Originally Published 2010-10-19 00:00:00 Published on Oct 19, 2010
In Tamil Nadu, conventional thinking has it that the Congress is the 'deciding factor' in the State and has rediscovered this limited role despite the entry of actor-politician Vijaykanth and his Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam (DMDK),
Tamil Nadu: Coalition blues and Congress' options
With Congress president Sonia Gandhi addressing a massive rally in Tiruchi city only weeks back, and rival AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa going to the cadres and the masses for the third time in as many months, this time in the southern temple-city of Madurai, speculation is rife as to the future of the ruling coalition in Tamil Nadu, ahead of the Assembly polls that are due in May next. In between, the ruling DMK, as if to counter the propaganda value of Jayalalithaa’s successful rallies in Coimbatore and Tiruchi, did hold an equally impressive one, again in Tiruchi, setting the mood for the elections, both among cadres of various political parties and also the voter at large.

Central to the heating up of the political climate in the State is speculation about the Congress leaving the DMK alliance behind and joining hands with the AIADMK rival. Conventional thinking has it that the Congress is the ‘deciding factor’ in the State and has rediscovered this limited role despite the entry of actor-politician Vijaykanth and his Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam (DMDK), which in turn has made substantial inroads into the vote-bank of the AIADMK in particular but also inclusive of the ‘non-committed vote-bank’. Sections in the State Congress are talking in terms of the party joining the AIADMK-led combine, and also the possibilities of talking the DMDK into joining hands. This is also based on the precedents since the exit of the late actor-politician M G Ramachandran. Neither of two ‘Dravidian majors’ has won two successive Assembly elections in the five outings, starting with 1989. Others in the State Congress however prefer continuing in the DMK combine, seeing easy victory on the back of the large-scale migration of rural votes in the State, thanks to the social sector schemes introduced and effectively implemented by the fifth Government of Chief Minister M Karunanidhi. The present situation is unlike any other since MGR’s exit, they argue. A third group is making feeble and unconvincing noises about the desirability of the party going it alone, and waiting for its turn and time in due course, while parties like the DMDK and the Vanniar-strong PMK seem wanting the Congress to lead a third front, this time round.

Central to electoral calculus

It is thus that the Congress remains central to all electoral calculus, including the one in which the party should go it alone. Speculation in this regard is that neither of the two ‘Dravidian majors’ will be able to make it at the husting, and would have to return to the Congress for outside support. But not every Congress leader or cadre in the State seems favouring such an approach, as the risk of not being able to win one too many seats are higher in Tamil Nadu than elsewhere in the country where the party is not in power or otherwise in the reckoning. Worse still could be the possibility of the party being seen as losing security deposit in one too many constituencies compared to other serious contenders, thus demoralising the cadres even more while talking in terms of a future resurgence. Yet, there is no denying the desire of the State-level leaders of all hues and factions wanting to have a share in power, which they feel the high command had cruelly denied them at the conclusion of Elections-06. As they point out, the DMK leader of the alliance bagged far less than the required minimum of 118 seats in an Assembly with 234 members, and yet the Congress did not press for a share in power, and allowed the DMK to run a ‘minority government’ -- as Jayalalithaa is not tired of pointing out -- but with ‘outside support’ from the national ally.

What this section of the Congress leaders have refused to acknowledge is the ground reality of the time. Retaining much of the victorious alliance of Elections-2004, when the DMK-led combine bagged all 39 parliamentary seats in the State with massive margins, owing though to a variety of reasons, the coalition leader still had the option of falling back on the ‘outside support’ readily offered by the PMK and the ‘principled stand’ of the kind from the two communist allies. The Congress high command thus made the best of a bad situation by upstaging the DMK and its other allies by accepting the proposition for ‘outside support’ to the Karunanidhi Government. With the PMK and the two communist parties, as also the MDMK, all from Elections-2004 are no more in the DMK-led alliance the Congress did have occasions and opportunities to press the demand for a share-in-power. To the average Congress cadre in the State, power-sharing goes beyond the obvious. To him, it has a larger-than-life sentimental value, the party having lost power in the State as far back as 1967, and to the DMK at that. It is for the same reason that there are voices of dissent about the party continuing with the DMK alliance. This section simultaneous prefers the AIADMK combine, as both parties are ‘anti-DMK’ in nature and ‘vote-transfer between the two would be natural and not forced’.

