Politics

Split after defeat

Print edition : December 12, 2014

G.K. Vasan announcing his decision to start a new political party, in Chennai on November 3. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

The high command’s high-handedness is blamed for G.K. Vasan’s decision to break away from the Congress and set up his own party.

THE Congress in Tamil Nadu is trying to shut the stable door after the prized steed and its colts have bolted. G.K. Vasan, former Union Shipping Minister who heads a powerful faction in the party in the State, broke away from the party on November 3 and announced his decision to set up a new party. On October 30, B.S. Gnanadesikan, Vasan’s protege, resigned as Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC) president. The Congress high command acted with uncharacteristic speed to appoint E.V.K.S. Elangovan to the post on November 1.

The 49-year-old Vasan’s bold move to chart out “a new path” with a “correct road map” came in protest against what he saw as the high command’s “wrong approach” towards the party cadre in Tamil Nadu and the State’s interests. Tension had been building up between the high command and Vasan’s supporters. Vasan alleged on November 1: “The high command’s actions were contrary to what the cadre wanted. Whether it was the party line or the Tamil Nadu people’s problems, the party high command was not strengthening the movement even after we expressed our views to them on several occasions. In particular, in the past five months, after the party’s defeat in the Lok Sabha elections, the AICC [All India Congress Committee] gave the TNCC the cold shoulder. This led to the slackening of the TNCC.”

However, the immediate provocation for the break-up was the high command’s decision to bar the TNCC from printing membership cards with the photographs of the late Congress leaders K. Kamaraj and G.K. Moopanar (Vasan’s father). Congressmen in the State cherish the legacy of Kamaraj and Moopanar. While Kamaraj was Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and later Congress president, Moopanar emerged as a staunch loyalist of the Indira Gandhi family after the merger of the Congress factions in the State. (The Congress split in 1969, at the national level and in the States, into the Congress (Organisation) led by the “old guard” and the one led by Indira Gandhi, called the Congress (R, or Requisition, which later became the Congress (I).) The cards that Gnanadesikan printed carried the pictures of Kamaraj and Moopanar in addition to the pictures of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. But the high command indicated that there should be no pictures of Kamaraj and Moopanar.

In the eyes of Vasan and his supporters, this was “sacrilege” which could not be forgiven. Vasan said the high command’s decision was a “slur” on the reputation of Kamaraj and Moopanar and this enraged their followers. “That was the reason for Gnanadesikan’s resignation,” Vasan said. After this “uncommon situation arose”, the AICC denied that it had ever asked that pictures of Kamaraj and Moopanar be taken off the membership cards, but the denial “is not acceptable”, added Vasan.

According to Gnanadesikan, the Congress leader in charge of Tamil Nadu, Mukul Wasnik, told him not to issue the membership cards with the portraits of Kamaraj and Moopanar. He added that 20 days later G. Chinna Reddy, also in charge of Tamil Nadu, also told him not to distribute the cards. “How can you build the party in Tamil Nadu without projecting the legacy of Kamaraj and Moopanar?” asked Gnanadesikan.

When the Congress was in power at the Centre from 2004 to 2014, Vasan’s supporters wanted the new airport in Chennai to be named after Kamaraj. “The issue was not given importance by the high command,” a Vasan loyalist said. So Vasan, when he was Union Shipping Minister, got the new port at Ennore, near Chennai, named after Kamaraj. A big statue of Kamaraj was erected on the premises of the port. Vasan’s group then erected statues of Kamaraj and his mentor, S. Satyamurti, on the premises of Satyamurti Bhavan, the TNCC headquarters in Chennai.

A leader belonging to the Vasan faction said that although five months had passed after the Congress’ defeat in the Lok Sabha elections, “the high command has not bothered to call the State Congress leaders to find out how it happened and how the party can be developed in the State”.

