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Why PC's son may be fighting a losing battle in TN

Last updated on: April 02, 2014 15:07 IST

Karti, second from right, and P Chidambaram, right, with Congress President Sonia Gandhi, leftIn the 2009 election, P Chindambaram won the Sivaganga seat by a narrow margin. Then the Congress was in alliance with the ruling DMK. This time his son Karti is battling the seat without the alliance. India's abstention at the UNHRC on an anti-Lanka resolution will further fuel Tamil anger against the Congress party. This leaves the finance minster sulking and his son facing an uphill political debut, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

The strategic community in India cannot but acknowledge India’s bold, new initiative on the Sri Lankan front through abstention at the United Nations Human Rights Commission on a tough Anglo-American resolution against Lanka at Geneva. Yet, Union Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram cannot but sulk at the popularity-dip that election-driven power-play of pan-Tamil ‘competitive’ Dravidian politics may have inflicted on him, through a sustained campaign, with help from the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora groups in the west.

Chidambaram used to be considered as being among the few Indian ‘darlings’ of the west on the economy and investment front. Whether it had anything to do with his perceived mishandling of the economy in recent years or not, the greater western focus on a succession of anti-Sri Lankan initiatives at and through the UNHRC has meant that his popularity in his native Sivaganga Lok Sabha constituency in southern Tamil Nadu too dipped with each passing move at Geneva.  Or, so goes the perception.

Today, the Congress seems to be the most unpopular party in Tamil Nadu until proved otherwise for reasons unlike elsewhere in the country. Chidambaram has been left with no friends in the one-time Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam ally, for which he seemed to have been the sole points-man until not very long ago, both for Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Up to a point, he was also the most trusted points-man from Delhi, in the eyes of DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi, too. Not any more, or so it seems.

‘Ethnic’ conundrum

Much of the DMK’s heart-burn is often attributed to perceptions about Chidambaram’s handling of the communication with Delhi on the 2-G spectrum scam that saw Karunanidhi’s parliamentarian-daughter Kanimozhi, and DMK’s Telecom Minister A Raja being jailed. But Chidambaram’s purported contributions to perceived ‘anti-Tamil’ policies of India in the Sri Lanka’s ethnic violence in the past five years is said to be among the causes for his political and electoral undoing.

Despite PC’s assertions that his decision not to seek re-election this time owed to a desire to let the younger generation find its feet in the Congress structure (in this case, it is son Karti for Sivaganga), there are those who claim that his decision not to contest owed to fear of losing the elections. They even argue that his controversial (a case is still pending in the Madras high court) and narrow win in the 2009 parliamentary polls is also due to perceptions of his position on the Sri Lankan issue.

Propaganda had it that Chidambaram worked against ‘Tamil interests’ on the Sri Lankan issue when decisions were made in New Delhi. As a senior Congress politician from the state he was also supposed to have known the prevailing mood and convey the same to the party and government. But in popular perception he did not attempt either.

Unacknowledged truth

Truth be told, unacknowledged though, to the horror of non-Tamil colleagues elsewhere, it was Chidambaram who fought almost single-handedly at all levels of government and the party, through 2012 and 2013, for India voting in favour of the US resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC.

It was the desire of the Sri Lankan Tamils and their Diaspora, and demand of the competitive Tamil Nadu polity and the newly-emerging pan-Tamil civil society groups, that India should vote for the US resolution. Their pressure-tactic worked only up to a point. It stopped with India having to consider alternatives to backing Sri Lanka outright at Geneva. Chidambaram alone walked -- and could have walked -- the crucial, last mile for them! And he actually did.

Going by media reports, in 2012 Chidambaram took it to the cabinet, and won his case there.  In 2013, when the cabinet was reportedly reluctant, he took it up with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as if it were a personal favour. When later in the year, Singh’s boycott of the Colombo CHOGM became the issue Chidambaram had to go to the Congress ‘core group’ instead, where he won his case, nonetheless.

Ironically though, this time round Chidambaram was mostly away in Sivaganga and the rest of Tamil Nadu, fighting what looks like a losing battle for the Congress party in the parliamentary polls -- and India ‘abstained’ at the UNHRC. If son Karti makes his maiden electoral mark, it would have been despite all this.

India’s decision this time is not to the liking of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and more so, nearer home in India. Neither seemed wanting to acknowledge Chidambaram’s controversial contributions to ‘pro-Tamil policy-making’ of the past years, even at this late hour.

Collective responsibility

It is not that Chidambaram served ‘larger national interests’ best by doing what he had done, particularly since the advent of the 2012 UNHRC resolution. If India found itself in a bind this time, with the Anglo-American movers of the current UNHRC resolution not bothering about New Delhi’s long-held positions and sensitivity on larger issues of sovereignty, intrusive international intervention and the like, Chidambaram may have contributed in no small measure to setting the tone for the same over the past years -- that too, in his equally silent, self-effacing ways.

Chidambaram often attributed this to his continued commitment to the concept of ‘collective responsibility’ of the cabinet, and the rules of the government game that bars cabinet members from saying in public what was discussed in utmost secrecy.

With the Geneva abstention bound to haunt the Congress party even more in the current run-up to the parliamentary elections in Tamil Nadu, whether or not it affects the voting-pattern, Karti is going to find the going tougher than he and his father might have imagined already.

Irony of ironies, Chidambaram has since said that India should have voted for the US resolution at Geneva this time too, and that the decision was not discussed at the Cabinet but may have been taken by officials in the ministry of external affairs. In Delhi, Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi promptly responded that as someone hailing from Tamil Nadu, PC was free to hold his views and it was understandable.

The question is this: Was Chidambaram living in another planet when everyone (at least in southern Tamil Nadu) knew that the US resolution was up for vote on the day it did.

Or, had he lost interest and felt frustrated at doing a ‘thankless job’ again and again on behalf of his ‘Tamil brethren’? It is one thing for someone to ‘steal’ one’s credit and thunder, it is another for them all, also to blame the doer for what he had been doing, and make the people around believe that he had done nothing, when their contributions had not translated into actionable initiative at levels where it mattered.

Image: Karti Chidambaram, second from right, and P Chidambaram, right, with Congress President Sonia Gandhi, left

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.

N Sathiya Moorthy in Chennai