New leader, old feuds

Print edition : July 18, 1998

The appointment of a new president of the Tamil Nadu Congress(I) Committee has spurred a new round of factionalism in the party.

TWO cartoons published recently in the Tamil daily Dinamani succinctly sum up the state of the Congress(I) at the national level and, more specifically, in Tamil Nadu. In one of them, a Tamil Nadu Congress(I) leader, with party president Sonia Gandhi beside him, is addressing a "public meeting" and exhorting Congress(I) "cadres and comrades" to remain united; in front of him is a vast maidan, totally empty.

In the other, Sonia Gandhi and a party leader are looking skyward on a starry night, counting the stars - each of which represents a faction of the party.

Jokes apart, in the firmament of Congress(I) politics in Tamil Nadu, the only factor that is as constant as the northern star is factionalism. That fact was borne out yet again by developments after July 6, when Sonia Gandhi appointed Tindivanam K. Ramamurthy, a senior Congress(I) leader who has served as a member of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, president of the moribund and faction-ridden State unit of the party, replacing K.V. Thangabalu.

Outgoing TNCC(I) president K.V. Thangabalu (right) greets his successor Tindivanam K. Ramamurthy in Chennai on July 9.-T.A. HAFEEZ

Shocked by the move, Thangabalu's supporters flocked to the office of the Tamil Nadu Congress(I) Committee and raised slogans before locking up the party office for the day in protest.

Elsewhere, Ramamurthy's supporters celebrated his appointment by setting off fire-crackers and distributing sweets. Sharing in the jubilation were supporters of Congress(I) leaders R. Prabhu, Era. Anbarasu and Kumari Ananthan, who had worked behind the scenes to get Thangabalu replaced.

Thangabalu's supporters met in a hotel in Chennai the next day and denounced his removal. The group passed a resolution, which said that the leadership change had "deeply pained" Congress(I) workers and would retard the party's growth in the State. The resolution dared Ramamurthy to replace the District Congress(I) Committee (DCC) presidents and other office-bearers who were elected when Thangabalu was the State party president. After this outpouring of defiance, the group, however, stated somewhat tamely that it would "work under Sonia Gandhi's leadership to strengthen the Congress(I) in Tamil Nadu."

THE removal of Thangabalu had a ripple effect in the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) led by G.K. Moopanar. Thangabalu had cordial relations with Moopanar, who broke away from the Congress(I) in April 1996 to form the TMC. Immediately after taking over as TNCC(I) president in March 1977, Thangabalu declared that he would endeavour to secure the merger of the TMC with the Congress(I). TMC leaders, therefore, viewed the appointment of Ramamurthy as a confirmation of the cold-shouldering of Moopanar's offer, made in May 1998, of "coordination" with the Congress(I). In their perception, it was a signal to the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam of a possible revival of relations between the Congress(I) and the AIADMK.

When Moopanar was in the Congress(I), Ramamurthy was one of his most loyal supporters; but in January 1995, when Ramamurthy was overlooked for the post of TNCC (I) president in favour of Kumari Ananthan, he felt betrayed. When Moopanar formed the TMC in April 1996, Ramamurthy did not join him.

Only after Ramamurthy's appointment as State party president was announced was it made known that the Congress(I) high command had secured Thangabalu's resignation two months ago. According to TNCC (I) sources, more than the drubbing that Congress(I) candidates received in the Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu in February 1998, it was the fact that Thangabalu was appointed by former Congress(I) president Sitaram Kesri that went against him. After Sonia Gandhi took over as Congress(I) president, she wanted her loyalists to head State units, the sources said.

Thangabalu, however, claimed that after Sonia Gandhi took over he had voluntarily resigned in order to enable her to restructure the party.

According to TNCC(I) leaders, Thangabalu had antagonised many State-level party leaders during his term. He dissolved the TNCC(I) bodies and packed them with his supporters, sidelining workers loyal to Prabhu, Anbarasu, Kumari Ananthan and Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthi, all of whom headed various factions. So much so, their loyalists boycotted the TNCC(I) office during Thangabalu's tenure.

The organisational elections in 1997 led to more bad blood between Thangabalu and other leaders. Rival factions held parallel elections in many districts. Thangabalu's supporters were elected to all the posts in the districts, but leaders of the other factions dubbed the elections a farce. Thangabalu was formally elected TNCC(I) president in June 1997. He immediately suspended Vazhapadi Ramamurthi from the party, who eventually formed the Tamizhaga Rajiv Congress in December 1997 and is now Union Petroleum Minister.

Thangabalu's opponents, who lay low for a while, struck back after Sonia Gandhi took over as Congress(I) president.

Thangabalu, who was in New Delhi when his replacement was announced, met Sonia Gandhi on July 8 and promised her that he would fully support Ramamurthy's efforts to revitalise the party in the State. Ramamurthy formally took over from Thangabalu on July 10. Inside the TNCC(I) office, the ousted leader was all good cheer and even shared a garland with his successor; outside, however, his angry supporters shouted slogans criticising Ramamurthy's appointment.

TMC leader G.K. Moopanar.-M. MOORTHY

Ramamurthy said, "My only objective is to strengthen the party and my only priority is party work." He appealed to all Congressmen to unite under one umbrella, and expressed happiness that Moopanar had sent him his good wishes.

IT seems premature to talk about the Congress(I)'s plans for an alliance in Tamil Nadu because no elections are expected in the near future; even so, TNCC(I) sources claimed that the change of guard signalled that Sonia Gandhi did not set much store by the TMC. She was reportedly displeased that Moopanar did not merge his party with the Congress(I) soon after she took over as president.

TMC sources, however, said that the Congress(I) was keeping its options open. In their estimation, if the Congress(I) had a chance to form an alternative government at the Centre, the Congress(I) would use Ramamurthy to secure the AIADMK's support. (Ramamurthy has a good rapport with Vazhapadi Ramamurthi, whose party is an ally of the AIADMK; in addition, both of them belong to the Vanniya community.) Alternatively, TMC sources felt, if mid-term elections became inevitable, the Congress(I) would not align with the AIADMK, citing its "corrupt" image, but would instead strike an alliance with the TMC.

A new leader is in place and expressions of solidarity are being aired, but the Congress(I) in Tamil Nadu is as faction-ridden as ever. For Ramamurthy, uniting all the factions and galvanising the party is sure to be quite a formidable task. Far easier would it perhaps be to count the number of stars in the sky.

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