There were other issues. For instance, the high command gave short shrift to the Tamil Nadu Youth Congress and the State chapter of the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI). M. Yuvaraj, former president of the Tamil Nadu Youth Congress and a Vasan-camp follower, was bitter that although he and hundreds of youth Congress members took out a padayatra from Kanyakumari to Chennai, covering a distance of 1,491 km over 54 days, highlighting the achievements of the Congress-led Manmohan Singh government at the Centre and the then DMK government’s corruption in Tamil Nadu, the high command did not bother to give a certificate to the youth who took part in it.“Later, I was suspended as president of the Tamil Nadu Youth Congress,” Yuvaraj said. “The Congress high command does not listen to the cadre working on the ground. It listens to laptop politicians. Today, the cadre in Tamil Nadu is entirely with Vasan. Rahul Gandhi [Congress vice-president] is surrounded by those who studied in the U.S. and the U.K,” Yuvaraj alleged.

In father’s footsteps

Vasan’s decision to start a new party is a virtual replay of what G.K. Moopanar did in 1996. It was the time when the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) headed by Jayalalithaa had become unpopular. However, the then Prime Minister and Congress president, P.V. Narasimha Rao, went ahead with an alliance with the AIADMK for the State Assembly elections held in April 1996 despite strong protests from Congress leaders in Tamil Nadu, including Moopanar, S.R. Balasubramaniam, P. Chidambaram, D. Sudarsanam, Gnanadesikan, Peter Alphonse and M. Gopanna.

Led by Moopanar, they walked out of the Congress and established the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC). The new party aligned with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), headed by M. Karunanidhi, and the alliance swept the Assembly elections. However, in the 2001 Assembly elections, Moopanar aligned the TMC with the AIADMK and the Congress authorised him to bargain on its behalf with the AIADMK in seat-sharing negotiations. This was consequent to a thaw that had set in in the relationship between the Congress and the TMC with the exit of Narasimha Rao and the party’s takeover by Sonia Gandhi. Moopanar died in August 2001.

Vasan, who took over the TMC’s leadership, merged the TMC with the Congress in 2002. He was made an AICC secretary and was rewarded with a Rajya Sabha seat. He became a Minister in the Manmohan Singh government in 2006. In the UPA II government (May 2009-May 2014), he was Union Minister for Shipping.

Rumours started swirling a few months before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections about a rift between Rahul Gandhi and Vasan and the latter was toying with the idea of reviving the TMC. The relationship between Vasan and the high command had hit a rough patch in 2011 when the high command decided to align with the DMK for the Assembly elections despite the TNCC leaders and the cadre telling Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi that it would end in a “washout”. That, indeed, was what happened, and later the DMK quit the alliance.

In the April/May 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress was forced to contest alone the 39 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu and one seat in Puducherry. Its candidates lost in all the seats, with 38 of them losing their deposits. Vasan did not contest the elections and campaigned actively for the Congress candidates in many constituencies.

Even before the Lok Sabha elections, he was under pressure from the leaders and the cadre of his faction to revive the TMC, informed sources said. The strained relationship between Vasan and UPA II’s Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram, who was with him in the TMC, added to the tension.

The first indication that Vasan had made up his mind to set up a new party was Gnanadesikan’s resignation. Vasan quickly endorsed the resignation, saying the decision reflected the “viewpoint of lakhs of Congress cadre” in the State.

The high command did not give Gnanadesikan a free hand in organisational matters. It did not allow him to reconstitute the TNCC. He said: “After we battled for a year and a half, and after Rahul Gandhi’s intervention, District Congress Committee [DCC] presidents were appointed. But these DCC presidents never visited Satyamurti Bhavan. When we informed the Congress leaders about this, they ignored us.” He accused Chidambaram of playing “a solo game” in party affairs, boycotting party meetings and giving a wide berth to Satyamurti Bhavan.

Vasan told Frontline on November 15 that the new party’s name, policies, programmes and guidelines would be announced at a public meeting in Tiruchi on November 28. The meeting would mark “a turning point” in Tamil Nadu’s political history, he said.

On the other side, in a damage-control exercise, various Congress factions headed by Chidambaram, Elangovan, K.V. Thangkabaalu and Jayanthi Natarajan have closed ranks and teamed up against Vasan. Informed political sources said Elangovan was trying to create the impression that the Congress would soon form a grand alliance with the DMK, the CPI(M) and the CPI to prevent the remaining flock from fleeing to Vasan’s side. As things stand, the Congress in Tamil Nadu is bereft of allies and in a highly emaciated state, and its return to good health is difficult to predict.

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