A threat in Chennai

Print edition : July 04, 1998

There is no end in sight to the face-off between the BJP and the AIADMK over the dismissal of the Karunanidhi Government.

EVER since there was a change of government at the Centre in mid-March, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) have been engaged in a war of attrition, with AIADMK general secretary Jayalalitha mounting pressure on the coalition Government to get the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Government in Tamil Nadu dismissed and the BJP leadership refusing to yield. Watching the developments anxiously is Chief Minister and DMK president M. Karunanidhi.

The tussle between the BJP and the AIADMK has placed the Vajpayee Government at grave risk since the AIADMK and its Tamil Nadu allies together have 28 seats in the Lok Sabha, not an insignificant number, given the Government's razor-thin majority.

Jayalalitha has pursued her goal in an unrelenting manner. In her latest move, after announcing that she would attend the Coordination Committee meeting of the coalition in New Delhi on June 27 and meet Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani to sort out differences, she chose not to go to New Delhi. She claimed on June 26 that she suffered from "ill-health" and had been advised rest. On June 23, she accused the BJP leadership of suffering from "selective amnesia" and said that "it is painful that Advani, who is not bothered about national security, should be the Union Home Minister." This was in the context of Advani's denial of her claim, made on June 19, that there was "an explicit understanding" between the AIADMK and the BJP that the DMK Government would be dismissed if the BJP came to power at the Centre.

Advani had said of her claim: "I do not recall any occasion, even in our private conversations, when she mentioned that (the dismissal of the DMK Government). This may be her feeling or the feeling of some people in Tamil Nadu, but so far as the Government is concerned, it has been clear on this issue before and after the elections (that there would be no dismissal)."

Other BJP leaders also denied that there was any such agreement. Party president Kushabhau Thakre said: "As far as my knowledge goes, it is not true." According to vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy, there was no suggestion that the DMK Government should be dismissed. "I can say with confidence because I negotiated the agreement," he added. Earlier, Advani asserted that the Vajpayee Government would not dismiss any State Government under "pressure" from a coalition partner.

Other BJP leaders saw a "hidden, personal agenda" behind Jayalalitha's persistent demand: to get rid of a host of corruption cases filed against her by the DMK Government and Central agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax Department.

Ashok Kumar (far right), Special Secretary in the Union Home Ministry, who headed a two-member Central team to assess the law and order situation in Tamil Nadu, with Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and Chief Secretary K.A. Nambiar (second from right) in Chennai on April 16.-

THIS is the third time that a DMK Government headed by Karunanidhi is facing the threat of dismissal. On January 31, 1976, the Indira Gandhi Government , dismissed his Government after he had challenged the imposition of the Emergency in 1975. The stated charges against the State Government were "corruption, maladministration and misuse of power."

On January 30, 1991, the second Karunanidhi Government was removed from office after Jayalalitha joined forces with Congress (I) president Rajiv Gandhi. The minority Chandra Shekhar Government at the Centre, heavily dependent on the Congress(I) for survival, dismissed the Karunanidhi Government.

The reasons that Jayalalitha cites for her demand are as baseless as they were when she forced the hand of the Chandra Shekhar Government. They include allegations that the Pakistani agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has infiltrated Tamil Nadu; that Al-Umma and Jihad Committee, both Islamic extremist organisations, operate with ISI support; and that there has been a resurgence in the activities of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the State. The DMK Government had banned Al-Umma and the Jihad Committee within hours of a series of bomb blasts that killed about 60 persons in Coimbatore on February 14. Jayalalitha also cites the caste clashes in southern Tamil Nadu in April 1997 and the protest by police personnel in Coimbatore after Al-Umma terrorists murdered a traffic constable in November 1997 as evidence for the breakdown of law and order. The Centre had banned the LTTE in May 1991, following the murder of Rajiv Gandhi.

Karunanidhi characterised Jayalalitha's demand as "blackmail". He said that she believed that if the DMK Government was removed, the "corruption cases against her involving hundreds of crores of rupees will be dismissed.'

L. Ganesan, president of the State unit of the BJP. His criticism of the AIADMK's veiled threats enraged Jayalalitha.-V. GANESAN

ALTHOUGH the BJP has not conceded her demand for the dismissal of the State Government, it has tried to appease her on other counts. The BJP-led Government replaced 33 standing counsel for the various Central Government agencies in Tamil Nadu with advocates known to have AIADMK sympathies. It is these counsel who would now argue the cases of the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax Department against Jayalalitha and her close associates. Besides, Justice D. Raju of the Madras High Court was promoted as Chief Justice of the Himachal Pradesh High Court. This has necessitated a re-hearing of the writ petitions filed by Jayalalitha and her former Ministers challenging the validity of the setting up of special courts to try the cases of corruption against them. Chief Justice of the Madras High Court M.S. Liberhan and Justice Raju had heard the petitions and reserved the judgment on February 4. The judgment was yet to be pronounced when Justice Raju's promotion came in the last week of June.

