The unpredictability of Tamil Nadu’s politics occupied the mind space of the Congress as it dissected the political vacuum left by J Jayalalithaa’s death; much of its worries centred on what the BJP could be planning.
The opinion in the Congress appears to be divided about how the void would impact the state’s politics and whether the Congress can recreate a space of itself. “Nature abhors a vacuum… despite that it is too early to make a political prediction,” a senior Congress said while underlining that for the Congress it is largely a “zero-sum game.”
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The Congress, out of power for nearly five decades in Tamil Nadu, has neither a charismatic leader nor the organisational network and strength to expand its political footprint. But leaders argue that despite Jayalalithaa’s attacks on Sonia Gandhi in the past, the Dravidian party is more Congress-friendly than the DMK with which the Congress has had now-on, now-off alliances in the last one-and-a-half decades. Such things would have been on Rahul Gandhi’s mind when he sought to bury the past by paying a visit to Apollo Hospital in October.
The Sonia-Jayalalithaa fallout happened in 1999. That March, the two had famously met over tea after which the AIADMK withdrew support to the A B Vajpayee government, pulling it down. Jayalalithaa, however, backed out of supporting a Congress government led by Sonia.
Jayalalithaa been heavily critical of Sonia since, even bringing up her foreign origins in 2002. The Congress had then even released copies of her signed letter of support to argue she misled the nation.
Congress leaders say Rahul was the first high-profile leader from Delhi to visit the hospital, which was received well by the AIADMK cadre and leaders. “He has earned a lot of goodwill among the AIADMK cadre with his visit… both the BJP president and the finance minister and many other political leaders visited after him while the prime minister never went to the hospital,” a Congress leader said.
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So what will unfold in Tamil Nadu politics now?
“It is a million-dollar question. It depends on whether the AIADMK will stay intact and the MLAs will show loyalty to the new leadership. It also depends on how (PM) Modi plays his politics. I don’t think Modi will allow anybody to hijack the AIADMK. There is a vacuum. And a question mark hangs on whether O Panneerselvam or Sasikala will be able to run the show as efficiently as Jayalalithaa did,” a senior leader said.
He said the BJP could try to exploit the situation. “In the last two days, we have BJP ministers everywhere… The BJP could try to recreate an Arunachal Pradesh-like situation,” he said. “Because the Supreme Court is yet to give its verdict on the Karnataka government’s appeal challenging acquittal of Jayalalithaa and Sasikala, the sword is still hanging over Sasikala’s head,” a leader said.
The Congress was divided on the Karnataka government’s decision to appeal in the Supreme Court. “Karnataka had nothing to do with the case. It had no authority to move the Supreme Court against her acquittal… but nobody listened,” a leader said.
The lack of a charismatic leader too is hurting the Congress. P Chidambaram is perhaps the lone Congress leader who is known across the state. But sources said he is not interested in state politics. An AICC office-bearer had pleaded with Chidambaram to take up the post of state Congress president after E V K S Elangovan resigned but he apparently showed no interest.