The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Congress party came together for its most recent alliance in 2004. The alliance faced three elections together since then -- the 2004 general election, the 2006 Tamil Nadu assembly election and the 2009 general election -- and was all set for another major election early next year.
But ever since former Union telecom minister Andimuthu Raja got embroiled in the 2G spectrum allocation scam, the two parties have gotten progressively quieter in public and louder in private. With the Central Bureau of Investigation raiding associates of Raja and Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi -- DMK supremo M Karunanidhi's youngest daughter -- the murmurs that the alliance is on its last leg have gained prominence.
The alliance's future
Though DMK leaders are not willing to speak openly on the issue, sources said the party sees this as a humiliating blow.
"They were informed in advance about the raids," said a Chennai-based political analyst close to the party leadership. "But the DMK did not anticipate it will be so severe and get so close to the first family."
One of the organisations raided was the non-governmental Tamil Maiyyam, which has Kanimozhi on its board of directors.
"The raids have achieved two things," the source said. "The DMK has been humbled. Second, this batch of raids has inched that much more closer to Karunanidhi's family. They are one step away from the family. If the CBI implicates Rajathi Ammal (Kanimozhi's mother and Karunanidhi's third wife) in the scam, or even hints at anything like that, the DMK will pull out of the alliance, irrespective of the consequences."
From the Congress side, the line being parroted are on the basis of two aspects: They say the Supreme Court is monitoring the probe into the 2G scam and there is nothing they can do about the investigation. Congress leaders are also saying that the government has to show some action to convince the Opposition in Parliament.
But these two arguments do not wash with the DMK leadership, which insiders says is stunned by the national party's behaviour. There are also other incidents that have made the DMK leadership believe that the Congress might, at the end of the day, not be the all-weather ally a regional party needs.
"Just one incident that has miffed Karunanidhi," said a party source. "The state youth Congress was getting very vocally critical of the DMK. So he asked Kanimozhi to get an appointment with (Congress General Secretary) Rahul Gandhi to ask him to rein in the state youth unit. He did not give her an appointment. A Congress leader close to the DMK also tried in vain for an appointment. But around the same time, E V K S Elangovan, who is a known DMK baiter, sought and got an audience with Rahul. This did not gone down well with the DMK."
Irrespective of what the two parties say in public about trust, the truth is that an atmosphere of distrust has been seeping in for a while. Observers say the silence from the DMK itself is an indication that the reality is the Congress has the DMK on the ropes in this bout, and will call all the shots.
"Whatever happens to this alliance in the coming days, it will be the Congress's call. The DMK will only react to what the Congress does," said an expert who is familiar with both parties' representatives in New Delhi.
Thus, the Congress has without doubt ruthlessly cornered its ally and has set things up for the next level. It may be calling off the alliance and contest the assembly election alone in Tamil Nadu, or it may bargain and contest more seats within the alliance.
What will take this drama to the next level is how the DMK responds. Though the Congress might seem to have the upperhand and there is only stonecold silence from Karunanidhi, the national party cannot afford to write off the wily southern leader.
The Congress point of view
If the recent developments do not make much sense, it is because they are part of a larger strategy of the Congress in Tamil Nadu.
Ever since Rahul Gandhi's trip to Tamil Nadu late last year, the faction-ridden state Congress had found a rallying force. Rahul's supporters have been lobbying to go it alone in the state, while a group close to the DMK wants the alliance to continue.
A few months ago, the Congress central leadership, which has never quite trusted the state factions, flew in a senior leader to Chennai to take stock of the situation and the mood in the state.
"Though this powerful leader took back the message that it is unlikely that the Congress can create an impact in 2011, the Rahul Gandhi camp is still exploring its options," said a source familiar with the developments. "Thus, unknown to the DMK, the Congress has been formulating its strategy for quite a while now."
A case in point: A central government health insurance scheme for the rural poor was till now widely known as the Kalaignar Kappettu Thittam. Kalaignar is how Karunanidhi is referred to in the DMK party.
