The AIADMK government's decision to invoke the provisions of TESMA against four Opposition leaders brings disparate political parties on a common platform, but it is not clear yet if this new-found unity presages an electoral alliance.
THE Jayalalithaa government's decision on August 15 to invoke the provisions of the Tamil Nadu Essential Services Maintenance Act (TESMA) against four top Opposition leaders of the State on the charge of instigating government employees to go on strike in July has, willy-nilly, given rise to a new kind of unity among disparate political parties. At a joint rally in Chennai on August 22, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Congress(I), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI), although they differed on several issues, protested against the government move and vowed to continue their fight against the "autocratic regime" of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
The City Central Crime Branch registered cases against DMK president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi; Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC) working president E.V.K.S. Ilangovan; CPI(M) State secretary N. Varadarajan and CPI State secretary R. Nallakannu, under Section 5 of TESMA, after it received a complaint from the Secretary (Public). Section 5 says: "Any person who instigates or incites other persons to take part in, otherwise acts in furtherance of a strike, which is illegal under this Act, shall, on conviction, be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with a fine which may extend to Rs.5,000, or with both."
Although no case was booked against any leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), its cadre joined the rally, which was led by DMK general secretary K. Anbazhagan, TNCC president S. Balakrishnan, Varadarajan and Nallakannu. Hundreds of volunteers raised slogans demanding that the government withdraw the cases and stop the repression of government employees and teachers. They said they would protect the democratic right to go on strike.
Describing the government's decision to prosecute him as "an Independence Day gift", Karunanidhi said that the cases were meant to deflect people's attention from the AIADMK's inability to run the administration smoothly even after the Supreme Court's verdict on the strike. N. Sankaraiah, CPI(M) Central Committee member, said the government had reached "the height of arrogance". A. Soundararajan, CPI(M) State Secretariat member and general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), asserted that the right to strike was "not alms gifted by anyone" and that his party would not allow the right to be snatched away. CPI leader A.M. Gopu said the government had made a mockery of democracy by registering the cases. Congress (I) leader Peter Alphonse described the cases as constituting "yet another step towards fascism".
The main Opposition parties are trying to exploit the resentment that is building up in the State against the AIADMK government following its decision to stop the free distribution of 30 kg of rice every month to farmers affected by drought, disallow families with a monthly income of more than Rs.5,000 to draw supplies from the public distribution system (PDS), and effect a steep hike in the tuition fees in government/aided colleges. The minority communities are unhappy with the legislation banning forcible conversions in the State and the government's support to the BJP's plans to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya, introduce a uniform civil code and ban cow slaughter. The government employees and teachers are a demoralised lot ever since their strike was put down.
Big crowds gathered to listen to Karunanidhi in Madurai, Thanjavur, Paramakudi, Tirunelveli and Chennai. The DMK chief began his tour on August 17 in Thanjavur, one of the Cauvery delta districts facing a severe drought. At a rally in Tiruchi, he said the DMK would "soon vanquish the AIADMK's dictatorial rule". He said a change of government was necessary in Tamil Nadu in order to restore the confiscated rights of workers and the subsidies of farmers and pay the benefits accrued to government employees. "Let them arrest us. The next day, Tamil Nadu will witness a turning point," he said. In Tirunelveli, he announced that plans were under way to convene a meeting of leaders of all political parties to organise the next phase of agitation against TESMA. A political observer said, "Such big crowds generally gather just before the elections. There is a growing disillusionment among different sections of the people with it."
A big crowd gathered in Madurai to listen to P. Chidambaram, head of the Congress Democratic Forum, who excoriated the State government.
