On Tuesday, Rahul Gandhi set a lot of tongues wagging in Tamil Nadu. His presence at the funeral of late chief minister J Jayalalithaa may have been a matter of courtesy and respect for a fellow politician, but what he did not do was of more significance.
The Gandhi scion did not visit Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief M Karunanidhi, who has been hospitalised since 1 December at the Kauvery Hospital in Chennai. The DMK and the Congress have been in an alliance since early 2016 when they joined hands to contest the state Assembly polls. Almost a month ago — on 8 October, Rahul had flown in to Chennai to visit Jayalalithaa when she was in hospital. He was not allowed to see her but doctors at the Apollo Hospital in Chennai briefed him about her health and the treatment being given to her. Then too, Rahul did not drop in on the DMK chief.
DMK leaders are seething with anger at the perceived insult. “Rahul Gandhi has never really liked the DMK or our leader,” said a senior DMK leader on condition of anonymity, “He made a phone call to Kanimozhi (Rajya Sabha MP and Karunanidhi’s daughter) and enquired about our leader’s health. But that is all for show. He was probably asked to do so by the local Congressmen.” No leader in the DMK, contacted by Firstpost, wished to comment on record on this issue.
Congress leaders though brush aside any allegations of politics behind Gandhi’s seeming faux pas. “He (Rahul) had a very tight schedule and did not have the time to meet the DMK leader,” said senior Congressman Peter Alphonse while speaking to reporters on Thursday.
Cosying Up To The AIADMK?
Not only did Gandhi send out a clear signal to ally DMK, he also made a show of cosying up to the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) at Jayalalithaa’s funeral. Rahul, former minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, state Congress President Thirunavukkarasu and M Natarajan were seated side by side in the front row of the state funeral. Natarajan is the once estranged husband of Sasikala, confidante of Jayalalithaa — he now appears to be back in the limelight following Jaya’s demise. Sasikala, her husband Natarajan and her entire family, including brother VN Divakaran, nephews TTV Dhinakaran, TTV Sudhakaran, TTV Bhaskaran as well as sister-in-law Ilavarasi and her son Vivek were all seen standing prominently around Jayalalithaa’s body, as if to claim appropriation of her political legacy.
The intrigue deepens as more information emerges about goings on prior to Jaya’s demise on 6 December. It is well-known that state Congress chief Thirunavukkarasu and Natarajan are thick friends and also hail from the same Thevar caste, a dominant OBC caste in the southern districts of the state. Thirunavukkarasu was firmly in the Jayalalithaa faction in 1987 when the ruling party split into two factions — one favouring late chief minister MG Ramachandran’s wife Janaki and the other rallying behind Jaya. In 1989, both factions merged and Jaya emerged as the supremo of the party.
Sources told Firstpost that a few days before Jaya’s demise, Congress’ Thirunavukkarasu and M Natarajan had a long meeting. At Jayalalithaa’s funeral subsequently, another strong signal was sent out in terms of the choice of seating of Congress leaders and Natarajan.
A senior AIADMK leader who did not wish to be named said that the party was going through a churn and no one really knew what was happening. “There are a lot of problems within now,” he said, “The cadre and many of us do not want the Mannargudi family at the helm of the party. A power struggle is going on and the Congress is trying to take advantage of this,” he said.
A few party workers to whom Firstpost spoke fumed at how Natarajan was treated by Rahul. “This man could not have come anywhere near our Amma when she was alive and now he is sitting near Rahul and acting as if he owns the party,” said these workers almost in unison, and asked, “Who is he to do all this?”
One theory behind Natarajan claiming access to the Congress high command is that caste ruptures are likely to erupt within the ruling party. Thevars, the caste to which Sasikala and Chief Minister O Panneerselvam belong, are seen as commanding more power within the party, while Gounders, a dominant caste in the western belt which the AIADMK swept this year, are now jostling for a share in power. In the power tussle between Thevars and Gounders, the AIADMK can afford to lose up to 25 MLAs out of the present 134, according to sources. In the event of a maximum of 25 unhappy MLAs walking out of the party, the AIADMK could hope to bank on the Congress’ nine MLAs to keep the government intact.
Another more credible theory is that the headless AIADMK is now being seen as easy pickings for national parties like the Congress and the BJP to make inroads into the southern state and act as a fresh alternative to the DMK.
“The BJP is upping the pressure on the AIADMK now,” said political analyst Aazhi Senthilnathan. “In order to counter this, the AIADMK may be trying to show closeness to Congress. There is a need for the party to show that they are not at the mercy of the BJP or any single party. Natarajan is a man who has contacts in all parties - the BJP, the Congress and even within the DMK. This could be a move to balance things between the BJP and the Congress — it could be a signal to the BJP that they should not push the party too much. The AIADMK will keep its options open as far as the Congress and BJP is concerned,” he said.
Notwithstanding the politicking with the two national parties, the AIADMK has enough problems of its own as it struggles to contain the emergence of a number of power centres who hitherto bowed in obeisance to Amma. Panneerselvam, Sasikala and the Mannargudi clan will face stressful days ahead in their fight for power with other leaders of the party. The party will have to hold its General Body meeting before 31 December in order to elect a new general secretary, a post thus far held first by MGR and later by Jayalalithaa. Who gets this plum post will determine which way the AIADMK will go in the near future.
The author tweets @sandhyaravishan
Updated Date: Dec 09, 2016 08:18:23 IST