Crisis managers within the Congress were making last-ditch efforts Thursday night to persuade the DMK to stay within the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) after the Tamil Nadu party, dissatisfied over the allocation of ministerial berths, threatened to give outside support to the new government.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi telephoned DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi to soothe his ruffled feathers after he demanded seven ministerial berths, including three at the cabinet level.
The compromise formula, according to Congress insiders, was that the party would stick to the pattern in the earlier dispensation of two cabinet berths and five at the minister of state (MoS) level, but with changed portfolios.
After talks between the Congress and DMK ran into rough weather, the latter Thursday evening announced outside support to the UPA and indicated it may not attend the swearing in of the new government Friday.
DMK leader T.R. Baalu, who was transport minister in the outgoing cabinet, announced after day-long negotiations with top Congress leaders that his party was prepared to support the government from outside.
"After discussions with the prime minister, we have decided to support the Congress from outside. Our leader Karunanidhi will go back to Chennai tomorrow (Friday) and will hold discussions with the party," he said.
Meanwhile, a DMK MP, privy to the talks, said the party MPs were returning to Chennai Friday morning and wouldn't attend the swearing in of the new UPA government in the evening.
The DMK MP said the party wanted three cabinet berths, two of MoS independent charge) and two of MoS. However, the Congress was willing to give two cabinet and five MoS berths - what it had earlier.
"It is a question of numbers," said the DMK MP, referring to the improved Lok Sabha tally of the Tamil Nadu party - to 18 this time from 16 earlier.
Congress spokesman Nedurumalli Janardhana Reddy said: "Whatever we proposed, they did not accept and wanted more. So they said they will support from outside, but it does not mean that dialogue with them is over.
"We are still discussing with them," he said.
The Congress reportedly wants status quo to be maintained in the case of the DMK.
Senior Congress leaders like Pranab Mukherjee, Ghulam Nabi Azad and others held discussions with DMK party leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, assisted by senior leaders like T.R. Baalu, Arcot Veeraswamy, M.K. Alagiri, Dayanidhi Maran and others.
Some DMK leaders are hoping there would be no repeat of the 2004 episode.
In 2004, within 48 hours of the UPA ministry being sworn in, the DMK threatened to pull out its nominees on the ground that the promised portfolios were not allotted to its members.
At that time, DMK leader M. Karunanidhi categorically said that continuation of DMK ministers in the government depends on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
He said the DMK ministers will not assume charge if the portfolio allocation issue was not resolved and showed the media the written agreement between him and the Congress general secretary.
His complaint then was that the Congress did not allot DMK the Ministry of Shipping, Ministry of State of Finance with the Revenue Department and the Department of Personnel.