Krishnakumar Padmanabhan in Chennai
Like football coaches who slam referees after their team's poor performance, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has slammed the Election Commission for what they called the 'tight scheduling' of the assembly election, as it gave 'little time to campaign and alliance formation.'
But on Thursday, it became clear that the problem lay not with the Election Commission, but his own party and his ally, as Congress interlocutor Ghulam Nabi Azad left Chennai without announcing a final number of seats his party would contest for the election slated for April 13.
Sources privy to the talks said the DMK was willing to give the Congress 57 seats (revised later in the evening to 60). The DMK has made it clear that it is now up to the Congress whose final demand was 62 -- to decide whether to 'take it or leave it.'
K Anbazhagan, DMK general secretary and Tamil Nadu finance minister, added to the drama with a statement saying the party will convene a high level meeting on March 5 to discuss 'alliances and other election-related issues.'
Sources said this is tantamount to a final word to the Congress that it is up to it to get back to the DMK with an answer. Azad met senior Congress leaders in New Delhi and was supposed to meet party president Sonia Gandhi later in the night.
As the DMK sees it, there are 'two Congresses' at play
The two sides were supposed to seal an agreement by Wednesday. When it did not happen, it was expected that Ghulam Nabi Azad, who had come to Chennai on Wednesday, would meet the DMK high command on Thursday morning and announce the final figures. But he left for Delhi without meeting the DMK leadership.
In the afternoon, top DMK leaders involved in the talks meet Karunanidhi at his home and update him on the developments, where two of them are understood to have suggested to Karunanidhi that the DMK would be better off without the Congress.
What has baffled the DMK is that the Congress is bent on driving a hard bargain despite it being weak in the southern state and the Dravidian party having informally accepted an arrangement to share power.
As the DMK sees it, there are 'two Congresses' at play.
One that wants to continue with the alliance on some basic acceptable grounds, at least for the time being, and another that is in a tearing hurry to show the DMK who the boss is and if need be even go it alone, at all cost. It is this dichotomy that has plagued the alliance in recent months, as the Congress' two faces sit at loggerheads without making up their mind.
The DMK has a double safeguard against the Congress
Sources say two secret meetings between Home Minister P Chidambaram's son Karthi Chidambaram and Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam chief Vijayakanth's brother in law L K Sudish, is just one sign of this confusion within the Congress.
This is also said to have sent the wrong signals to the DMK, which saw this as conclusive proof that the Congress will not hesitate to cut its nose to spite the Dravidian ally.
This dangerous game of the Congress has also forced the DMK to beef up its other allies, so that it will be covered in any eventuality. Thus it gave the turncoat Pattali Makkal Katchi of S Ramadoss 31 seats and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi of Thol Thirumavalavan 10 seats. Even more of a surprise was the seven seats given to the Kongu Nadu Munnetra Kazhagam, which is strong in the Coimbatore belt.
"Thus the DMK has put in place a double safeguard against the Congress. One, it has enough allies that are strong in particular regions and are bankable. Two, it can always say, we have given so many seats to the other allies, and because of the delay you caused, there is not much we can do," said a veteran political observer.
The way things have played out, the DMK already is starting proceedings on the back foot. "Eventually, the DMK will contest 124 seats. You cant get a majority by contesting that many seats," said the observer.Also, not many see the Congress being able to contest 60-plus seats and win a considerable number.
Congress's delaying tactics have even frustrated its own cadre
The Congress's delaying tactics have even frustrated its own cadre. "We don't care if the high command decides to go it alone or stay in the alliance. But the cadre needs to be taken into confidence. Just decide one way or the other soon and let us get on with campaigning," said a district level Congress functionary.
Finally, all these things put together spell more trouble when seen in the light of the opposition alliance. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the DMDK are all set to announce their seat sharing figures formally on Friday. But sources said that the two sides have sat down and got all the specifics pat down, and all that remains is a mere formality.
When that announcement comes, and the Opposition hits the ground running, will be when the ruling alliance realise the enormity of its mistake.
The seat sharing drama
Pattali Makkal Katchi: 31
Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi: 10
Kongu Nadu Munnetra Kazhagam: 7
Congress (likely): 58
DMK (likely): 124
Seat sharing drama:
February 20: The DMK-Congress began seat sharing talks in Chennai. The Congress, which contested in 48 seats last time, was said to have demanded as much as 80 seats, a share in power, and the inking of a common minimum program on the lines of what the Congress had with the Left in the first UPA government at the Centre. A baffled DMK stalled for time, saying it needed to get Karunanidhi's consent on these issues.
February 24: Second round of talks begin. Same roadblocks occur. A senior DMK leader is said to have taunted the Congress asking whether they have enough leaders to contest the number of seats they demanded. P Chidambram and G K Vasan walk out without even meeting Karunanidhi, who is in the adjacent room.
February 26: P Chidambaram, at a public meeting in Kancheepuram, says, "Even if one leaf withers, two leaves will sprout." Causes pandemonium in the alliance, with the DMK believing it to be a reference to the AIADMK. T R Baalu is sent to meet the Congress leadership to get things clarified and mend the fences.
March 1: Five-member Congress committee meets Sonia Gandhi, who is said to have scaled down the demand to 65 seats.
March 3: DMK's take it or leave it figure stands at 58. Ball in Congress' court.