It was always a tumultuous marriage, made worse by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s temperamental behaviour, threatening to walk out of the relationship over some issue or the other. But credit to the TINA factor, there was always a homecoming to the Congress, be it after the turmoil over Neyveli Lignite disinvestment, the breakdown of seat sharing talks at election time or the time when daughter Kanimozhi and close aide Andimuthu Raja were arrested in the 2G scam.
This time however, Muthuvel Karunanidhi has uttered the dreaded D word – Divorce. Withdrawing his five ministers from the Cabinet, he has pulled the plug off the UPA, pushing it into minority status. With the support of the two political allies from Uttar Pradesh, UPA 2 will ensure that the boat is steady.
Why did Karunanidhi decide to call it quits this time? Because like a politician desperately trying to rediscover his lost political form, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief thinks he has got the timing right and more importantly, the pitch – the Lankan Tamils issue – will suit his batting style just fine. This is his desperate gambit to make a fight of it in the Lok Sabha elections next year to ensure the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) does not run away with a majority of the 39 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu. Eclipsed by AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa’s brute majority in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, Karunanidhi cannot afford a sunset in Parliament as well.
To an extent, he has succeeded in his mission too. His decision to sever ties with the Congress has enthused the DMK cadre who feel emphasising the Tamil identity and taking an adversarial position vis-a-vis New Delhi will work as an electoral strategy. His party leaders also feel that since the Congress won’t add much to the alliance kitty, given the anti-incumbency factor working against them, so the DMK can afford to push it around.
Karunanidhi’s decision to raise the pitch was governed by two other local factors. One, the street protests and hunger strikes by students over the Lankan issue gave the impression of genuine across-the-board outrage in Tamil Nadu. Given the superior quality of his political DNA, Karunanidhi sensed an opportunity. This was also a new development because hitherto pro-Lankan Tamil protests have been the preserve of the political parties and students haven’t been at the forefront of such agitations.
The second and more important reason was that arch rival Jayalalithaa had already asked the Prime Minister to take “historic and courageous” steps to move amendments to the US-backed resolution at the UN Human Rights Council at Geneva. The Tamil Nadu chief minister had also pressed for slapping economic sanctions on Sri Lanka till Tamils were fully settled.
On the night of Monday 18 March, Karunanidhi let the three Congress emissaries know that he was playing hardball. But Delhi had pinned its hopes on the final draft of the US resolution on Lanka that came in on Tuesday 19 March morning. One look at it and they realised that none of Karunanidhi’s hardline demands were being met at Geneva. Though international observers felt that the mood in Geneva is more anti-Lanka this year than it was last time, the DMK chief felt it was just too little for his domestic constituency. And that asking Sri Lanka government to conduct “an independent and credible investigation” was like asking Mahinda Rajapaksa to give himself a certificate of good conduct.
Which is why Karunanidhi is alternately pushing for a resolution to be passed in Parliament, with the use of words like ‘genocide’ and ‘Eelam’ to convey the country’s anguish over the manner in which Tamils are being treated by the Rajapaksa government. Over the next 24 to 36 hours, UPA negotiators will have to burn midnight oil to see if they can make the DMK climb down a bit on the tone and tenor of the resolution while still providing DMK with something to crow about back home in Chennai. The UPA can live without Azhagiri and company in the government but would still want the DMK’s 18 MPs to provide outside support.
Karunanidhi’s moves have pushed UPA into a diplomatic tight corner too. Only recently, Parliament condemned the resolution on Afzal Guru passed by the Pakistan National Assembly and asked it to mind its own business. Can it risk Sri Lanka asking India to keep off, emboldened by its new friends, China and Pakistan. There is every chance that Colombo will not get cowed by its big neighbour.
A situation like that will however be music to DMK’s ears and it can milk the anti-Lanka sentiment to emerge as the champion of the Tamil cause. In an election year, casting Rajapaksa as a villain will suit Karunanidhi, the ace scriptwriter, well.
But then Karunanidhi may be counting his chickens before they hatch. Even though it is a highly emotive issue for the Tamils in Tamil Nadu, the Lankan issue has never been an election issue, where local factors hold sway. Karunanidhi’s calculation is that quitting the government over this issue gives the DMK a halo and the high moral ground and they can also up the ante on other local issues hereafter.
But will the voters of Tamil Nadu buy Karunanidhi’s latest political potboiler? The 88-year-old will have to give the performance of a lifetime if he is to convince the voters that he has his heart in the right place. That he is genuinely concerned about the well-being of the Tamils across the Gulf of Mannar and that it is not the EVM that is on his mind.