A secular front in the South

Print edition : January 30, 2004

In a quick realignment of forces, the secular parties in Tamil Nadu unite under the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, leaving in the process the BJP and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's AIADMK friendless.

in Chennai

Congress(I) leader Manmohan Singh with DMK president M. Karunanidhi in Chennai on January 8.-K. PICHUMANI

A FORMIDABLE alliance is being put in place in Tamil Nadu to take on the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. Heading the alliance is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which was until recently a constituent of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA coalition. Although the emergence of a DMK-led secular front was very much on the cards for quite some time in view of the growing differences between the DMK and the BJP over, among other things, certain policies of the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government in the State, it was the exit of the DMK from the NDA on December 20 and the resignation of its two representatives, T.R. Baalu and A. Raja, from the Union Ministry, following the Centre's refusal to do away with the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and the NDA's moves in favour of early Lok Sabha elections that quickened the pace of developments towards a broad-based alliance against the NDA.

Quick to join the secular alliance were the Congress(I) and two other national parties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India. The Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), which also withdrew support to the NDA and pulled out its two Ministers, M. Kannappan and Gingee N. Ramachandran, a week after the DMK left it, and the Paattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the only other Tamil Nadu-based party still left with the NDA, besides some smaller parties such as the Congress Democratic Forum led by former Union Minister P. Chidambaram and Puthiya Tamizhagam, are also expected to follow suit.

Interestingly, it is for the first time since 1980 that the Congress(I) and the DMK are joining hands to fight elections. The re-flowering of electoral ties between the two parties formally began when Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi greeted DMK president M. Karunanidhi over the phone on New Year's Day, and Congress(I) Member of Parliament Mani Shanker Aiyar met him the same day.

On January 8, Congress Working Committee member and former Union Finance Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, "under instructions" from Sonia Gandhi, met Karunanidhi "to explore the possibilities of our two parties working together in an alliance to fight the communal forces in the country". Present at the meeting was Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president G.K. Vasan. After the meeting, Manmohan Singh declared: "We have established a new relationship of trust and confidence between our two parties and this gives the right signal."

The ice between the DMK and the Congress(I) was broken much earlier, on October 15, 2003, when Sonia Gandhi briefly spoke to Karunanidhi over the phone to thank him for condemning an alleged attack on Mani Shanker Aiyar the previous day by AIADMK workers following a row between the MP and Chief Minister and AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa at a government function in Nagapattinam.

For his part, Karunanidhi, unlike BJP leaders and Jayalalithaa, has consistently refused to make an issue of Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin. His standpoint has been that it will be "uncivilised to call her a foreigner when she has become a daughter-in-law of India". He said again, on December 29, 2003: "I am not going to indulge in that indecent criticism. Even when there was open enmity between the DMK and the Congress(I), I never talked in terms of our country and foreign country."

CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet with Karunanidhi in Chennai on January 1. Looking on are CPI(M) State secretary N. Varadarajan and former Union Minister T.R. Baalu.-R. RAGU

From January 1, the DMK headquarters and Karunanidhi's residence in Chennai have become busy with political activity. Leaders, big and small, have called on him to pledge their support to the new alliance, which Karunanidhi has tentatively christened "progressive front" or an "alliance for harmony of religions". On January 3, CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet had a "successful" meeting with Karunanidhi. Stating that Karunanidhi would lead the secular alliance in Tamil Nadu, Surjeet observed: "As Mr. Karunanidhi is the rallying point in Tamil Nadu, it is difficult to strike at the BJP here without him. His return will strengthen the secular front in the State, and he will decide the constituents of the front." He also clarified that there would be "only one front in the State against the BJP" and denied that he had earlier said in New Delhi that two fronts - one headed by the Congress(I) and the other comprising the CPI(M), the CPI and so on - would fight the NDA. "I never said `two fronts'. I said `two platforms'," he said.

In other words, the Congress(I) and the Left parties would campaign from two different platforms against the BJP.

CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan will meet Karunanidhi on January 21. Puthiya Tamizhagam founder Dr. K. Krishnasamy has already met him. The Indian Union Muslim League has snapped its ties with the AIADMK and the IUML leaders have pledged support to the DMK to fight the BJP. Indian National League leader Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait is also slated to meet Karunanidhi on January 17.

These quick developments have left the BJP at one end and the AIADMK at the other totally isolated - the AIADMK because most of the parties that were constituents of the alliance it led to success in the 2001 Assembly elections, such as the CPI, the CPI(M) and the PMK, had soon left the front in protest against the "anti-people" policies of the AIADMK government, and are now in the DMK-led secular alliance. Besides, the Tamil Maanila Congress, which was part of the AIADMK-led alliance in 2001, left its company soon and merged with the Congress(I) in 2002.

The AIADMK supremo had estranged Sonia Gandhi with acidic attack, on September 2, 2002, on the latter's foreign origin. Jayalalithaa said, "I am prepared to travel all over the country to create an awareness" against allowing a "foreigner" to become the Prime Minister. Throughout her extended press conference, she kept referring to Sonia Gandhi as "Antonio Maino Gandhi". Jayalalithaa claimed that her "only aim" behind blocking Sonia Gandhi as a prime ministerial candidate "is to strengthen the Indian democracy" and to see that "the evil of colonialism should not come in through the backdoor."

Jayalalithaa, only a few months ago, had expressed the hope that an "alternative to both the Congress(I) and the BJP will emerge". However, she reportedly said at one of the meetings she held with party workers from different districts in December that the AIADMK would go it alone in the Lok Sabha elections and contest all the 40 seats (39 from Tamil Nadu and one from the neighbouring Union Territory of Pondicherry). But, after the latest developments, she is said to have modified her stand.

Perhaps conscious of the strength of the parties in the DMK-led front, she has reportedly told her party cadre that the AIADMK would contest 33 seats and offer six seats to any other party willing to accept the offer. Only the BJP seems to be keen to grab the offer.

Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani telephoned Jayalalithaa on January 1 to convey his New Year greetings, signalling a detente between the two parties. BJP national general secretary L. Ganesan said there was nothing wrong in the BJP joining hands with the AIADMK. State BJP president C.P. Radhakrishnan recalled that it was Jayalalithaa's AIADMK that had aligned with the BJP for the 1998 mid-term Lok Sabha elections when every other party in the State considered it an "untouchable".

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