The two situations are not the same but the similarities are compelling. In Aesop’s fables about the boy who cried wolf too often, the losers are the boy and the flock of sheep which get devoured by the wolf. Reconstructing the same scenario in the Indian political milieu of the 21st century would give us DMK leader M Karunanidhi as the boy, the UPA government as the flock of sheep with the villagers being the politicians.
But there is one critical diffrerence. Instead of ignoring the boy’s cries, the politicians are sounding worried and concerned, and all efforts are being made to placate Karunanidhi. Some cabinet ministers even talking about the conditions for a parliamentary resolution on the issue. The prime minister has called for an emergency meeting and finance minister P Chidambaram has rushed into say that there is no threat to the stability of the government.
The reason behind the flurry of activity is clear. The UPA is a minority coaltion dependant upon outside support of the SP and the BSP. DMK’s pullout will reduce its numbers to 232 in a house of 539 further exposing it to the shenanigans of leaders such as Lalu Prasad Yadav, Deve Gowda, not to mention Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav. The stability of the government will be under threat if the DMK goes through with its promise of a pullout. Instead of a budget followed by an economic revival, we would be looking at an expensive election leading to messy coalition horse-trading.
However, before we go down that road, it is important to understand a bit about the man in the centre of the storm, M Karunanidhi, the 86-year-old DMK leader to get a better sense of what he is trying to do and whether he will be able to pull it off. Not many people outside Tamil Nadu know this but he would have probably found his calling as a cultural icon, a poet and a Tamil scholar if he had not been a politician. A brilliant orator, Karunanidhi made his name as stormy petrel of Tamil politics in the 1960s, penning fiery dialogues in movies with a distinct pro-poor, pro-lower caste and anti-Brahminical tilt. In many movies and plays in the 1970s and 1970s, Karunanidhi’s dialogues and story-telling expertise lit the fire that ultimately consumed the Congress of Kamraj, consigning it to oblivion in the state from which it is yet to recover.
Fortunately for him and for his party, this felicity with words has been married to a shrewd mind, savvy enough to understand and navigate the undercurrents of state politics. So when he says, 12 months before the country goes to polls, that his party is withdrawing from the national coalition because of a four-year-old war where the solidiers of a neighbouring country allegedly massacred innocent Tamil civilians, you know that something is amiss. When he says that he is withdrawing support without and does not send a letter to the president as it is customary to do so, you know that something is amiss. When he adds that his party may reconsider if the government passes a resolution in the Parliament against the Sri Lankan atrocities containing the word genocide, you know that something is terribly amiss. These are not the words of a principled leader aghast and outraged at the killings of innocent people. Rather they are those of a shrewd politician, who knows he has nothing to lose and that the time has come for him to put some distance between him and the Congress party, especially in Tamil Nadu where a severe power crisis has dented the image of the chief minister J Jayalalitha.
Let us understand this better. The Sri Lankan Tamil issue is not an electoral vote winner in Tamil Nadu. It never has been and never will be. And nobody knows this better than Karunanidhi. In the 1980s as the civil war raged between LTTE and the Sri Lankan army, Karunanidhi was unable to reap any electoral benefits despite his pronounced pro-LTTE stance, losing massively to MGR in the Indira Gandhi wave of 1984. Even in 1989, after MGR’s death, the DMK victory was possible only due to the split of votes between the two pro-MGR factions. Two years later, Rajiv Gandhi was assasinated and a humiliated Karunanidhi resigned his seat in the assembly, leaving his party completely unrepresented in the state, an unprecedented event. The Tamil voters don’t massively swing their votes on some issues. If that had been true, Karunanidhi with his distinct and pronounced pro-Tamil stance would have benefitted in the past.
The way to understand Tuesday’s development is to look at it through the prism of Tamil Nadu politics. The state is in the throes of a big power crisis. Jayalalitha’s image and that of her government has been affected especially in rural areas and district headquarters where power cuts last 16-18 hours. Jayalalitha’s ally during the last elections, Vijaykanth has deserted her.
At the same time, the Congress is weak, leaderless, rudderless in the state. Its central leaders, including P Chidambaram are of little use when it comes to winning seats for the party across the state. If the Congress was weak in 2011 when it suffered a humiliating defeat, it is even weaker now.
For Karunanidhi, the time is now or never. It may be too late if he breaks with the Congress in 2014, or fights the elections on the same platform. The power situation may improve, the cuts may not be too severe. If the state economy continues to do well, the people may forget about the power situaiton.
Remember, the 2G scam issue is still alive and Raja is still claiming the prime minister is complicit on the issue. If the DMK wants to pursue such a line of attack it is best to do when the two parties are fighting separately not together.
Karunanidhi now senses an opportunity. A chance for him to come back, put the reverses of 2011 in the background and emerge as a leader of the masses once again.
He can’t do that by being tied to the Congress’ coattails. He has to make a break but do that without disturbing the national equation. That is why some DMK leaders were making placatory noises about not voting in favour of a no-confidence motion in the afternoon and evening. The last thing Karunanidhi wants is to be accused of causing early national elections.
The Sri Lankan Tamil issue is an apt issue to serve a divorce notice. Nobody will fault him. At the same time, he can steal the thunder from Jayalalitha who has suddenly taken on the mantle of crusader for the rights of SL Tamilians. If the government agrees and sponsors a resolution, he can then claim all credit.
Congress leaders may be spending a lot of time counting supporters and figuring out ways to save the government. But back in Gopalapuram in Chennai, the seat of the DMK, preparations may have already begun for winning in 2014.(Tamil News)