For 20 long years the Congress has been waiting. And today when the opportunity is knocking at its door, it does not know what to do.
Three years ago when M.G. Ramachandran returned from New York after his surgery, the Congress made a proposal: let AIADMK share power with the Congress. ‘But MGR would not listen. Today the Congress is in a position to call the shots: it can form the government by joining hands with Veerappan or Jayalalitha. But it is afraid – one wrong step and the situation could be worse than in Punjab.
The last phase of the MGR era saw the emergence of the two warring factions, one headed by Jayalalitha and the other led by R.M. Veerappan. The split is complete now, with one group leaning towards the Congress and the other gravitating towards the DMK.
MGR had tried to snuff out the groups, but when he found his attempt failing he played one group against the other and thus retained his hold over the party. Now with MGR gone, the party is amenable to outside pressures, especially from the Congress.
The Congress had fought the 1984 elections both to the Lok Sabha and to the Tamil Nadu assembly in alliance with the AIADMK. As a result the party could get a foothold in the state for the first time after the rout of 1967. It won 25 Lok Sabha seats and 62 assembly seats.
It was then only natural that the party began to entertain visions of staging a return to power in the state. Moreover, the party was desperate in the south, after losing Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
As luck would have it, MGR’s serious illness around that time and the power struggle between Veerappan and Jayalalitha provided an excellent opportunity for the party to make its first moves. One should view Governor S.L. Khurana’s initial hesitation to accept the reelection of MGR as legislative party leader in this light. Apparently, there was a move to block MGR’s return and install V.R. Nedunchezhiyan as the stop-gap chief minister. The calculation was that Nedunchezhian’s accession (he has little base in the party) would cause a revolt by the major group leading to a split in the party.
But Veerappan was quick to sense danger and he threw cold water on the Congress plans with a statement: “MGR went to America as chief minister. In between there might have been the elections to the assembly. Still that makes no difference to MGR’s status. He will return to Tamil Nadu only as chief minister.”
Then began a campaign that MGR was in no position to lead the government. Suggestions were put out that MGR should step down at least temporarily so that a senior colleague could run the government until he recovered completely. But MGR countered this with a masterstroke. He dropped all his ministers and for more than a week functioned as a one-man cabinet. When the constitutional incongruity was explained to him, he took back all his ministers. The Congress which entertained hopes of getting into the cabinet was stumped.
Soon Governor Khurana began to complain that MGR was not keeping him informed about important developments in the state. His correspondence in this regard mysteriously found its way to the press, much to the embarrassment of MGR.
Simultaneously, the Congress assumed the role of a critic of the ruling party, even while continuing the alliance with it. The performance of the MGR ministry came to be scrutinised critically by the Centre. Again suggestions were floated that MGR was not completely fit and that his recovery was doubtful.
This was followed by subtle suggestions that the AIADMK and the Congress(I) could enter into a coalition with MGR continuing as chief minister and a Congressman being given deputy chief ministership. Other suggestions were: a straightforward merger of the two parties; inducting Jayalalitha into the cabinet as the number two person; making Panruti S. Ramachandran the deputy chief minister, and so on. All were put forward as intended to ease the burden on MGR, but MGR saw through all of them.
Of course it did not need much wisdom to understand the Congress designs, for some of the suggestions looked incredibly naive and blasphemous. Like the one to merge the two parties and the one that MGR could settle in Europe, leaving the government in the hands of the Congress and the AIADMK. Rajiv Gandhi himself is reported to have suggested to MGR in New York that he take it easy and make way for a nominee of his.
Initially, MGR tried to reason with the Congressmen. He told them that most of his colleagues and party workers were anti-Congress and they would not like a coalition. But when the nagging continued, he threatened them with a mid-term poll, knowing full well that a poll was the last thing that the Congress wanted. It was not sure of getting even the 62 seats, especially with the AIADMK cadre not cooperating with it.
MGR was too clever for the Congressmen. When he heard of the mischief that Congressmen were getting into, he hurriedly returned from New York. And to snub the Congressmen, he reinducted Veerappan, who has the least sympathy for the Congress, into the cabinet. Veerappan had been out in the cold for some time following his attempts to cut down the Jayalalitha group.
The developments in Sri Lanka also foiled the Congress plans. Suddenly it realized that it needed MGR more than anybody else in Tamil Nadu to keep the public sentiments in check. Congressmen stopped acting smart and stayed put as they knew that a coup attempt now or an attempt to split the AIADMK would inflame passions in the state against the Centre.
Then came MGR’s death and all the groups that were waiting in the wings came out openly. The Congress knows this is the time to hit. But it lacks a strategy. It does not care two hoots for the survival of AIADMK as a party. Nor is if afraid of any of the AIADMK leaders. But it is afraid of another thing: the highly inflammable passions of the Tamilian.