Jayalalitha's "hidden agenda" came into the open in April when Sedapatti R. Muthiah of the AIADMK was forced to resign as Union Surface Transport Minister after a special court in Chennai framed charges against him in a case of amassing wealth beyond his known sources of income when he was the Speaker of the Tamil Nadu Assembly. An angry Jayalalitha demanded that Union Ministers Ramakrishna Hegde and Ram Jethmalani too should be dropped because there were allegations of corruption against them. Jethmalani then demanded that Vajpayee "call her bluff"; he also said, "I do not see any legal basis for the dismissal of the DMK Government."

Jayalalitha suffered a setback when a two-member team from the Union Home Ministry observed, after a visit to Chennai on April 16, that the overall law and order situation had improved as a result of the steps taken by the State Government. In a sharp reaction, Jayalalitha alleged that the team members had not stepped out of the State Secretariat before preparing the report. Advani was unhappy about one of the team members, Ashok Kumar, meeting the press and airing his views. Ashok Kumar was transferred to the Union Planning Commission. Jayalalitha demanded that another Central team be sent to Tamil Nadu.

On June 2, at a press conference in New Delhi, Tamil Nadu Governor M. Fathima Beevi gave a clean chit to the State Government in the matter of law and order. She did this after meetings with President K.R. Narayanan, Vajpayee and Advani. Advani had to ring up Jayalalitha in Chennai to assuage her embarrassment.

However, the AIADMK and its allies stepped up their campaign. They staged walk-outs in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, alleging that the law and order situation in Tamil Nadu had broken down. The BJP too stuck to its position. On June 11, BJP leader Jaswant Singh said in a television interview that the situation in Tamil Nadu did not warrant the imposition of President's Rule and that the DMK Government would not be dismissed. State BJP general secretary L. Ganesan said on June 17 in Madurai that "it is the clear view of the BJP that no State Government will be dismissed using Article 356." He also said that the AIADMK's threats would not work, and that "people will not forgive the AIADMK if it withdraws support to the BJP-led Government."

Ganesan's remarks, his meeting with Karunanidhi on June 3, the latter's 75th birthday, Karunanidhi's visit to ailing BJP legislator C. Velayudham in hospital and the Chief Minister's presence at the wedding reception of Ganesan's niece in May made the AIADMK deeply suspicious of a tie-up between the BJP and the DMK.

Ganesan's remarks enraged Jayalalitha. Former AIADMK Minister K.A. Sengo-ttaiyan first unleashed a vicious attack on Ganesan, calling him the "unassailable leader of a party without cadres", "a lackey of Karunanidhi" and so on.

On June 19, Jayalalitha herself stepped in with a "friendly warning" to the BJP not to take her for granted on the dismissal issue. She claimed that there was "an explicit understanding" between the BJP and the AIADMK "while finalising the alliance" before the February elections that the DMK would be dismissed if the BJP came to power. "Why is the BJP singing a different tune now?" she asked. She said that the dismissal issue was not negotiable. She alleged that "anti-national activities were once again flourishing in Tamil Nadu," and claimed that in 1989, the DMK "actively encouraged the LTTE and gave them a free run." It was now "not only aiding and abetting the LTTE but encouraging the rise of the ISI-backed Al-Umma and Jihad Committee,"she said, and added, "the results are there for all to see." She demanded the dismissal of the DMK Government because, she claimed, "the security of the nation is not negotiable."

Jayalalitha also made a series of allegations against the BJP: that it had "planted reports in the media against me", that it had "a hidden and secret understanding with Karunanidhi to save him from his commissions and omissions because Karunanidhi is close to the BJP and RSS leaders", that it was "creating dissensions among the (AIADMK's) partners" and that it was trying "to split the AIADMK". However, she held out an olive branch: she "will not do anything hasty", such as withdrawing support to the BJP-led Government, which would invite the anger of the people. "My actions will be measured and in the interests of people of Tamil Nadu and the nation," she claimed.

Sources in the BJP characterised her allegations as "an emotional outburst" born out of "desperation". The BJP leadership apparently did not take her "friendly warning" seriously because she had backed down during earlier confrontations with the BJP. She delayed giving the letter of support to the BJP but ultimately gave it. She said that the AIADMK MPs would not join the Ministry but changed her mind later. She demanded that Hegde and Jethmalani be dropped from the Cabinet but resiled from that stand. "She is child-like and she can be easily pacified," a BJP leader said.

