Politics debased in Tamil Nadu

Posted in Asia , India | 05-May-09 | Author: Santwana Bhattacharya| Source: Asia Times

M. Karunanidhi, chief minister of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, lies in a bed during an indefinite fast in the southern Indian city of Chennai April 27, 2009.

NEW DELHI - If the British are alleged to have a taste for understatement, the Tamils are frequently accorded the quality of being a bit partial towards melodrama. But even the most dramatic imagination could not have foreseen how two parallel events - which rightfully should have unfolded independently, according to their internal logic - got so completely dovetailed, like two threads going into one weave.

The military endgame in Sri Lanka - which is by far the more momentous event - has curiously coincided with the elections in India so perfectly that they just had to influence each other. This much was perhaps a given. What is interesting is the precise ways in which it happened, and the unforeseen effects it had on both sides.

Numbers do have strange ways of determining the course of events. Not the way believers in astrology (and there are quite a few of them in Indian politics) would have it, but in the way they sometimes assume a life of their own. In this instance, the numbers game starts from 39 and goes on to clusters that range from a minimum of 1,50,000 and a maximum of 3,00,000-plus.

To make sense of this, one has to see both sides of the Palk Strait, which divides the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu from Tamil-dominated northern Sri Lanka, as a sort of ethno-political continuum. The images of mass suffering and displacement in Sri Lanka have caught the attention of the whole world, so it is only natural that they would have a more profound effect on Tamil Nadu itself.

In a nutshell, the situation is this. The election results due this month in Tamil Nadu could determine which alliance rules New Delhi. Therefore, the Sri Lanka crisis is playing out much bigger there than it would have "normally". Every party has hardened its position to varying degrees in response to the heightened humanitarian crisis - almost feeding off the tragedy to give themselves a more aggrandized halo. The local grandstanding reached such a feverish momentum that it seemed to even influence the course of events on the warfront.

In what many see as a cynical exploitation of a very human crisis, politics in Tamil Nadu in the past fortnight turned into a competition over which party wins the bleeding heart honors. One thing led to another. In a TV interview, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the octogenarian chief minister of Tamil Nadu and chief of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), made the jaw-dropping declaration that Prabhakaran, the controversial leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was "a good friend" and not really a terrorist.

This bit of extreme posturing came as a bid to salvage his own image vis-a-vis the Sri Lankan Tamil crisis: he had been accused of abandoning the cause for political expediency. The Congress, with which the DMK is an alliance partner in New Delhi, got him to partially recant. But by then, Karunanidhi had already set the ball rolling.

His arch-rival, the imperious J Jayalalitha of the All India Anna DMK, until then a virulent critic of the LTTE, lit into Congress chief Sonia Gandhi over Karunanidhi's statement, saying "Let Rajiv Gandhi's widow take a stand on it."

Then, within the week, Jayalalitha made one of the most stunning political turnarounds seen in recent years, declaring in an election rally that the Tamil homeland concept of "Eelam" was the "only solution" to the decades-old bloodletting in the island nation. This was around the time television was filled with footage of thousands of impoverished Lankan Tamil men, women and children trudging through waters to get to army-run camps outside the battlezone.

Though probably intended as a public relations campaign by the Mahinda Rajapakse government, to prove that it was actually freeing civilians from the clutches of the LTTE, it had the opposite impact on the Indian Tamil psyche. Already, the numerous unofficial reports from international aid agencies and social activists about the scale of suffering had created a mass sympathy.

The predicament of the Lankan Tamil refugees from the warzone understandably has the ordinary Indian Tamil seething in helpless rage. They are seen to be caught between the LTTE's ruthlessness and willingness to use them as human shields on one side, and the Rajapakse government's callous disregard for collateral damage on the other.

The exact nature of the relief camps too has been disputed. And not just by pro-LTTE websites - even such unattached observers like Indian spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravishankar, of Art of Living fame, came back from a visit to one of the relief camps with horrific accounts of the subhuman living conditions. Taken along with severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, the common talk in Tamil Nadu was that these were no better than concentration camps.

Unable to do anything more than chest-beating in this grave moment in history, the Indian Tamils seemed ready to turn their wrath against the local political establishment for doing precious little to rescue their brethren - not even offering them refuge in India. It's in this context, reading this mood, that Jayalalitha made her dramatic demand for Eelam.

The thunderous applause she generated goaded the ailing Karunanidhi into another salvo: this time, more feint than thrust. He went into a hunger strike under a pandal bang - a Hindu religious platform - on Marina beach, demanding a cessation of hostilities. Luckily, within hours Colombo announced a temporary "ceasefire" where heavy artillery would be avoided, making it seem like a victory for the old man.

All this upping of pressure in Tamil Nadu had shaken New Delhi out of its stupor: two senior officials had visited Colombo just prior to this and probably helped steer the movement towards that ceasefire. Though not everybody in the international community accepts that it is really a ceasefire, it was certainly good for public consumption. It also offered a face-saver to the DMK-Congress combine in the Tamil Nadu elections.

Why this election matters is the other part of the story.

On May 13, Tamil Nadu will choose 39 men/women who would represent the state and its concerns in the national parliament at New Delhi. In a 543-strong Lower House, the import of 39 seats may not be very obvious. Suffice it to say that it has the potential of swinging someone into the seat of power in Delhi, and consequently keeping someone else out of it. That is how it has been for more than two decades.

The last time the Congress party lorded it over New Delhi as a single-party government, its prime minister, P V Narasimha Rao, had to finally bow out of power in 1996 simply because he did not choose the right ally in Tamil Nadu. The United Front (UF), a federalist coalition of small and regional parties, took power for two years, inaugurating for all practical purposes the current salad model of government.

The Congress itself had split in 1996 in Tamil Nadu due to the negative vibes generated by a pre-poll dalliance with Jayalalitha's AIADMK. The splinter group, in fact, went on to be a key part of the UF coalition government, just about missing the prime minister's post. And the original Congress, reduced to a rump, took a decade to recover.

Even the current Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, could only cross over from the opposition to the treasury benches in 2004 because she put together a winning coalition in Tamil Nadu. She joined up with Karunanidhi's DMK, which smoothly switched camps from the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance.

The DMK-Congress combine, along with two other smaller parties and the Left, cornered all of the 39 seats in the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of parliament in New Delhi, leaving nothing for the AIADMK. If the pendulum swings right back this time, there will be a government to lose.

In the wafer-thin margins that decide government formation in Delhi, 39 seats make a lot of difference. It goes beyond simple math. Whomever gets the lion's share gets to play a more dynamic role: kingmaker, if not king (or the queen, as the case may be).

Talk of electoral gains and losses in the time of monumental tragedy is necessarily a debasing of politics. A new regime in New Delhi will not bring closure to the Lankan Tamil issue, unless the Rajapakse government can be persuaded to stay away from the temptations of Sinhala chauvinism.

Analysts argue, and rightly, that unless the rights of the Lankan Tamils are addressed squarely and honestly, even the demise of the LTTE phenomenon or the "taking out" of the Prabhakaran factor may not end the bloodletting.

Santwana Bhattacharya is a New Delhi-based journalist who writes on politics, parliament and elections. She is currently working on a book on electoral reforms and the emergence of regional parties in India.