THE ART OF SURVIVAL

Shamed by scams, a discredited DMK is pushing the dynastic threshold even as the autumn of the patriarch enjoys the greedy dynamics of power
PC Vinoj Kumar Chennai

Unperturbed by the 'Delhi Money for Karunanidhi' jokes doing the rounds all over the country taking a dig at the 2G scam tainted DMK, the mood at Anna Arivalayam, the DMK headquarters in Chennai, is upbeat. DMK cadres believe party patriarch Muthuvel Karunanidhi will lead the DMK-Congress alliance to victory in the April 13 assembly polls and become chief minister for the sixth time. Such is the confidence that Karunanidhi commands from his followers despite the snowballing 2G scam crisis that has landed A Raja in Tihar jail, and brought the DMK chief's daughter Kanimozhi and wife Dayalu Ammal under the scanner.

Notwithstanding its bravado, realities seem harsher for DMK, with the party losing its clout with Congress, the CBI breathing down the neck of Karunanidhi's family, and senior DMK leaders, including Karunanidhi, party general secretary K Anbazhagan, and Deputy Chief Minister MK Stalin, abandoning their seats to contest from 'safe' constituencies in a clear sign of nervousness over the possible 2G scam backlash. 

Karunanidhi has chosen to contest from his native town of Tiruvarur, which is now a general constituency after years of being a reserved seat. His hometown is elated and waiting to show its loyalty to the son of the soil, who had participated in an anti-Hindi agitation in the area even as a 14-year-old. The shrewd politician that he is, Karunanidhi has ensured that he would become a MLA for the 12th time and maintain the record of not losing an election since 1957, when he had contested for the first time from Kulithalai.

This shrewd move is an example of his survival skills. At 86, he is ready to take a shot at another stint of power, keeping at bay his two ambitious sons, MK Stalin and MK Alagiri, who are now happy that their father is in the chief minister's chair instead of one of them.

It is to Karunanidhi's credit that he has safeguarded his position in spite of the declining strength of the party over the years since he took over its reins after the demise of party founder CN Annadurai in 1967. DMK suffered a major split in 1972 when popular actor MG Ramachandran (MGR) broke away from the party and founded the AIADMK. MGR won three consecutive assembly polls and remained chief minister from 1977 to 1987. In 1993, DMK suffered another split when Vaiko left the party to form the MDMK. Since then, though DMK returned to power twice and completed two full terms (1996-2001 and 2006-11), the once progressive party is well past its prime, and plagued by charges of family domination, dynasty politics, unabashed greed, wealth accumulation and unprecedented corruption.

The 2G scam has hurt DMK politically more than any other crisis it has faced in recent years. The Supreme Court monitored investigation into the scam brought the CBI right onto the doorsteps of the DMK headquarters, where the Karunanidhi family owned Kalaignar TV office is located. The CBI is probing the transfer of Rs 214 crore to Kalaignar TV in 2009 from a company linked to Swan Telecom's Shahid Balwa, one of the accused in the 2G spectrum allocation case. The CBI suspects the money may be part of the kickback for the favour shown to Balwa's Swan Telecom, allegedly one of the biggest beneficiaries in the spectrum allocation. 

Dayalu, Karunanidhi's second wife, holds 60 per cent shares in the family TV channel, while Kanimozhi, born to Karunanidhi's third wife, Rajathi Ammal, owns 20 per cent shares. Managing Director Sharad Kumar, who holds another 20 per cent stake, was also questioned. The channel has claimed that the money in question was taken as an advance for allotment of its shares, but returned to the party with interest after the deal fell apart.

The CBI is investigating the case under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court. Whether DMK admits it or not, the 2G scam hangs like a Damocles' sword over its head. Speculations are rife that the CBI may include the names of Kanimozhi, Dayalu and Sharad in the chargesheet.

For Karunanidhi, A battle-scarred politician, the coming polls will be crucial not just for him but also for many of his family members, whose futures are interlinked with the party's prospects. While three of his children -  Stalin, central minister Alagiri and Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi - one grand nephew, Union minister Dayanidhi Maran,  and one granddaughter, DMK women's wing propaganda secretary, Kayalvizhi, are directly in politics, many others are in positions where they benefit from their proximity to power. Many in the family have stakes in the film industry. Karunanidhi's grandsons MK Udayanidhi and Durai Dayanidhi run production houses. 

The Maran family dominates cable network and television with their Sun Network. Both Kalaignar and Sun TV bag the TV rights of many successful films, leaving other rivals high and dry. The Marans are also into film production with their Sun Pictures, which has produced some successful movies, including the recent Rajnikanth blockbuster, Robot.  

While Karunanidhi's family wants to hang on to power at all cost, DMK lost much of its bargaining power with Congress, as the 2G scam took alarming proportions. Raja's arrest and the subsequent revelation of Balwa's links to Kalaignar TV, gave the Congress an opportunity to arm-twist DMK and get more seats than the latter was prepared to give. The seat-sharing talks between the two parties were held under the shadow of CBI investigations that first targeted Raja, then shifted to Kalaignar TV, and by extension, to Karunanidhi's family. 

Days before Kanimozhi and Dayalu were questioned by the CBI, media reports citing CBI sources hinted at impending interrogation of Karunanidhi's family members. Finally, the CBI questioned Kanimozhi and Dayalu at Anna Arivalayam on March 11, even as the Congress team, which included Home Minister P Chidambaram, was conducting seat-sharing talks with the DMK in the same premises.  

