Alliances in place

Print edition : March 17, 2001

With the Tamil Maanila Congress and the Congress(I) finalising their entry into the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led alliance against the National Democratic Alliance led by the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the stage is set for a bipolar contest in Tamil Nadu.

IT was a suspenseful wait for several hours for about a hundred journalists who had gathered outside the residence of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary Jayalalitha in Chennai on March 9. Patience was wearing thin as some of them debated among themselves whether Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) president G.K. Moopanar would come to sign an agreement with Jayalalitha on seat-sharing for the Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Pondicherry. An AIADMK vol unteer, who was overhearing the conversation, asked: "It is more than a month since negotiations began. Why is Moopanar so indecisive?"

Jayalalitha with TMC president G.K. Moopanar.-M. MOORTHY

Jayalalitha and Moopanar did sign an agreement the same night. Their one-to-one meeting came as a finale to 34 days of many-sided negotiations and tough bargaining. In the process, they patiently managed to overcome obstacles and reconciled various inter ests.

Under the agreement the AIADMK, which heads the secular front in the State, will allot 47 seats to the TMC and the Congress(I). Moopanar signed the agreement for both the TMC and his parent party as Congress(I) general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad had auth orised him earlier that day "to negotiate and conclude an electoral alliance" with the AIADMK on behalf of the Congress(I) "for the forthcoming 2001 elections in Tamil Nadu". Moopanar said he was ready to allot 15 seats out of the 47 to the Congress(I), as asked by it. There are 234 seats in the State Assembly.

The agreement ensures a formidable alliance comprising the AIADMK, the TMC, the Congress(I), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Janata Dal (Secular), the Indian National League , the Forward Bloc and some other small parties. While the PMK has been allotted 27 seats, the number of seats to be allotted to the CPI and the CPI(M), which have been reportedly demanding 15 seats and 25 seats respectively, was left to the final round of talks.

Explaining to mediapersons the details of the agreement, Moopanar characterised the AIADMK-led front "a winning alliance". The TMC leaders were in high spirits. In a guarded reaction, Tamil Nadu Congress(I) Committee president E.V.K.S. Elangovan said: "I am neither happy nor unhappy. Mr. Moopanar has taken a decision and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi has approved it. I will abide by it." (Elangovan had been articulating the idea of a Third Front led by the TMC-Congress(I) combine.)

Hours later, the Congress(I) formalised its entry into the AIADMK-led front when Gulam Nabi Azad confirmed in Delhi that his party had ratified the Moopanar-Jayalalitha agreement. He said that his party would contest 15 of the 47 seats allotted to the TM C-Congress(I) combine.

The firming up of the AIADMK-led secular alliance ensures a bipolar contest in Tamil Nadu. Ranged against this powerful combine is the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) headed by the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and including the Bharatiya Jan ata Party (BJP), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Tamizhaga Rajiv Congress (TRC), the Puthiya Thamizhagam, the Dalit Panthers, the MGR ADMK, the MGR Kazhagam and other parties.

THE issue of power-sharing in Pondicherry, which proved to be a major stumbling block in the negotiations of the TMC-Congress(I) with the AIADMK, was resolved by delinking the Pondicherry deal from the Tamil Nadu accord. Azad told mediapersons in Delhi t hat the Congress(I) and the TMC would contest together in Pondicherry along with "some friendly parties." He was confident that this combine would form the government "on its own." The Congress(I) and the TMC, which run the present coalition government i n the Union Territory, will together take on the PMK-AIADMK alliance and the NDA, in a triangular contest. Jayalalitha had signed an agreement on March 5 with PMK founder Dr. S. Ramadoss to share power with the PMK in Pondicherry. This agreement angered the Congress(I), which was opposed to the idea of sharing power with the PMK, and the TMC, besides the CPI and the CPI(M), which are also in the AIADMK-led front.

According to the Jayalalitha-Ramadoss accord, the PMK will contest 10 of the 30 elected seats in the Pondicherry Assembly. (There are three nominated seats.) A PMK nominee would be Chief Minister for the first half of the five-year term of the Assembly a nd an AIADMK nominee for the second.

There is no love lost between the Congress(I) and the PMK. The latter makes no bones about its support to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and has campaigned for amnesty to the killers of former Congress(I) Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi after th e Supreme Court upheld the death sentences against them.

The Congress(I) leaders in Pondicherry remained firm that they would not cede power to the PMK and the AIADMK. A stalemate ensued. Jayalalitha was prepared to "relinquish" the AIADMK's turn of office for two years and a half in favour of the Congress(I). But the latter refused to share power with the PMK. The Congress(I) Chief Minister, P. Shanmugham, commented:"We are the A-1 party in Pondicherry. Has anything happened to change our standpoint on this?" Jayalalitha then proposed that Pondicherry could be "delinked" from Tamil Nadu, and that the Congress(I) and the TMC could "form their own front" for the Union Territory. Eventually, the impasse was resolved by Moopanar and Jayalalitha concluding a seat-sharing agreement covering only Tamil Nadu.