Her warning has not been taken seriously for several reasons as well. There has been dissension among her allies over the question whether the DMK Government should be dismissed. Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko has been opposed the use of Article 356; he maintains that "people's power should be mobilised" to dislodge it. Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) leader Dr. S. Ramadoss, who initially said that Karunanidhi should resign on his own because the DMK had been defeated in the polls, later claimed that "since an extraordinary situation prevailed in Tamil Nadu", Article 356 could be used. Tamilaga Rajiv Congress (TRC) leader and Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthi has always insisted on using Article 356 against the DMK Government.

In the reckoning of BJP leaders, the MDMK, the PMK and the TRC will not approve of the AIADMK withdrawing support to the BJP-led Government. They argue that Ramamurthi and Dalit Ezhilmalai of the PMK would not like to lose their ministership. As for the MDMK, which is not a partner in the Union Ministry, they point out that it is not prepared to face another round of elections.

In the BJP's calculation, Jayalalitha has "no choice" but to stick with the BJP. If she withdraws her support, whatever chances she had of the cases against her being soft-pedalled on would have gone. Her overtures to the Congress(I) have brought no enthusiastic response: the Congress(I) knows that it cannot concede her demands. Jayalalitha's claims on June 19 that she could help the BJP muster the support required in the Lok Sabha to ratify dismissal indicated that she had sidled up to Congress president Sonia Gandhi. But apparently the Congress(I) was not impressed.

Assembly elections are to be held towards the end of 1998 in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. Sources in the BJP said: "If we resile from our principled stand and dismiss the DMK Government, the Opposition will make use of it. This will adversely affect our electoral fortunes."

There are the practical difficulties as well. First, Governor Fathima Beevi may not recommend dismissal. Secondly, even if she does, the President may not approve of it. The BJP, the sources say, will not be able to muster enough support in Parliament to get the dismissal ratified because the Akali Dal, a BJP ally, the Telugu Desam Party, which offers crucial support to the Government, and the MDMK will oppose it. Karunanidhi has declared that he would take constitutional and legal steps to challenge the dismissal. Besides going by the Bommai case verdict, the Supreme Court could strike down any such decision by the Centre.

Unmindful of all these, Jayalalitha went on the offensive again when Thakre, Advani and Jana Krishnamurthy denied that there was any "explicit understanding" on the dismissal. In a sharply worded, 13-page statement on June 23, she claimed that after the Coimbatore blasts, Advani had instructed the BJP candidate for the Tiruchi Lok Sabha constituency, Rangarajan Kumaramangalam (now Union Minister for Power), to announce at a press conference that if the BJP came to power, the DMK Government would be dismissed. Kumaramangalam had informed Jayalalitha of this the next day, she claimed.

According to her, Advani had also told him to inform her that he would announce at the public meeting in Tiruchi that the DMK Government would be dislodged if the BJP was voted to power. However, Advani later asked Kumaramangalam to tell Jayalalitha that since he was in a state of shock after the blasts and had to wind up the meeting before 10 p.m., he had forgotten to mention this in his speech.

Then came her decision on June 26 to stay away from the Coordination Committee meeting slated for the next day. Informed sources said that she did not go to New Delhi because it had been made clear to her that there would be no dismissal of the DMK Government.

ON June 27, BJP general secretary M. Venkaiah Naidu flew into Chennai and met State BJP leaders. He advised them to "restrain themselves from making any public statements" on the relationship between the two parties and on contentious issues such as using Article 356.

Venkaiah Naidu told Frontline: "There are some problems with regard to the AIADMK and the BJP. There are certain perceptional differences on some issues. I have come here basically to discuss these with my State unit because as per media reports some unnecessary controversy has arisen here between the BJP and the AIADMK. The State unit told me that it had decided not to make any statements with regard to the relationship between the AIADMK and the BJP, and the contentious issues, but leave the matter to the central party. I told them that the political rivals of our alliance are taking advantage of this controversy."

Informed sources in the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) said that Jayalalitha's abstention was "the height of blackmail". Sources in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said that in that party's understanding, her keeping away from the meeting was another form of pressure, and now she would wait for the BJP's reaction. They added: "What is clear is that Jayalalitha cannot get along with anybody. It (the latest developments) shows her sheer opportunism."

According to AIADMK sources, Jayalalitha has three options: allow the AIADMK to continue to be part of the BJP-led Government; ask the AIADMK Ministers to resign but lend issue-based support to the Government from outside; or withdraw support to the Government and plunge it into a crisis. What she will do is anybody's guess.

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