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August 18, 1999


Karunanidhi: a visionary, now with a mission, too

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N Sathiya Moorthy in Madras

For some, like those in the Congress, it's a mission, for returning to power. For others, like the Sangh Parivaris, it may be a vision: the first firm step in putting 'Hindutva' back on the centrestage of the nation's agenda.

But for Tamil Nadu chief minister and reigning chief of the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the current Lok Sabha polls is both a mission, and a vision. A mission to keep the AIADMK-Congress combine out of power at the Centre, with a vision to keep the DMK, if not the Dravidian political ideology, in the centrestage of Tamil Nadu politics.

Most people laughed it away, attributing it to his advancing age, when Karunanidhi said the DMK was only a partner in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, and not an ally of the BJP. It was a dichotomy, an anathema, that could not be explained after the DMK with its anti-Brahmin, anti-god roots, accepted the BJP with its pro-Hindutva agenda and perceived upper caste bias, and joined the NDA, when formed.

With that, Karunanidhi's earlier explanations of backing the Vajpayee government in the lost confidence-motion was aimed only at avoiding fresh elections, and opposing every political move of AIADMK political adversary, J Jayalalitha, had lost its meaning. Here, it was a clear electoral tie-up with a party that the DMK had despised all along, and Karunanidhi was giving an untenable explanation to justify it.

That way, for BJP strategists in distant Delhi who had patted themselves on the back when they upstaged their adversaries and friends alike through manipulation and cunning, it was a revelation of sorts. This was not the Karunanidhi they had known, this was not the Karunanidhi they had forced into a corner -- without saying so -- and into the BJP alliance, without protest.

If the BJP aligning with the AIADMK earlier for last year's Lok Sabha polls was a successful attempt at rubbing off the former's 'untouchable' status in national politics, the more 'Dravidian' DMK accepting the BJP was the kind of certificate, the leadership longed for. With the DMK being a 'full-fledged political party' which they understood, unlike the AIADMK, whose personality-oriented internal chemistry they could never master, they had hoped for a relationship that would be the stepping stone for the BJP entering state politics in a big way.

Karunanidhi had the mission, of having to stay on in power without his DMK government being dismissed by an AIADMK-backed Congress ministry at the Centre. If that happened, he would go into the record books as the first chief minister whose governments had been dismissed thrice in three decades. What more, given his advancing age, and also of the party, it would have taken a lot more of effort, and time, to put a DMK chief minister in office. Politically, it could set off desertions, and possible decimation of the DMK, though not overnight.

Karunanidhi also had a vision. He could not stop the BJP from expanding its base in the rest of the country, but he better stop it at his doorstep. Between them, the DMK and the AIADMK had ensured that nationalist forces -- it was the Congress earlier, the BJP now -- remained weak, and a poor third in state politics, since the 1967 elections. The advent of a young, if unsure BJP, in the place of a confused, yet confident BJP, made the difference. Maybe, the state party's hopes of being a partner in any state government formed after the assembly elections of 2001 could not be ignored.

For a septuagenarian with 60 years in active politics -- the last 30 of them at the head of the prime regional political force in the country -- it was a difficult choice to make. The DMK had lived on a constant diet of ideology, tempered on a pan-Tamil political plank, which is basically anti-Hindu, anti-Hindi, and everything the two stood for. If he ignored the BJP, the Congress -- which admittedly had not fallen for his overtures, nor had the potential to win the elections -- he was inviting trouble for his government. If he smothered it with love, it was inviting trouble for his party, its ideology. With the passage of time and the consequent dilution of ideology -- and also the ideological votebanks of the DMK -- the BJP would have assimilated the neo-generation voters with its nationalist appeal, on the one hand, and its victim status against the AIADMK, on the other.

It's against this background that the BJP strategists are the Centre are learning, as to what had made Karunanidhi's name a ready-reckoner for political Machiavellianism in his native Tamil Nadu. He led them up the garden path, letting the likes of Vajpayee and Advani take the initiative in getting the NDA allies of the BJP get together at Delhi, under their aegis. That was only until the seat-sharing talks came out in the open. And once it began, the MDMK ally first -- and through them the BJP, knew what stuff Karunanidhi was still made of.

Karunanidhi's 'secret pact' with the PMK, led to handing over the Vanniar-party, nine seats -- including one for TRC president Vazhappadi K Ramamurthy, also from the community -- in their common stronghold of northern districts. Though the BJP did not desert its MDMK ally, by foregoing two of its three additional seats, over last year's five, and even offering the third one later, the message was clear: That the BJP could not hope to replace the DMK as the leader of the ally with a higher score in the State. Nor could the BJP-MDMK succeed overwhelmingly in their common southern stronghold, in the absence of the whole-hearted support of the DMK cadre, which is quick to read the lips of its leadership. Is Karunanidhi still the winner? DMK sources say so, but it may be too early in the day to make an assessment. He has definitely had a momentary victory, that too against a friend. But the adversary remains safe, and confident, if anything. The weakening of the BJP-MDMK alliance in the southern districts, if it came to that, could mean victory for the AIADMK-Congress rival. That's not what Karunanidhi would have bargained for. No doubt, by visualising the possibility of the one-time TMC ally coming to head a Dalits and minorities electoral combine across the State, Karunanidhi may have chosen his adversary too, that too in the Vanniar belt, where caste groupings may still work to his advantage. But in the South, it would still be a open situation, where the AIADMK may still have an edge, particularly if the TMC's emerging alliance with the Dalit-strong Puthiya Thamizhagam does not gel well in time for the polling. At the end of it all, questions would still remain, both about Karunanidhi's mission, and his vision. On the mission side, he would have lost out, even if the elections prove to be partially successful for his AIADMK adversary.

On the vision side, the pan-Tamil PMK has replaced the BJP, for a true ally of the DMK for now, but it also has the potential of becoming a greater adversary of the party, particularly if the 'Vajpayee wave' sees many a Vanniar nominee through the elections.

For all this, however, Karunanidhi doesn't seem to have provided for a few contingencies. Like, the possibility of a 'hung parliament', where the DMK and the PMK, jointly and severally, may have different options -- though this possibility looks remote, going by various opinion polls in the last fortnight. And like the BJP having a clear majority on its own, and decides to teach a few 'erring friends' a lesson, if not immediately. Then, Karunanidhi may have cause to feel that he had won only a battle, not the war. And may have no energy, strategy or cadres left, to wait for that war, leave alone fight it and win it. After all, he would want to go down in history only as the one leader under whom the Dravidian movement flourished in the state, not the one under whom it also began withering away.

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