Though many states claim credit for the central government's schemes, no state or chief minister labelled it as his or her own. Miffed by this, and emboldened by recent developments, Youth Congress leaders are now going around rural areas and explaining to the people that this is a central government scheme and that the DMK has nothing to do with it.
Thus, what the raids have done in this aspect is to soften up the DMK and forced it into a corner. "So, the Congress, if it decides to stick with the DMK can ask and get a higher number of seats. At the same time, it can do the spadework if it goes alone. If it goes alone, it will do it late so that it will leave the DMK to contest elections on its own, which is not an ideal situation, especially in the urban areas," the source said.
Also, senior state Congress leaders with the active support of MLAs and leaders are about to raise their apprehensions at the Congress party's plenary session in New Delhi on Sunday on going with the DMK in Tamil Nadu.
This school of thought says it would be a total contradiction if the party goes with the DMK as it would make it look like it is compromising with corruption.
"The best course for the Congress would be to go it alone in the polls, but we will leave it up to (Congress President) Sonia Gandhi to take a final call, possibly by mid-January to enable us to kick off the campaign," a senior Tamil Nadu Congress leader said on Wednesday.
The leader added: "We are part of the present government, but that does not bind us against contesting without an alliance with the DMK."
The DMK's first family
The deepest -- and probably the most crucial -- layer of the spectrum saga lies Kanimozhi's political future.
Unlike half-brothers M K Stalin, who worked his way up the party hierarchy, and M K Azhagiri, who is a proven grassroots leader, Kanimozhi was air dropped into power politics and that too via the Rajya Sabha in New Delhi.
"Azhagiri never thought much about her; Stalin was always ambivalent," said an insider. "And when she landed in New Delhi as the face of the party, Dayanidhi Maran (Karunanidhi's grandnephew and the DMK's face in the national capital until then) resented it."
Kanimozhi's entry into politics was largely due to her mother Rajathi Ammal who felt she must have an active role.
"Thus, a clique formed around Rajathi Ammal. Chief among them were Raja, the Dalit face of the DMK, and Poongothai, the Nadar face of the party," the source said. "These three were never liked by the rest of the family leaders and were always seen as outsiders, especially Raja and Poongothai, who is the late DMK leader Aladi Aruna's daughter."
Insiders say Azhagiri has told his father to distance himself from Raja and if need be, even sacrifice him in the party's interest keeping in mind next year's assembly election.
"Poongothai also drew Azhagiri's irk with her uncharitable comments about him (which were on the leaked tapes of conversations with lobbyist Niira Radia)," a journalist covering the DMK for over a decade said.
With the latest developments, all those who are close to Rajathi Ammal will be cut down to size, sources said. Also, within the party, the lines have now been drawn along the lines of Old versus Young, Tamil-speaking versus Foreign-educated English- speaking.
"The elder leaders, who grew up with (DMK founder C N) Annadurai's ideals, are appalled with the recent developments. They think the young brat pack has tarnished the party's image beyond repair," said a senior New Delhi-based political journalist.
As part of the damage control exercise, the party has decided to even sacrifice Raja if needed.
"One of the main reasons for this is that Karunanidhi now doubts how much Raja has done behind his back. When news of the raids emerged, he was surprised by some of the names, which he never knew. This has also become a reason for the leadership to doubt Raja. They now wonder what else he was up to behind their back," said a party source in Chennai following the raids.
As a sign of things, on Wednesday, Sun News TV -- which is owned by the Maran family, Karunanidhi's grandnephews -- opened its night bulletin on December 15 with the news of the raid. 'The CBI raided 27 places in Tamil Nadu that are connected to A Raja's relatives and friends,' it said.
What it did not say is that one of the people to be raided was Reverend Gasper Jebaraj, managing director of the non governmental organisation, Tamil Maiyyam, on whose board Kanimozhi is a director. The channel named Jebaraj as Raja's close friend.
"The DMK is all set to sacrifice Raja and distance itself from him. Don't be surprised if he is even arrested as the next step in this game," said a highly-placed source in the state.