There was one notable omission among the many allies paraded by the NDA at its Ludhiana rally. There was nobody of consequence from Tamil Nadu. And even as Sonia Gandhi addressed rallies along with the DMK, the UPA floundered over its Tamil Nadu strategy.
The absences and the confusion will surprise nobody with any experience of Tamil Nadu politics. Ever since the two major Tamil parties (the DMK and the AIADMK) established their stranglehold on state politics, Tamil Nadu has remained curiously cut off from the national political mainstream. National parties make little headway and elections are decided on regional issues.
Nor is there any sense of logic or loyalty when it comes to alliances. M. Karunanidhi is now calling himself a loyal ally of the UPA. But till five years ago, his party was part of an NDA government. Vaiko is spitting fire against the DMK and singing the praises of J. Jayalalithaa. But a few years ago, when she was chief minister, Jayalalithaa put him in jail for saying exactly the sort of pro-LTTE things that her own alliance is now trumpeting.
For the Congress, Tamil Nadu has often been crucial. In 1996, its Tamil Nadu unit walked out en masse over Narasimha Rao’s decision to align with Jayalalithaa. As Jayalalithaa was doing badly in Tamil Nadu at the time, nobody could work out the logic of the alliance.
In an interview to me after that election, Jayalalithaa declared that it was Rao who had sought the alliance and said the go-between had been his astrologer. When the interview appeared, an angry Rao phoned me to deny that the astrologer had been the sole emissary: “You know, I sent many people to talk to her…,” he said.
A year later, the Congress withdrew support to the Inder Gujral government on the grounds that the DMK had been indicted in the interim report of the Jain Commission for its involvement in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. That withdrawal led to another election which brought the BJP to power.
The BJP then aligned with Jayalalithaa only to lose its government when she withdrew support after a few months. It came back to power in alliance with the DMK and may well have retained power five years ago if it had stuck with the DMK. Instead it allowed the DMK to join up with the Congress.
This time around, both parties are conscious that Tamil Nadu may be the deciding factor in who forms the government. They are also conscious that elections in Tamil Nadu are often decided on the basis of arithmetic. And this time, two of the DMK’s key allies have defected and gone over to Jayalalithaa. In real terms, this means that the DMK is staring at defeat.
This is why Rahul Gandhi suggested that all options were open. And this is also why Jayalalithaa has refused to confirm her support for the BJP. She knows that if she joins a Congress-led coalition, then the state government in Tamil Nadu (which is a Congress-DMK alliance) collapses. New elections will be called and she will sweep them.
At the same time, Jayalalithaa’s allies are also keeping mum about their plans. Young Anbumani Ramadoss has suggested that his father (who runs the family party) and he might not be averse to returning to the UPA. And Vaiko will do whatever Prabhakaran orders him to.
So simple calculations about the Tamil Nadu results and how they will influence the national picture are likely to be wrong. The situation is so complex that nothing can be said with certainty.
And both national parties hope that the confusion and the complexity will work to their advantage.