strained the already fragile relationship between the two parties.

What surprised Karunanidhi during his meeting with Sonia Gandhi was the dramatic appearance of Rahul Gandhi, All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary. The DMK sees Rahul Gandhi as the driving force behind the demand from Congressmen in Tamil Nadu for more seats and an announcement on power-sharing. During his meeting with Sonia Gandhi the continuance of the alliance between the DMK and the Congress for the Assembly elections was formalised.

The DMK's general council meeting on February 3 brazened out Raja's arrest. It stoutly defended Raja, arguing that just because a person is arrested, he does not become guilty. It passed a resolution saying: The DMK has been an open book as far as this issue is concerned. It condemned the opposition parties for magnifying the issue and casting a slur on the DMK. At a public meeting in the evening to explain the resolutions, Karunanidhi stood by Raja: I appreciate Raja, who is now languishing in jail and paying the price for making mobile phones affordable to the people.

Karunanidhi was reportedly informed of the imminent arrest of Raja when he was in New Delhi, but he did not expect it the day before the general council meeting. He told the general council members that when he met Sonia Gandhi, she was upset and angry over the proposal to include the PMK in the DMK-Congress front because she saw the PMK exit from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) just before the Lok Sabha elections in 2009 as an act of betrayal. I could not counter Sonia Gandhi's reasonable' argument with an unreasonable' one, he airily declared. His statements in the closed general council meeting were leaked to newspapers although the official DMK daily Murasoli did not publish them. While Karunanidhi's remarks about what Sonia Gandhi thought of the DMK embarrassed the Congress, it made the PMK worry that it might not find a place in the DMK-Congress front.

The relationship between the DMK and the Congress see-sawed between frost and relative warmth from November as Raja's alleged role in the 2G spectrum scam hogged the limelight. On November 12, Manmohan Singh, in a terse comment that had the DMK government worried, said, We are in an alliance with the DMK and that alliance stands as of now. Two days later, the Prime Minister came on the line to tell the Chief Minister that Raja should resign as Minister. All efforts by the Chief Minister later to talk to the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi failed. Although the Congress leaders accepted Karunanidhi's suggestion that the Communications and IT portfolio remain with the Prime Minister and that it be restored to a DMK nominee at the appropriate time, the portfolio was given to Union Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal a couple of days after Raja resigned. This nettled Karunanidhi.

However, the DMK still looked forward to the Prime Minister inaugurating the Adyar Poonga (Park) in Chennai on January 3. (It was a pet project of M.K. Stalin, Deputy Chief Minister and Karunanidhi's son.) But news came that the Prime Minister would not inaugurate the park because the Union Ministry for Environment and Forests had not cleared it. This deeply disappointed Karunanidhi, and on January 2 he did not go to the airport to receive Manmohan Singh, who was in Chennai to inaugurate the Indian Science Congress. An official statement said the Chief Minister could not go because of an irritation in his eyes. Karunanidhi, however, met the Prime Minister on January 3. After a 30-minute meeting, Manmohan Singh said that the alliance remains as strong as ever.

The February developments have cast a shadow on DMK-Congress ties. The DMK seems to be confused about the Congress' moves. The relationship is not as it was earlier. The warmth has gone out of it. Both sides are not happy with each other, a DMK leader said. A big sticking point is Karunanidhi's marked reluctance to announce ahead of the elections that he is prepared to form a coalition government with the Congress. In this situation, it is a moot question whether the cadre of the two parties can put their heart and soul in the election campaign.

However, the two parties have so far maintained a symbiotic relationship. The Congress needs the support of the 18 DMK members in the Lok Sabha. The DMK government in the State, in turn, needs the support of the Congress legislators to survive until May. Besides, the DMK needs the Congress' partnership in the Assembly elections to return to power. Leaders of the Congress and the DMK say that the two parties really have no option but to stick together until the Assembly elections are over.

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