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Tamil Nadu: Congress' weakest link

September 14, 2013 18:27 IST

The party's chances of survival in the state do not look promising, says Aditi Phadnis

Who is the chief of the Congress party in Tamil Nadu? Don't know? Don't care? Don't worry. Nor do the hundreds of thousands of voters in Tamil Nadu. It really doesn't matter because unless the Congress acts fast, it is going to be history in the coastal state that sends 39 (plus one from Pondicherry) members of Parliament to the Lok Sabha.

In a situation in which every seat is going to matter, it is Tamil Nadu that represents the biggest challenge for the Congress. In 2009, the party fought in alliance with the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam but it wasn't a happy alliance. However, despite the angst, frustration and the backbiting, the DMK contested 21 seats, the Congress 16 seats and the remainder were left to smaller parties.

This time, things are different. The DMK has pulled out of the United Progressive Alliance supposedly on the issue of India's ambivalence towards the Sri Lankan government's treatment of the Tamils.

Yet, the Congress helped Kanimozhi, Karunanidhi's daughter, win her Rajya Sabha seat. Karunanidhi has paid Sonia Gandhi handsome compliments publicly. So it's all nice and cosy.

At the same time, in an unusual gesture, Rahul Gandhi wished Vijayakanth of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam on his birthday. Before that, Vijayakanth attended a function to observe the death anniversary of G K Moopanar, suggesting a grand omnibus alliance was on the cards. So what exactly is going on in Tamil Nadu?

The DMDK is a relatively recent political phenomenon, not exactly anti-Dravidian in its outlook but serving as an alternative. Its electoral performance - in terms of seats - has not been particularly impressive. But the party has been growing in strength ever since it was formed in September 2005.

It contested on its own, in both the last assembly and Lok Sabha elections. It got 8.38 per cent of votes in the 2006 Assembly elections and 10.08 per cent of votes in the Lok Sabha elections. 

It secured more than 20,000 votes in 27 Assembly segments; more than 15,000 votes in 75 segments; more than 10,000 votes in 169 segments; and more than 5,000 votes in 228 segments in the last parliamentary polls. In other words, the party can rain on the winner's parade, even if it doesn't win itself.

Vijayakanth, its leader, is a man in search of a better job. Known as "karuppu MGR" (dark MGR), his ideas about society, politics and so on are not clear and are maybe a bit derivative. But he does have presence.

Tamil Nadu is dominated by cadre-based parties. So even if the ADMK wants a sweep (it will contest the 2014 elections in alliance with the Left parties and with the moral support of the Bharatiya Janata Party -- bizarre politics, but there it is), it will have to contend with a sizeable cadre of the DMK.

In Tamil Nadu, traditionally, the minorities -- the Muslims and the Christians -- have been with the DMK. But during Ramzan earlier this year, J Jayalalithaa provided free rice to all mosques in the state for the poorer among the devout with which they could break their fast. Her subsidised food scheme has assured her a base that will never go away.

Jayalalithaa has another potential ally at the Centre: Narendra Modi. Rumour has it that her friend Sasikala's proximity to the chief minister was being exploited by Sasikala's unsavourary relatives who belong to a village called Mannargudi (hence the term, the Mannargudi mafia).

But because the relatives could not invest their money in Tamil Nadu (where it was under watch of the chief minister's beady eyes), they took it to more lucrative destinations like Gujarat. When the Gujarat government found inexplicably large investments being made from Tamil Nadu, Modi made some enquiries and discreetly tipped Jayalalithaa off. Jayalalithaa acted immediately, throwing the entire lot out of her home.

Sasikala returned after some time, but her relatives are still out there somewhere. So Jayalalithaa owes Modi one. And when the time comes, Modi is bound to cash the IOU.

The short point is that the DMK, which has 18 MPs in the current Lok Sabha, is not going to do as badly as people believe; and the ADMK is not going to do as well as people believe. Analysts in Tamil Nadu feel the result will be only marginally different from what it was earlier. And if - and only if - the Congress can pull these alliances off, does it have any chance of survival in the state?

Aditi Phadnis