July 24, 2002


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T V R Shenoy

Amma makes her move

Let us see, what is the score so far? In western India, Gujarat is making headlines again with the Narendra Modi government choosing to approach the people and the Congress trying to flee. Looking north, we see the assembly polls approaching in Jammu & Kashmir. And in the east, Mamata Banerjee's silliness is threatening to spark another round between Bihar and Bengal. One might almost think that southern India is a haven of peace amid the unrest!

Well, it is not necessarily so. Very quietly but very determinedly, Jayalalithaa has taken the operations against her opposition into the next phase. One year ago, she made the mistake of a public assault on Karunanidhi, a fiasco of the first order which even her Congress allies found hard to stomach. Having learned her lesson -- and about how many politicians can you say that they learn from their errors? -- the chief minister of Tamil Nadu is now choosing to wait for her foes to dig a pit for themselves. And they are obliging...

Conventional wisdom has it that Jayalalithaa's most powerful foe is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. That may be true just now, but Karunanidhi is ageing and there is nobody else of his stature in the party. (Maran seems happier in the Union Cabinet than in Chennai, and Karunanidhi's other relatives -- the party is as much a dynastic tool as the Congress -- have not shown any particular genius for politics.) So Jayalalithaa is content to leave the DMK patriarch to stew for the moment, whilst she concentrates on potential threats in the future.

At the top of that list is Vaiko of the MDMK, now a member of the National Democratic Alliance. He is, I think, the third most popular politician in Tamil Nadu, next only to Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. He has earned a reputation for being the most honest politician in Tamil Nadu. But that same virtue can be his downfall because Vaiko simply refuses to keep quiet on issues close to his heart -- and on top of that list is Eelam (the proposed Tamil homeland to be carved out of Sri Lanka).

There are a couple of problems with this. First, the Government of India has publicly and repeatedly affirmed its respect for the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Second, the LTTE has done such a clinical job of eliminating its rivals that to support Eelam is to back the LTTE. This latter is not a problem for Vaiko, but it is impossible for any other party to prop up a terrorist group. The stage was therefore set for a confrontation.

To do Jayalalithaa justice, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu has been perfectly consistent in her dislike for the LTTE for over a decade. In her last stint in power, between 1991 and 1996, she did more than any other chief minister before or since to break their support in Tamil Nadu. (Law and order in general was better in Tamil Nadu than in the days of the Karunanidhi administration, which came to power in 1996.) Believe it or not, the confrontation with Vaiko and the decision to arrest him is as much about principle as about politics.

One must admit, however, that Jayalalithaa chose the ground well. It is impossible for any other party to support Vaiko. The Bharatiya Janata Party is committed to an anti-terrorist platform. The Congress certainly cannot oppose Jayalalithaa when she is taking on the organisation that murdered Rajiv Gandhi. And the DMK is, at best, lukewarm about Vaiko. (Karunanidhi recognises Vaiko's potential; one of the reasons why he was pushed out of the parent party was because Karunanidhi did not want any rival to his son and chosen heir, Stalin.)

Jayalalithaa has calculated, correctly, that whilst there may be some sympathy for Vaiko as an individual, there shall be no takers for his cause. But she has little to lose even if this is a miscalculation; if Vaiko does become the standard-bearer of the anti-Jayalalithaa forces, it will be more of a headache for Stalin and Karunanidhi than for the AIADMK.

The fates are clearly smiling on Jayalalithaa. As if it were not enough for Vaiko to trap himself, another partner in the National Democratic Alliance chose to repeat the feat when Dr S Ramadoss of the PMK suddenly demanded the partition of Tamil Nadu.

The PMK is essentially a party that depends on a single caste, the Vanniyars, for its support. But it was going too far to ask that a new state be carved out of the northern districts to protect Vanniyar interests. Supporting such a demand would be suicidally stupid for any other party, whether national or regional. This gives the chief minister of Tamil Nadu the perfect opportunity to drive yet another wedge between the NDA partners.

Principles and politics apart, there is an element of sweet revenge in all this for the AIADMK leader. Both the PMK and the MDMK were rescued from the political fringe when Jayalalithaa brought them into her alliance against the DMK and the Tamil Maanila Congress in 1998. One year later, both parties would desert her when she parted ways with the Vajpayee government. (The PMK would also flirt with the Congress, nominally an AIADMK ally, in Pondicherry.) It gives her immense pleasure, therefore, to isolate both parties even as they tried to do to her.

It is a cardinal principle of judo that a true master shall use a foe's strength against him. Vaiko's outspoken honesty and Dr Ramadoss's Vanniyar base played key roles in bringing both men to the political limelight. One must salute Judoka Jayalalithaa for waiting patiently until she could turn her foes' assets into their liabilities.

T V R Shenoy

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