There was an enthusiastic response to the scores of rallies organised by the CPI(M) across the State to condemn the polices of the Central and State governments. The rallies were held in zones coming under Chennai, Coimbatore, Dindigul, Tiruvarur and Hosur from August 16 to 31. The rallyists demanded that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government stick firmly to a non-aligned foreign policy and not convert India into a satellite of the United States; stop disinvestment; resolve the Ayodhya dispute through a judicial verdict; and effect reforms in the PDS. They also demanded the repeal of TESMA. Varadarajan took exception to the government stopping the free supply of 30 kg of rice to farmers when drought continued to stalk the entire State. Denying any commodity under the PDS to families that earned more than Rs.5,000 a month signalled "the danger of the government gradually abdicating its responsibility", he added.
The CPI also organised picketing agitations. Hundreds of members of the All India Youth Federation, the youth wing of the CPI, were arrested on September 2 in Tiruchi, Nagapattinam, Tiruvarur, Coimbatore, Villupuram, Dindigul and other places.
IT is too early to say whether this new-found unity, will grow into an alliance for the 2004 parliamentary elections. Karunanidhi has maintained that he cannot say whether the rally presaged an alliance. While it is true that the Jayalalithaa government's actions have brought the Opposition parties on a common forum, there is no sign of this unity firming up against the NDA government, headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The DMK is a constituent of the NDA. The CPI(M), the CPI and the Congress have made it clear that the DMK should walk out of the NDA before any electoral understanding could be worked out.
The DMK is not in a hurry to part ways with the BJP. The DMK is worried that if it pulls out of the NDA now, the AIADMK will brutally assail it, and it would have no one to turn to. In short, Karunanidhi is riding two horses at the same time. He is with the BJP at the Centre but with the CPI(M), the CPI and the Congress(I) in the State. This stand at the State-level is limited to opposing only the AIADMK, not the BJP.
This "double-standard" of the DMK, as Varadarajan called it, has angered the Opposition parties. Nallakannu asked the DMK and the MDMK to "search their souls" (athma parisodhanai) on the question of their continuing to ally with the BJP. But Karunanidhi retorted, "We don't believe in souls." G. Ramakrishnan, CPI(M) State secretariat member, said that the DMK continued to remain in the NDA at the cost of its own prestige and the interests of the people of Tamil Nadu. Ramakrishnan alleged that the BJP had succeeded in stirring up a debate on issues such as a ban on cow slaughter and a uniform civil code without bringing in any legislation on them.
Informed political sources said "there are chances" of an alliance being forged between the DMK and the Congress(I) for the Lok Sabha elections, but the Congress(I) would insist that the DMK quit the NDA. The DMK would, however, not leave the NDA unless it received a "concrete assurance" from the Congress(I) that it was prepared for an alliance. Besides, the DMK would wait for some solid issues to crop up before it parted company with the BJP.
In the event of an alliance between the Congress(I) and the DMK, the CPI(M) and the CPI would have only "seat adjustments" with that grouping because the CPI(M) will not ally with the Congress(I) directly. Despite its pro-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam stance, the MDMK would be roped in under this seat-adjustment umbrella, the sources said.
The sources ruled out any revival of the alliance between the Congress(I) and the AIADMK, especially after Jayalalithaa's strong criticism of Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's "foreign origin". Besides, "the AIADMK's image is not good", said a party source. The CPI(M) and the CPI too have firmly set their faces against any alliance with the AIADMK.
Karunanidhi has gone on record as saying that the DMK's alliance plans would be chalked out on the basis of opinion generated at the party's conference scheduled to be held in Villupuram on September 20 and 21, and the views expressed at the general council later.
The AIADMK is reportedly planning to face the Lok Sabha elections alone. In Jayalalithaa's assessment, no party would get a clear majority. "If the AIADMK wins the majority of 40 seats (from Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry), there are opportunities for the AIADMK to decide who should rule the country," Jayalalithaa told her party's executive committee members on August 18. She added, "Our partymen should realise this and work hard."
During the AIADMK general council meeting held in Chennai in December 2002, speaker after speaker wanted Jayalalithaa to become the next Prime Minister. The country needed her and so she should not confine herself to State politics, they beseeched her.