Southern Lights | Congress’ revival in Tamil Nadu could depend on the political ally it chooses - Hindustan Times
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Southern Lights | Congress’ revival in Tamil Nadu could depend on the political ally it chooses

May 27, 2024 09:06 PM IST

Is there a hint of the Congress and the AIADMK working together? Many cues have been dropped on and off by leaders of both parties.

A revitalisation of the Congress party in Tamil Nadu is in the offing through the intake of fresh cadre, the reappointment of organisation heads in the rank and file, and a ‘padayatra’ across the 234 assembly constituencies, K Selvaperunthagai, Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president told HT. The preparation is for the 2026 election, the leader said, emphasising that strengthening the party in Tamil Nadu is crucial for the Congress candidate to be chief minister, a feat last seen in the state 59 years ago when K Kamaraj was the chief minister of the ‘Madras State’.

Supporters of Indian National Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi and Tamil Nadu's Chief Minister M.K Stalin, arrive for a public meeting in Coimbatore on April 12, 2024, ahead of the country's general elections. (Photo by R.Satish BABU / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
Supporters of Indian National Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi and Tamil Nadu's Chief Minister M.K Stalin, arrive for a public meeting in Coimbatore on April 12, 2024, ahead of the country's general elections. (Photo by R.Satish BABU / AFP)(AFP)

“We are looking at improving three sets of numbers - vote share, seat share percentage, and an increase in constituencies across all the regions in Tamil Nadu (TN) in 2026. While we have been in an alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) since 2004, we do not want to depend on them,” Selvaperunthagai told HT.

This decision comes from the TNCC chief’s speeches last week at the Congress party’s district-level meetings in Namakkal, Trichy, and Dharmapuri where he said his party men needed to wake up to alarm calls because there was much to do for 2026. He did not mince words when he said that the party needs to grow in stature and reclaim its position in TN that it had pledged to a Dravidian party nearly six decades ago. The timing of these comments during the ongoing general election has surprised many including the DMK.

So, how does one read the goings on in the Congress? Senior congressmen, members of parliament, and legislative assembly members said that the party is keen on coming out of the shadow of its Dravidian major. Although the DMK is widely expected to do well in the ongoing general election, the Congress is wary of the anti-incumbency, the arrest of DMK’s ministers on corruption charges, and the distasteful remarks made by DMK scion Udayanidhi Stalin on Sanatana Dharma in the run-up to the election.

Selvaperunthagai was appointed on February 21 this year, just weeks before the notification of the general election. While many in the party were surprised by the choice of the candidate for president, Selvaperunthagai’s reach at the grassroots level is said to have been the factor for his pipping the others to the top job.

His call for the “revival of electoral respect” finds support in many senior Congressmen. Sasikanth Senthil, a former IAS officer, the party’s national war room head, and the candidate from Tiruvallur said, “We would like to see ourselves as the alternate voice to the anti-BJP sentiment. The waning of Dravidian ideology and the fall in the vote share of the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has created a void in Tamil Nadu. It is this ideological space that we are looking to fill.”

The party unit in Tamil Nadu is even looking for an alternative to the social justice narrative that the DMK has been successfully canvassing among the masses since the 1960s. Twice in the past in 1989 and 1996 attempts were made by the Congress to form the government in Tamil Nadu. While the 1996 attempt fell through because of actor Rajinikanth backtracking and calling off support to the Congress, the well-crafted attempt by GK Moopanar, who touted himself as an alternative to Karunadini, failed to cobble up the required majority to form the government. This history still haunts the party.

In the district and town-level meetings that the party chief is convening, one question stands out starkly. “Why couldn’t we capture the political space the last six decades and why haven’t we been able to articulate our stance on better governance and infrastructure?” Sasikanth said the Congress had an opportunity even in 2016 because the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA -II) had delivered well until 2014 on ration, pension, and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Assurance (NREGA) scheme that created employment for lakhs of people.

S Jothimani, incumbent MP from Karur agrees that the party’s growth has slackened and it has been in an undesirable junior position. “Yes, we have not been able to galvanise ourselves for many years now which is why this exercise by the state unit is very important. Although we are part of the alliance, every party has its way of functioning and is allowed to have its aspirations.” Jothimani too hinted at fighting the BJP’s ideology of divisiveness, use of central agencies against the opposition parties, and the trove of resources the BJP possesses to weaken those holding a contraposition.

But is there a hint of the Congress and the AIADMK working together? Many cues have been dropped on and off by leaders of both parties. More recently, a former minister and Madurai district general secretary Sellur K Raja praised Rahul Gandhi for being the most ‘grounded’ politician and expressed an interest to meet him. However, he had to quickly delete his tweet on X after several leaders from the DMK and ADMK asked him to qualify his comments. Analysts watching this space do not rule out this alliance.

“There is a strong possibility of the Congress’ revival if it picks the right partner. The Congress and the AIADMK could jointly benefit from the anti-incumbency wave. Moreover, the Congress in Tamil Nadu has never adopted a hardline stance against the majority. So, AIADMK is the more natural ally here.” Selvaperunthagai, the Congress boss in TN says the “high command’’ will decide on who to go with and that capturing the imagination of the people is more important. By his admission, a number of partymen at the local panchayat levels have been joining the Congress from the AIADMK.

Other political commentators such as Mani said the Congress will decide on whether or not to truck with one of the Dravidian parties depending on how the BJP does in the intervening period before the state election.

“While I do not see a possibility of the Congress jettisoning the DMK immediately, it will augur well for the latter to make a calculated electoral move closer to the election. The Congress would require a partner as much as the partner would need it - an equal relationship, that is.”

Currently, the Congress is only a contributory partner in the DMK alliance. In the current general election, the Congress contested just nine of the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu whereas the DMK contested 24 seats with the CPI and CPM contesting two each and the remaining split between the IUML and the VCK.

Deepika Amirapu is a freelance journalist based in Hyderabad. Each week, Southern Lights examines the big story from one of the five states of South India.

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