‘Transferrable votes’ and the ‘Ayodhya case’ verdict

Yet, ground realities need not be supportive of such propositions, after a point. Despite claims to the contrary, the Congress does not have more than 10 per cent committed vote-share in the State. The situation is not greatly different for the DMK and the AIADMK, whose figures may be double that of the Congress, individually. The DMDK had upped its vote-share from eight per cent in 2006 to 11 per cent in the parliamentary polls of 2009. How the voter will react to the DMDK in a closely-contested election between the two ‘Dravidian majors’ for the State Assembly remains to be seen. That way, there may not be much for the Congress to choose between the DMK and the AIADMK though there is perceptible tilt in favour of the DMK in the post-2006 scenario in the rural areas, for the first time since the late M G Ramachandran walked out of the party to found the AIADMK in 1972. The corresponding gains for the AIADMK under Jayalalithaa in the urban centres, once considered the stronghold of the DMK, too is visible through election results in the recent past. However, in terms of ‘transferrable votes’ the Congress may stand to suffer if the traditional ‘minority voters’ in the months after the Allahabad High Court verdict in the ‘Ayodhya demolition case’ continued to see the AIADMK as a ‘Hindutva party’. The loss in the Congress’ contribution to the AIADMK-led alliance could be substantial in such a case. Bringing in other allies to offset such a loss would become imperative for the AIADMK, leading to a slash in the seat-share and ambitions of the national party on issues such as power-sharing. In this context, a section of the State Congress leaders point to the situation that prevailed during the run-up to the Assembly polls of 2001, when Jayalalithaa made the late Congress negotiator and TMC leader, G K Moopanar, to dance around in circles on the seat-sharing front after he had committed to forging an electoral alliance with the AIADMK. Despite the AIADMK and Jayalalithaa requiring the TMC attestation and Congress acknowledgement badly, once the alliance firmed up, she would grant the other two only a total of 47 seats, against their demand that went upwards of 65. Her prime goal at the time was to wean away the TMC from the DMK combine and show up the latter as a losing proposition. This section of Congress leaders argue that her motives may not be any different this time, whatever be the promises that might now be made on behalf of the AIADMK.

Even otherwise, the Congress has registered a loss in the limited, traditional vote-share in the twin strongholds of the South and the West, the former, first to the BJP and since to the DMK ally. In the West, the infant Kongu Vellalar Peravai, a political party founded by the strong and vocal Gounder community in the region on the lines of the Vanniar-centric PMK in the northern districts, had cut into the Congress’ vote-share in Elections-2009. A proven stronghold of the AIADMK since inception, the region also witnessed a further erosion in the Congress vote-share to the BJP rival in Elections-1998, after the ‘Coimbatore blasts’. In 2009, this had a cumulative effect on the electoral fortunes of the DMK-led alliance in the parliamentary polls in the West, and in terms of the total tally in the State. Not unaware of the ground realities, the AIADMK is sure to drive a hard bargain as and when it is sure of having the Congress on its side, as some insiders in the national party point out. However, there are those who argue that the Congress should try and carry the Peravai with it, to whichever alliance it went, and also try to argue the case of the DMDK as its own, if has to make a ‘collective impact’ at the seat-sharing talks with either of the ‘Dravidian majors’. Stand-alone negotiations would only weaken the case of the Congress, particularly when the party did not have a relatively acceptable leader like the late Moopanar, according to this section.

Jaya playing psychological game?

Independent of her declared position that she would give her demoralised cadres the ‘coalition that you desire’, the chances of the Congress making the grade in terms of a share in power, particularly the ambitious post of deputy chief minister or first-innings chief minister in a combine with the AIADMK, are speculative at best and remote, otherwise. Unless the DMK has its work uncut because of over-confidence of the Seventies kind or the cadre-indifference of 2001, the party-led combine would still make the grade to a substantial extent. Pre-poll calculations of the kind would hence entail the AIADMK and/or Congress to think in terms of roping in the DMDK. With Vijaykanth already being projected as a ‘future chief minister’ it is doubtful if he could risk having a Congress leader projected as deputy chief minister - unless it is a coalition in which he is acknowledged as the chief minister candidate. Anything less than that could cause erosion in his proven vote-bank. Even otherwise he is likely to take a hit if he decided to go alone, too. For him, converting an 11-per cent vote-share equally spread across the State, unlike the concentrated vote-bank of the PMK, for instance, would not translate into seats, post-poll, if the DMDK were to go it alone.