Finalisation of the agreement dragged on because the Congress(I) high command and the TNCC(I) president appeared to play with the idea of forming a Third Front in Tamil Nadu with the TMC, the Dalit Panthers and some newly formed caste-based parties after the AIADMK offered the governance of Pondicherry to the PMK. But Moopanar shot down the suggestion on the grounds that the TMC and the Congress(I) did not have enough cadres to work in all the 234 seats in Tamil Nadu. Besides, the TMC was strapped for c ash and the caste-based parties were "not a tested lot" in the elections. The CPI(M) and the CPI were also not enthusiastic about a Third Front.

The TMC leadership felt that those who wanted to form a Third Front had an "ulterior motive" of helping the DMK to return to power. But a section in the TMC wanted the party to revive its alliance with the DMK. Karunanidhi made repeated overtures to the TMC, offering it 40 seats (which it contested as a DMK ally against the AIADMK in the 1996 elections). But the majority in the TMC wanted the party to align with the AIADMK.

After the TMC election committee authorised him to clinch an alliance with the AIADMK, and Moopanar spoke to Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi over the phone, the agreement was in place on March 9. Moopanar drove to Jayalalitha's home unaccompanied by a ny aide around 8.45 p.m. After a 15-minute meeting, the agreement was signed.

"I am satisfied with the negotiations," Moopanar announced to mediapersons. Asked whether P. Chidambaram, a TMC leader and former Union Finance Minister, had agreed to it, Moopanar retorted:"Ask him." Was Chidambaram consulted? "Everybody was consulted." (In a statement issued on March 11, Chidambaram came out petulantly against the agreement. Asking the TMC leadership "to reconsider" its decision to join the AIADMK-led front, he said, "I do not believe that this arrangement will ensure good governance. " He claimed he had not been "consulted".)

When the PMK joined the AIADMK-led front on February 6, it would have been hard to imagine the impact tiny Pondicherry would have on the Tamil Nadu political scene. Although the PMK's intentions to capture power in Pondicherry were clear even when it pul led out two Ministers out of the NDA government at the Centre, it was the manner in which Jayalalitha and Dr. Ramadoss reached the pact on Pondicherry on March 5 that almost fractured the secular front. The TMC and the Congress(I), which had decided to " swim or sink together," rejected the pact. They argued that they had "a natural right" to rule the Union Territory if voted to power. Although the CPI and the CPI(M) had no big stakes in Pondicherry, they too were shocked at the "unilateral" manner in wh ich the agreement was concluded.

There were reasons why the Congress(I) and the TMC were unrelenting on Pondicherry. After the Congress lost power to the DMK in Tamil Nadu in 1967, it has been in the wilderness. It fears that its future will be at stake if it loses Pondicherry. The Cong ress(I) is the predominant party in the Union Territory, followed by the DMK, the TMC, the AIADMK and the PMK in that order. The Congress(I) felt that the PMK suffered from vaulting ambition when it had no solid base in the Union Territory. What also ang ered the Congress(I) was intelligence that the PMK was eyeing the 10 constituencies that returned Congress(I) candidates in the 1996 Assembly elections.

When Congress(I) emissaries Pranab Kumar Mukherjee and Ghulam Nabi Azad met Jayalalitha in Chennai on February 19, it was clear that Pondicherry would be a major stumbling block. Besides, she offered only 35 seats together to the Congress(I) and the TMC while they expected 50. Jayalalitha raised her offer to 40, after she gave 27 seats to the PMK under her agreement with Dr. Ramadoss. In an effort to drive a wedge between the Congress(I) and the TMC, she told the TMC negotiating team that their party co uld keep all the 40 seats for itself.

When the news about the agreement on Pondicherry spread, it put the secular front in turmoil. Several formulas were discussed to resolve the tangle. Jayalalitha could not go back on the agreement with Dr. Ramadoss, who would also not give up his party's claim to the Chief Ministership in Pondicherry. With both sides sticking to their stands, the AIADMK and the TMC-Congress(I) combine thought it practical to delink Pondicherry from their alliance scheme in the interest of putting in place a formidable an ti-DMK front in Tamil Nadu.

MEANWHILE, the DMK-led NDA was trying to get its act together in lower key. The Dalit Panthers walked out of the secular front, objecting to the PMK's inclusion, and joined the NDA, after its leader R. Thirumavalavan met Chief Minister Karunanidhi. (The Dalit Panthers and the Vanniyar-dominated PMK are rivals in Vellore, Thiruvannamalai, Cuddalore, Villupuram, Chengalpattu and Dharmapuri districts.) The Puthiya Thamizhagam, another party of Dalits and headed by Dr. K. Krishnaswamy, had already joined th e DMK-led front.

Kumari Ananthan, former TNCC president, left the Congress(I) and formed a new party called the "Thondar Congress". His organisation joined the NDA. The DMK-led front received a bit of a boost when the Pondicherry Makkal Congress, founded by P. Kannan who left the TMC, threw its lot with Karunanidhi. The DMK finalised its seat-sharing arrangement with the BJP under which the BJP would contest 23 seats in Tamil Nadu. The DMK gave the number two status to the BJP in the State. The MDMK has already held one round of negotiations with the DMK and asked for 60 seats.

The battle lines are drawn in Tamil Nadu and a fierce political confrontation lies ahead.