However, none in DMK would publicly admit that Congress used the 2G card to extract more seats from it. When asked if Congress was using the CBI against political parties, Kanimozhi retorted, "Do you want me to toe the BJP line?"

For the first time in recent history, Congress called the shots in its dealings with DMK. The party did not even blink when DMK threatened to pull out its ministers from the Union cabinet over the seat-sharing issue. DMK's pull-out drama unfolded around the time when media reports indicated that the CBI might question Kanimozhi in connection with the 2G scam. DMK, however, attributed its decision to resign from the ministry to the Congress' revised demand of 63 seats, after reportedly agreeing for 60. Congress was in no hurry to placate DMK, and a couple of days passed before the ice was broken, talks initiated, and the issue settled.

The DMK threat lost even the little sting it had after Congress was assured of support from Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party, which has 22 MPs - four more than DMK's 18 MPs. In the end, Congress got the 63 seats it demanded, with the DMK conceding one seat from its quota and two other allies giving up one each. 

Unlike in the past, when Congress president Sonia Gandhi would directly be in touch with Karunanidhi whenever there was a crisis in the alliance, this time no such efforts were made. Senior leaders from both sides - Pranab Mukherjee, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ahmed Patel from Congress, and Alagiri and Dayanidhi from DMK - handled the talks. Only in the final stages could Alagiri and Dayanidhi get an appointment with Sonia.  

DMK will now be contesting from 119 seats (in addition to three allies who would be contesting five seats on the DMK symbol), 13 less than the seats it contested in the 2006 elections. To get absolute majority, DMK has to win 118 seats, which is unlikely even in the best case scenario. The party is banking on electoral arithmetic - it has the Congress, PMK, VCK, IUML, and Kongu Nadu Munnetra Kazhagam, besides some small parties in its alliance - and its successful populist schemes, such as the one rupee per kg rice, Kalaignar health insurance for poor families, free housing and the '108' free ambulance service, will be used to offset the anticipated 2G scam backlash in urban constituencies.

The last time DMK contested in a lesser number of seats was in 1980. In that election, Congress and DMK contested in almost equal number of seats - DMK in 112, Congress in 114 - with the understanding that the party that wins more seats would get the chief ministership. The experiment turned out a disaster and the alliance was routed partly because of the reluctance of eiother party to let the other win more seats, and partly because of the massive popularity of MGR, who returned to power with a comfortable majority.  

Congress has never won a state election since the time it lost power to DMK in 1967. Since then, it has been content riding piggyback on one of the Dravidian parties. DMK dislodged Congress on the anti-Hindi plank, and riding a pro-Dravidian, pro-Tamil wave that was powered by spreading its ideals through books, cinema and theatre.

Karunanidhi propagated the party's rationalist messages as a film-script writer and participated in anti-Hindi agitations. Though DMK aligned with Congress (Indira Gandhi) in 1971, the relations soured and the DMK government was dismissed in 1976. The party bore the brunt of emergency excesses, with Stalin among the DMK leaders detained under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA).  

After years, the Tamil Nadu Congress leaders see a situation emerging where they can seek a share of the power pie. Though the DMK fell short of majority in the last elections, and survived with Congress support, it was not keen on a coalition. Sonia silenced the aspirations of local Congressmen and did not broach the topic of coalition with Karunanidhi. But this time around, many Congress leaders believe that in the event of a close contest, the DMK-led alliance may still win more seats than the opposition and be in a position to form the government.

The opposition AIADMK alliance is counting on a 2G backlash and its own populist manifesto to defeat DMK. Both DMK and AIADMK have matched each other in unleashing a flood of freebies. While Karunanidhi offered mixies or grinders to women, Jayalalithaa is offering both and more. As she said, "DMK has promised mixie or grinder, but I will give you both, plus an electric fan." Both parties have also offered laptops and other doles targeting different segments of voters.
  
AIADMK is contesting from 160 seats. Rest of the seats are shared by Vijaykanth's DMDK (41), CPI (10), CPM (12) and others (11). AIADMK suffered a setback after MDMK decided to boycott polls. MDMK was peeved that it was not given the number of seats it had demanded. Though weakened by the desertion of many of its leaders who went back to DMK, MDMK is still believed to have a support base of not less than 2.5 per cent vote share. These votes are now likely to shift to DMK.

While both DMK and Congress leaders maintain in public that their alliance will win the polls and do not mention anything about coalition, in private they admit that a coalition government is a strong possibility if their alliance scrapes to victory. "Karunanidhi will not be in a position to deny our demand this time," a Congress leader told this reporter, echoing the sentiments of many Congressmen. A top DMK leader said the DMK would definitely consider it, but added that Congress was too faction-ridden to put up a united demand for coalition. DMK is capable of creating a split in Congress if it wants, or form a government with the support of other parties - minus the Congress. Some may even be poached from the opposition alliance.

However, for Karunanidhi, who rose to great political heights from a humble beginning in the 1930s as a progressive cadre of Periyar's liberating social movement, only descent, decline and a certain degeneration stares at his discredited face. He has to make up his mind to sit in the opposition or head a fledgling, fragmented and fragile coalition government.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2011