For now, any further Congress-led speculation on the future of the electoral alliance may prove to be counter-productive, instead, unless the party is talking in terms of a ‘third front’, where too it would have to accept the leadership of the DMDK. The latter would argue the case of proven vote-share and also the ‘Vijaykanth image’ for leading an alliance, but that in turn could put off prospective allies, despite the intervening commitment to the contrary from the likes of the PMK, for instance. Such a course, once again, could limit the Congress’ ambitions of returning to the centre-stage of State politics for a much longer time to come than under the eroding vote-base of the existing ‘Dravidian majors’. Yet, current talks about the Congress likely to ditch the DMK may have the potential for both to lose on the ‘transferable vote-share’ in their kitty for an electoral ally. It was the inability of the BJP ally from the 1999 parliamentary polls to transfer its new-found vote-share that forced the DMK, PMK and MDMK allies to part company ahead of Elections-2004, as they found out in the Assembly polls of 2001. Under the current circumstances, such false-starts by the Congress could only weaken the existing coalition -- and also weaken the bargaining position of the party with whichever party it wanted to align with.

For now however, Jayalalithaa seems to have let the cat among the pigeons in the rival DMK alliance. True to precedent, the State Congress has been talking divergently and the DMK, nervously. In true form, Karunanidhi has since revived the ‘Sri Lankan issue’, something that did not click with the State’s voter even at the height of Elections-09, which alone helped the DMK-led alliance with Congress as an ally to bag 28 of 40 seats from Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, which will also be having near-simultaneous Assembly polls in 2011. When Congress president Sonia Gandhi touched down at the Chennai Airport in the first half of October, en route to the Tiruchi rally, Karunanidhi handed over to her a letter seeking Central intervention in meeting the needs and aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils. More recently after Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s New Delhi visit for the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, he has issued a statement of the kind, in which he has also tried the balancing game, by referring to the ‘fratricidal war’ among the Tamil militant groups, in which the LTTE killed a host of local Tamil leaders in that country. The statement was conspicuous by its absence about any reference to the ‘Rajiv Gandhi killing’. In turn, Jayalalithaa, at her Madurai speech, did not touch upon either the ‘Kachchativu issue’ or the ‘fishermen’s problem’, or even the larger ‘Sri Lankan issue’, which surprisingly topped her campaign agenda in 2009 elections.

Sections of the Congress leadership, both in the State and at the Centre, have been talking in terms of the high command deciding on the electoral alliance for Tamil Nadu after the Assembly polls in Bihar. According to them, if the party, contesting alone in Bihar, were to bag around 40 seats, the high command may be encouraged to go it alone, or change alliance-boats mid-stream in Tamil Nadu. However, some in the State Congress draw a different picture. As they point out, though the AIADMK could replace the DMK in a lesser way in the Lok Sabha, if a stand-alone decision were to be taken on Tamil Nadu, a policy prescription of the kind could boomerang on the Congress at the national-level. With Assembly polls due also in West Bengal next year, where the Trinamul Congress ally, has the least respect or possibly even electoral need for the national partner, the high command may be walking into an unenviable situation, both as a dependable ally and for dependable allies. It was the kind of image that spoilt the chances for the Congress after the party decided against coalition governments at the Centre in the Nineties. It was only after the party changed its position on this score that the likes of DMK and the Nationalist Congress Party of Sharad Pawar -- another existing ally -- came around to accepting the Congress leadership at the national-level for Elections-2004. Independent of the existing DMK participation in the Manmohan Singh Government, and the consequent support of the party in the Lok Sabha -- which can be replaced by the AIADMK in a limited way -- if the idea of the Congress high command is to strike a better deal with either of the Dravidian majors for the Assembly polls, it should enter into direct negotiations with whoever it desires for a partner without allowing speculation and projections to run amuck. It can do more harm than good for the party -- be it in seat-sharing or even a share-in-power, post-poll.
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