A hardening stand

Print edition : April 10, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

THE confrontation between the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Bharatiya Janata Party over the Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat issue escalated last fortnight to dangerous levels, but AIADMK general secretary Jayalalitha once again shied away from withdrawing support to the BJP-led coalition Government at the Centre. However, indicating a hardening of the AIADMK's position, the party announced on April 5 that its two Ministers, Law Minister M. Thambi Durai and Minister of State for Finance R. Janarthanam, would submit the letters of their resignation to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee the next day. Jayalalitha stopped short of withdrawing support to the Government specifically because "nothing concrete" had been done to revive her party's relationship with the Congress(I) and there were no gains to be made by destabilising the Government now.

The AIADMK finds itself isolated. The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), Jayalalitha's trusted ally so far, has said that even if the AIADMK leaves the coalition, it will not do so. The Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the Tamilaga Rajiv Congress, erstwhile allies of the AIADMK, have also stood by the BJP. Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, with whom Jayalalitha suddenly developed an affinity, also turned against the AIADMK on the Bhagwat issue.

The immediate cause of the confrontation was a remark by Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister Rangarajan Kumaramangalam (he had taken a soft line towards the AIADMK). Kumaramangalam's statement that Jayalalitha could leave the coalition if she insisted on a JPC probe into the Bhagwat issue came within a fortnight of the BJP State conference in Tiruchi where Vajpayee had asked party cadres not to antagonise the AIADMK. The tensions between the BJP and the AIADMK had eased considerably after the Centre issued a notification transferring to regular courts 46 corruption cases against Jayalalitha, her former Ministers, and some bureaucrats, which were pending before special judges.

Kumaramangalam's remark came as Jayalalitha harped on a JPC inquiry even after the ruling coalition's Coordination Committee meeting "unanimously" decided against it. At the meeting Jayalalitha demanded the resignation of Defence Minister George Fernandes for his role in the dismissal of the Chief of the Naval Staff and later said that she had not agreed with the Committee's decision.

Informed sources in the BJP said that the party leadership had authorised Kumaramangalam to ask the AIADMK to leave the Government if it continued to insist on a JPC probe. The BJP leadership suspected that Jayalalitha "is coordinating with the Congress" on the issue, especially after Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi and Jayalalitha met at a tea party hosted by Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy in New Delhi on March 29.

The first salvo from the AIADMK side was fired by seven senior AIADMK leaders, including chairman of the party presidium V.R. Nedunchezhiyan and treasurer Sedapatti R. Muthiah. In a joint statement on April 1, they demanded that Vajpayee clarify whether he agreed with Kumaramangalam's statement. "If so, he need only tell us, and in one hour we will be at Rashtrapati Bhavan informing the President of India that we are no longer supporting a Government that does not want us to stay in it," they said. They added: "Please be assured that the AIADMK is not worried about either alternative alliances or fresh elections. There are tested friends from the past who have in 1996 been cleansed of undesirable elements, who can be our allies." The reference was to G.K. Moopanar, P. Chidambaram and others leaving the Congress(I) to found the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) protesting against the party entering into an alliance with the AIADMK in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections held at that time.

At the AIADMK general council meeting two days later (April 3), there was a lot of sound and fury against Vajpayee, Kumaramangalam, Fernandes, MDMK general secretary Vaiko and TRC founder and Union Petroleum Minister Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthy. PMK leader Dr. S. Ramadoss was spared because Jayalalitha hopes to take him along with her. It gave "full authority" to Jayalalitha "to take appropriate steps as she deems fit for forming new alliances, depending on the evolving political situation and the abiding national interests of the AIADMK."

Jayalalitha told reporters after the meeting: "Whether we continue to remain a part of the Government depends on the Government's response (to our demands)." She demanded that the Prime Minister make it clear whether he agreed with Kumaramangalam's views. However, she declined to set a deadline for the Government to respond. When reminded of similar warnings earlier, she replied, "This warning is different. The situation is entirely different."

Informed sources in the TMC said that Jayalalitha did not take a final decision because "no full-fledged discussions" had taken place on the revival of ties between the Congress(I) and the AIADMK. Vaiko described the meeting between Jayalalitha and Sonia Gandhi as "a storm in a tea cup"; Jayalalitha had claimed that it was "a political earthquake". Moopanar endorsed Vaiko's view in this matter.

The AIADMK is uncertain about what the future holds for it if it gets out of the Government. What will happen if the Congress(I) uses the AIADMK to topple the Vajpayee Government and then ignores it? The AIADMK is also worried about the possibility of the Congress(I) forming a Government with the TMC as a coalition partner and supported from outside by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India. Even if the Congress(I) forms a government with the AIADMK as an ally, it may not concede Jayalalitha's demands. In the event of fresh elections, the AIADMK may not retain its 18 seats. So the strategy appears to be to keep threatening the Vajpayee Government and force it to concede its demands.

Sources in the Tamil Nadu Congress(I) Committee said the Congress high command was in a dilemma about an alliance with the AIADMK. MGR-ADMK leader S. Tirunavukk-arasu analysed the situation thus: "Jayalalitha will never withdraw her support to the Union Government. If she does it, she will be in prison the next day. She knows this. So she keeps threatening the Centre and gets things done."

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