STEP OUT of Chennai airport and you see posters espousing support for the Lankan Tamil cause with the slogan “Struggle for Justice”. The accompanying photograph of former LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son Balachandran munching a biscuit has become the face of this struggle.
At Tidel Park, the software hub in the city, on the evening of 20 March, over 1,000 Chennaites gather to form a human chain ahead of the UN vote on Sri Lanka in Geneva. Subhadra, an IT professional, is among those holding up a poster of Balachandran Prabhakaran. She says the boy’s innocent face has shaken the conscience of many people and triggered the protests.
Talk naturally veers towards the decision by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to snap ties with its national ally, the Congress. And then almost in a torrent, tempers run high, with everyone berating DMK supremo Muthuvel Karunanidhi’s brand of opportunistic politics.
“Why didn’t he do anything for the Tamils when he was chief minister of Tamil Nadu in 2009? There were huge Tamil civilian casualties in the war in Sri Lanka. Why didn’t he snap ties with the Congress then? Except for that token hunger strike at the Marina beach, what did he do?” fumes Bharati, an IT professional. Common citizens, most of them software professionals, are livid at political parties and the media for turning a blind eye to the atrocities committed on Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Twenty-six-year-old Palapandi says he has been to different protest venues in Chennai in the past couple of days — Loyola College, Marina and now Tidel Park. “I feel very strongly for my Tamil brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka,” he says. “How are they different from us? In Delhi, everyone was so concerned for Nirbhaya, why don’t we care for scores of our Tamil sisters raped in Lanka?”
Protests like these have kept politicians out, making it entirely a civil society movement. What angers them however, is that over the past week, the focus has been hijacked by the political game played by the DMK and the number deficit, which Karunanidhi’s 18 MPs will cause in the UPA kitty.
But Karunanidhi is not called a wily fox in the world of Indian politics for nothing. Hitherto, protests for the cause of Lankan Tamils have been the preserve of politicians like Vaiko, with the two mainstream parties — the DMK and the AIADMK — making guest appearances, as and when it suited them. But it is the first time that students, teachers and professionals have taken the lead to organise hunger strikes and demonstrations. Karunanidhi wants to use this emotional passion and make it work in his favour.
And here is where Karunanidhi may have miscalculated his move. While his move to snap ties with the Congress has enthused the DMK cadre, so much so that they decided to celebrate Diwali in March, on the streets of Chennai, the former chief minister finds little or no support.
But then this was also the DMK’s best chance to get rid of its partner. In the DMK-Congress marriage, it is the former who has always been temperamental, making loud noises on many occasions, threatening to walk out. But the Congress managed to get it around every time.
Since the 2G scam broke and daughter Kanimozhi and close aide Andimuthu Raja went behind bars and grand nephew Dayanidhi Maran lost his ministry, Karunanidhi’s bargaining power diminished. Having been eclipsed by the brute majority of the AIADMK in the Tamil Nadu Assembly in the 2011 elections, it was important for the party to wield power in Delhi to be of some relevance.
The Lanka issue therefore came in handy to log out of the relationship. DMK leaders say the Congress was a liability, given its lacklustre governance and scam-tainted tenure. Of course, the DMK conveniently glosses over its own role in the biggest of them all — the 2G spectrum allocation scam.
The party’s calculation is that dumping the Congress and taking an adversarial position vis-a-vis Delhi over the Lanka issue to begin with, making a villain out of Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and following it with other issues, crying discrimination to Tamil Nadu, will help it recover lost political ground.
While indulging in all this posturing, Karunanidhi is also monitoring what his arch-rival and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa is up to. The AIADMK leader had already asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take “historic and courageous” steps to move amendments to the US-backed resolution at the UNHRC in Geneva. She had also pressed for slapping economic sanctions on Sri Lanka till Tamils were fully settled. On the ground, Poes Garden has instructed the Tamil Nadu police to treat protesters with kid gloves. Clearly, Jayalalithaa does not want to hurt any sentiments.
KARUNANIDHI WENT one step further. Adamant that nothing short of the inclusion of the two words “genocide” and “Eelam” in a resolution in Indian Parliament would satisfy him, the DMK has tried to walk as far away from the Congress as possible. This is a huge gamble.
Karunanidhi realises that by the summer next year, Jayalalithaa could get a fix on the acute power crisis that plagues the state and the DMK may find itself short of issues to criticise the CM.
Therefore, he has decided to go the whole hog on Lanka. Couple that with an anti-Delhi stance and Karunanidhi thinks the cocktail of projecting himself as the tallest Tamil politician up against the might of Delhi and Sri Lanka would fetch him political dividends.
Again, he could be terribly wrong. History shows that while Lanka remains a very emotive issue for Tamilians in Tamil Nadu, it has never been the key factor in any election, where local factors hold sway. And a less than satisfactory UN resolution in Geneva and perhaps even Parliament will mean the DMK will find itself quite isolated even in the Indian political spectrum. Already several parties including the BJP and the Trinamool Congress have opposed moving a country-specific resolution in Parliament.
On the sidelines, a family battle is also playing out within the DMK. Sources say MK Azhagiri, former chemicals and fertilisers minister in the Manmohan Singh Cabinet, was unhappy about not being in the loop over the final decision taken by the DMK. In fact, when Karunanidhi made the announcement, Azhagiri was in Parliament and was heard telling reporters that he did not know about it since he was inside the House. In Tamil Nadu, the word is that Azhagiri heard of the decision to withdraw support from news channels.
Though Karunanidhi has been the face of the DMK, party insiders say the brain behind the decision is his younger son Stalin’s. The former Tamil Nadu deputy chief minister is slowly making his moves to control the party apparatus and the Lankan issue gives him an opportunity to take the centrestage. If that means rendering his brother without a job, so be it.
For the Congress, all this means bad news. Even in 2009, it did not put up a great performance in Tamil Nadu, winning just eight of the 15 seats it contested as part of the DMK-Congress alliance. Going with the AIADMK is out of the question, particularly since Jayalalithaa and P Chidambaram share a frosty relationship. Jaya has already declared her decision to go it alone and the Congress will only end a poor third in a multi-cornered contest. Given that it is likely to receive a mauling in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, which delivered 33 Lok Sabha seats in 2009, the picture in the south is beginning to look even more bleak after the DMK’s exit.
Not that it will be hunky-dory for the DMK either. The biggest hurdle for Karunanidhi and his family is to live down allegations of widespread corruption during the time it was in power. Add to that the anger among the people that the 88-year-old is trying to do some desperate pinch-hitting and you realise that it could well be a case of act in haste, repent at leisure for the party.
Which is why most believe the DMK will be back in the UPA fold in a few weeks or months, if not days. “He is basically trying to gain some credibility for himself since he lost it badly by not acting on Lanka in 2009,” says political analyst Gnani Sankaran. “At that time, if he had withdrawn support, he could have gained immensely.”
Gnani reckons it is a strange situation where both the Congress and the DMK look at each other as a liability in Tamil Nadu. “But eventually, both will have to come together because they have no other assets,” he says.
The 2014 Lok Sabha polls may well be the last big election that Karunanidhi will lead the DMK in. And he wouldn’t want to go away a loser. Knowing Karunanidhi, the writer of many a gripping social drama, he is unlikely to script an unhappy ending for himself and his party. The box-office verdict will be out in 2014.