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February 13, 1998


T V R Shenoy

If there is any thread linking the allies in the south, it is pure, unadulterated hypocrisy!

"I am not going to vote for an Italian!" my neighbour declared firmly. I won't name him or her, and in any case the name isn't important -- all of them feel the same way.

Do neighbours always vote the same way? Well, perhaps they do, if you are talking about city blocks or small groups in villages. But definitely not if those neighbours happen to be in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The two states in the deep south have utterly different views on the eventual outcome of the polls, and even more so on what happens when the results are declared.

Keralites believe that foes will turn friends overnight. The main contenders in the state are the Congress and the CPI-M. Voters believe the two will unite to stop Atal Bihari Vajpayee from forming a ministry.

Tamil Nadu insists just as vehemently that allies will become enemies. Karunanidhi's DMK and Moopanar's Tamil Maanila Congress are together today because they are scared of Jayalalitha. Starting March 4 (when most of the results should be out) they shall follow different paths. The DMK will strive to prevent a Sonia Gandhi-dominated government in Delhi, while the TMC's ultimate aim is to join just such a ministry.

But before I get into the nitty-gritty of what will happen in Delhi, there should be a few words on the results themselves. In Tamil Nadu, I believe the DMK will win more seats than the TMC. Further, there is good reason to think the BJP will finally get an MP from the state.

Karunanidhi's problems will began afterwards. Up to May 1996, the DMK boss was privately saying, "Vajpayee is a good man!" But he was forced to change his tune later, a price he paid for joining the opportunistic United Front.

In 1996, allying with the TMC and helping form the United Front seemed like good ideas for the DMK. But the TMC MPs were always waiting for the right time to return to the Congress. Sonia Gandhi's arrival has eased Moopanar's path, but she hates the DMK.

Simultaneously, Jayalalitha's decision to ally with the BJP neatly deprives the DMK boss of room to manoeuvre. No matter who comes to power -- whether the BJP or Congress -- Karunanidhi will be confronted with an unsympathetic prime minister. (The same problem is going to confront Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh, but that is a point to be discussed another time.)

The DMK boss knows what it is like to face a prime minister on the warpath. Indira Gandhi got rid of his government in 1976, and Rajiv Gandhi (the power behind the throne at the time) was responsible for repeating the feat in 1991. 'Will history repeat itself?' is the question that haunts the DMK today.

So much for Tamil Nadu, what of Kerala? There is no point discussing whether the Left or the Congress will get more seats. Assuming they are serious about their anti-BJP rhetoric, the CPI-M and the Congress must sit together in Delhi.

The CPI-M can't admit this. If it does, voters will simply turn to the Congress. And in Kerala, where margins of victory are incredibly narrow, a slight shift could mean a clean sweep. The CPI-M wants all the seats it can get to improve its own position in the bargaining to follow.

At the same time, the Marxists don't want to put too many hurdles in the path of the future 'secular' alliance. This explains why the CPI-M has carefully avoided positioning Jyoti Basu as a prime ministerial candidate. (In Kerala, that is. West Bengal is another story altogether.)

Neither Karunanidhi nor the Left will say so openly, but they have reached the limits of a purely anti-BJP role. With a rejuvenated Congress refusing to offer 'support from outside' any longer, the various components of the United Front are being squeezed from both sides.

Given that another crazy-quilt United Front is out of the question, what are the preferred options for the DMK and the Left?

You will never hear people like the DMK president or CPI-M general secretary Surjeet say this, but both would choose an outright BJP victory. How else can they maintain the luxury of their present anti-BJP, anti-Congress stance?

Potential allies fighting against each other in Kerala. Potential foes standing together in Tamil Nadu. If there is any thread linking all these forces it is pure, unadulterated hypocrisy!

T V R Shenoy

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