Tamil Nadu: Autumn of the patriarch

While all eyes are on Jammu and Kashmir, another state with a long history of sub-national sentiment has been away from the public eye. But Tamil Nadu is a pillar in the structure that props up the Manmohan Singh government. The alliance made a clean sweep of all 40 Lok Sabha seats in the state and in neighbouring Puducheri (formerly Pondicherry).

Two years later, M Karunanidhi's own party led the alliance to victory. Even though the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK fell short of the half way mark in the 230 member Legislative Assembly), he was back in power leading a one party ministry. The Congress, the Left parties and the Patali Makal Kakshi (PMK) -- all extended support from outside.

Since then, relations between the partners have soured. This comes as no surprise. Tamil Nadu has no tradition of a coalition government or power sharing. Since 1971, the usual formula has been that of the dominance of a regional party at the state level, with its ally lording it over New Delhi.

This cosy set of arrangements came undone in 1996. The bulk of the state unit of the Congress walked out in protest at the continuing alliance with J Jayalalithaa.

Since then, the DMK has managed to be in all but one government at the Centre, even changing horses (and the rationale for the horse of the moment) from one election to another. Thus in 1996, it was in the Third Front, and in the next two polls with the BJP. In 2004, it rediscovered common ground with Sonia Gandhi's Congress.

This alliance had held firm so far. What are under strain are the DMK's relations with the Left parties. For a couple of weeks, Chief Minister Karunanidhi insisted that the alliance in the state would remain intact even if the tie-up with the Left in New Delhi was a thing of the past.

Even prior to this, there have been serious strains with Dr Ramadoss' party, the PMK. On a scale less ambitious than Mamata Banerjee's stir in West Bengal, the latter has blocked key infrastructure and industrial projects on grounds of mass displacement. This holds true for Chennai airport expansion and for a new satellite township near the capital.

It now appears that the state is set for a concord of Jayalalithaa with the Left and the PMK. Such an alliance would work even better if it were to enlist Dalit support. The two small Dalit-led parties in the state and the Bahujan Samaj Party between them poll five per cent of the popular vote. This is just about equal to that of the BJP in the state.

This is far from certain. After all, it was the former cine star who gave the Hindutva party its first entry card into the southern state, with her pre-poll alliance 10 years ago. Even now, her strident stance in defence of the Ram Sethu has won her admirers in her old partner's camp. Yet, there are stirrings of change and a newer alliance may work far better.

Over the last two years, the congruence of interests of the party in power in Fort St George and New Delhi has worked well for Karunanidhi. It may not have worked quite so well for the state's citizens. His absolute power in the ruling party has been accompanied by anxieties about a leadership transition once the patriarch passes on.

As his sons prepare to war with each other, their oldest adversary prepares for a return to centre-stage. This time, even more so than in the past, the road to New Delhi may well lie through Chennai. If she plays her cards right, the lady may be the person to watch in 2009.