Allies hold key to southern comfort
Though slightly nervous about a probable backlash against its chief M Karunandhi’s disparaging remarks against Ram, the DMK appears to be better placed for Lok Sabha elections than any other combination in the state.
Karunanidhi’s description of Ram as a “drunkard” so unnerved his partymen that they grabbed Ramvilas Vedanti’s “fatwa” against Karunanidhi to launch protests in an attempt to douse any negative impact of their leader’s misplaced comments.
Though initially peeved with the Congress, first for withdrawing the affidavit before the Supreme Court and giving him little support in his battle against Ram, Karunandhi was still able to keep his flock of allies united and committed to the October 1 bandh on the Setu project. Karunanidhi knows well that only the arithmetic superiority of an alliance will give him an edge over rival AIADMK if and when Lok Sabha elections come.
In 2004, his formidable front consisting of the Congress, PMK and Left bulldozed the AIADMK-BJP combine, winning all 40 seats in TN and Pondicherry. The front also benefited by a massive anti-incumbency wave against Jayalalithaa’s unpopular decisions, which she rolled back after the rout.
Though Karunanidhi has kept many of his election promises, his government hasn’t done very well. Rising prices, inefficiency and corruption in the administration (messing up garbage collection in Chennai is one instance) and local party leaders and his family members acting as extra-constitutional powers have eroded any goodwill he could have generated by implementing populist measures like cheap rice, free CTVs and writing off co-op loans.
The minority nature of his government and dependence on allies was also constantly rubbed in by PMK leader Dr S Ramdoss, who opposed virtually every announcement Karunanidhi made, forcing the chief minister to either roll back or dilute key decisions. There was a time when Karunanidhi spent more time and energy countering Ramdoss than Jayalalithaa. Only now have the two allies entered into a testy truce.
Fortunately for the DMK, Jayalalithaa is in no position to exploit these shortcomings due to the arrival of actor Vijayakanth and his DMDK as a rising force. In two byelections, Vijaykanth demonstrated his growing clout by increasing his party’s vote share which ate into the AIADMK’s traditional anti-DMK vote bank. The AIADMK’s woes have been further compounded by Jayalalithaa’s inaccessibility to party leaders and confusion on which way to go nationally with the BJP or third front.
Only now after the Ram Setu issue boiled up did Jayalalithaa choose to take on the DMK squarely, beyond issuing statements or announcing token protests. The way her party derailed the DMK sponsored October 1 bandh on the SSCP, first by approaching the high court and then Supreme Court, proves Jayalalithaa can be an effective counter to the DMK. If only she can add political momentum on this issue and rope in both the DMDK and BJP, the DMK will be presented with a serious electoral challenge.
Though Hindutva has never been a factor in the state, the DMK veteran’s constant anti-Hindu tirade could be turned around into a negative vote if Jayalalithaa and Vijayakanth make a united attempt in the BJP’s company.
Karunanidhi hopes that by targeting both Vijayakanth and Jayalalithaa, he can continue to keep them apart and split the anti-DMK votes. He has trained his guns on both, hoping they will outrace each other for the number two slot rather that unite to confront him.
Another key factor could be Karunanidhi’s health and doubts about his capacity to campaign as intensively as in the past. There have been reports about lapses of memory on the 85-year-old’s part and even his utterances on Ram are cited as an example of lack of clarity.