The Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) have patched up. But that doesn't mean we should forget that the two alliance partners were never too friendly to begin with. There has been much acrimony at the cadre level, with the DMK refusing to share power in Tamil Nadu despite depending on the Congress for its survival.
Despite several attempts by local Congressmen, M Karunandhi had rebuffed such a deal throughout the last five years the DMK has been in power in Chennai. At the Centre, he wanted a share of the pie that included specific portfolios. It is this behaviour in Delhi and another attitude in Chennai that irritated the Congress a great deal.
Over the last week, this relationship only worsened. Neither have the problems between the Congress and DMK magically disappeared. Congress MLAs may have benefited from the DMK government's sudden largesse, but the cadres are neither happy nor are they obliged to the DMK in any way. Karunanidhi had systematically bought many Congress MLAs who went on to ingratiate themselves before the DMK chief in the Tamil Nadu assembly. Let's just say that in Chennai, there is only a 'DMK' Congress.
Karunanidhi thought he could force the Congress to run to him with folded hands. His calculation was that since the Congress had ruled out any alliance with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and as actor Vijayakanth's party, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), had settled with the AIADMK, the Congress was left bereft of partners and could not float a third front. He overplayed his hand. For the first time, a deeply annoyed Congress turned and stared back at Karunanidhi.
So what made Karunanidhi blink? Seat-sharing was never the real problem. The real issue was the CBI getting near Tamil Nadu's first family. Karunanidhi doesn't want this to happen and wants an assurance from the Congress that it won't. Now that seat-sharing has been settled, Karunanidhi would do well to tell the people what the other problems are. Is it 2G?
With a big dent in its credibility over the 2G scandal, the Congress was very hesitant to act against Raja - and it didn't for almost two years. Even now, the popular perception is that the raids and arrests are being conducted only at the behest of the Supreme Court and nothing of consequence will come out of these measures. This view has been firmed up by the Congress-DMK rapprochement. If the Congress had broken away from the DMK, such suspicion would have drifted away. But now the popular view seems to be: those who have shared the loot obviously can't fight with each other.
For the Congress and its growth in Tamil Nadu, it should have broken off the alliance with the DMK and contested alone. Of course, it would have been defeated in the polls, but it would have started on a trajectory that could have led to the Congress emerging as a force on its own after two or three elections.
Even at this stage, if the Congress is clever about it, the party can ditch the DMK by letting the CBI fully investigate the chief minister's family who has benefited from the 2G deal. It would be problematic for the DMK if it was to walk out of the alliance. It certainly can't publicly state that it walked out of the partnership because of the CBI's unhindered investigation of members of Karunanidhi's family. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress traditionally has a 12-15% vote share. This may not go to the DMK in its entirety this time; these votes may now go to the Congress candidates wherever they contest. But where the DMK's contesting, the Congress vote may substantially go to AIADMK-led parties, if only to defeat the DMK.
And even within the DMK, there are wheels within wheels. There is much heartburn between the two brothers MK Azhagiri and MK Stalin, both of whom loathe to see the other wield total control over the MLAs. Deputy chief minister Stalin would certainly not like Union minister Azhagiri to be in a position to dictate matters in the Tamil Nadu assembly. So, it won't be a surprise if they earmark each other's DMK candidates for defeat in the polls.
The electorate in general is also quite disappointed with the DMK for the way in which Karunanidhi has been promoting the interests of his family. One could be forgiven for seeing Tamil Nadu as a division of three or four zones drawn up for the benefit of the various branches of Karunanidhi's family.
Corruption is nothing new. But corruption on the scale of the 2G scam has shocked Tamil Nadu's people. Even at the lowest level, DMK workers have suddenly made a lot of money, something that irks the people, especially with rising prices. The DMK will try to overcome this 'disparity' by distributing money in exchange of votes. Then, there could be attempts to 'manage' the polling booths - something that was evident during the by-elections.
Which makes us come to the AIADMK. Last elections, when it didn't have Vijayakanth's DMDK as an ally, the alliance got nearly 70 seats. An analysis of the 2006 poll results shows that the DMDK took away a part of the anti-DMK votes across 40-50 constituencies. This was when the DMK was not particularly unpopular. Now, the DMK is unpopular and the AIADMK and DMDK are fighting the DMK as a team. You do the maths.
If J Jayalalithaa's recent crowd-gathering prowess - especially in massive rallies in Coimbatore and Madurai - is any indicator, the AIADMK is the frontrunner in this election. She seems to be confident and is remembered as having a tighter leash on administration than Karunanidhi does. Law and order, too, was much better during AIADMK rule. And she is a 'nationalist', capable of friendly relations with the Centre once she is in power.
Populist schemes and freebies may not help the DMK this time, especially when the talk is about how the party has looted public money and will be only distributing a very small share of the loot among people.
If the DMK is banking on rural votes, going by the reports that Karunanidhi and Stalin are scouting for safe seats in the hinterland, the ruling party stands to be disappointed. In Tamil Nadu, the rural and urban electorates share the same voting pattern. The masses in both these categories may not know the intricacies involved in the 2G spectrum scam, but they all know the basic gist of it: the siphoning off of a huge amount of the people's money.
Cho Ramaswamy is a Chennai-based political commentator and editor of Tughlak
The views expressed by the author are personal