The Story Behind the Alliance That Karunanidhi Regretted

An extract from 'Karunanidhi: A Life in Politics'.

The following excerpt is drawn from Karunanidhi: A Life in Politics, a biography of the leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), by journalist Sandhya Ravishankar, published in 2018. The excerpt is reproduced with permission.

In 1992, as the hurricane of the Babri Masjid demolition was gathering pace, the DMK began conducting protests and public meetings condemning the intent of the kar sevaks. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa lent her support to the building of the Ram temple. On 5 December 1992, Karunanidhi wrote in his party organ Murasoli:

What does Kar Seva mean?
Service to God? Or
The service of sowing the seeds of unrest?
And a maiden here to lend a hand to this deed?
(Lord) Raman was born in the Treta Yuga
Dvapara Yuga arrived; and has been crossed,
When one says this is Kali Yuga
It means 20 lakh years have gone by!
So many lakhs of years ago
Wonder who has seen the birthplace of Raman? Who has written it?
Now by insisting that this is the exact place
Where is the justice in demolishing Islamic history?
In Ayodhya town a temple for Raman
Without reservation, to be built
We all agree; but to do that
If you say we will demolish Babri Masjid, we will not agree!

The next day, though, kar sevaks entered and demolished the Babri Masjid. ‘For not taking steps to prevent such a dastardly deed, the Centre will have to take full responsibility for what is going to happen,’ wrote Karunanidhi in a statement. As he had predicted, the country went up in communal flames.

Shortly thereafter, in 1995, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa dug her own political grave in the form of the ostentatious wedding for her foster son, V.N. Sudhakaran, who was also her close friend and confidante Sasikala Natarajan’s nephew. In 1996, the people of Tamil Nadu brought her down and Karunanidhi was back in business. There would be no further dismissals of state governments of Tamil Nadu, which would alternately complete their full terms under the DMK and the AIADMK.

Not so with the Centre. In 1996, Jayalalithaa, in Opposition in the state, continued with the Congress. By 1996, the DMK had decided to move out of V.P. Singh’s National Front alliance, stating that they were upset about the Front’s attempts to bring the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK in. The DMK contested the 1996 parliamentary polls with the CPI and a breakaway faction of the Tamil Nadu Congress led by G.K. Moopanar, which was called the Tamil Maanila Congress.

Regional parties hold sway

Karunanidhi: A Life in Politics Sandhya Ravishankar Harper Collins, 2018

Karunanidhi: A Life in Politics
Sandhya Ravishankar
Harper Collins, 2018

A hung Parliament meant a dire need for support from regional parties like the DMK. After being sworn in as chief minister on 13 May 1996, the very next day, Karunanidhi flew to Delhi following insistent and urgent summons from the Telugu Desam Party chief and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu and other leaders. A meeting was called at the Tamil Nadu House and attended by West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, CPM General Secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, CPI General Secretary Indrajit Gupta, Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, former Union minister Madhavrao Scindia, TMC leader Moopanar, Chandrababu Naidu, P. Chidambaram, Karnataka Chief Minister H.D. Deve Gowda and others.

Following this, the team visited the home of V.P. Singh, leader of the National Front, and offered their support to him if he were to become prime minister. Singh declined. The group trooped back to Tamil Nadu House and discussions continued. H.D. Deve Gowda was finally decided upon as the prime ministerial candidate. This motley group of regional parties, the first non- Congress, non-BJP alliance, was called the United Front.

President Shankar Dayal Sharma invited the BJP’s leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to form the government and prove his majority in the House, since theirs was the coalition with the largest number of votes. On 27 May 1996, the BJP front faced a confidence vote in Parliament. While speaking at the debate in the House, the DMK’s Murasoli Maran said:

Respected Speaker, I am very sorrowful that I am forced to speak against the motion brought in today by Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee. I do not have less affection for him. But I have more affection for my people, my language, my culture, brothers and sisters and my society. If the Honourable President had first made enquiries about the support for Mr Vajpayee before swearing him in as Prime Minister, the situation would have been different. Unfortunately, that has not happened. We have immense respect and regard for Mr Vajpayee. As our leader Kalaignar has said, he is a great man. But he is in the wrong party. He is a lofty parliamentarian. He has very special qualities, which make him apt to be a prime minister. But the ideology that has brought him forward is something that we need to be forewarned about. This is why we are opposing the confidence motion.

Maran suggested that Vajpayee himself resign rather than face the vote. Before the voting could take place, Vajpayee did just that. He resigned after thirteen days as prime minister on 28 May 1996. That same night, Deve Gowda met President Sharma and staked claim to form the government. Narasimha Rao of the Congress informed the president that they would support the United Front government at the vote. On 1 June 1996, Deve Gowda was sworn in as the twelfth Prime Minister of India. With him was sworn in the DMK’s Murasoli Maran as labour minister, T.G. Venkatraman as minister for surface transport (independent charge) and the TMC’s P. Chidambaram as finance minister.

It was the bonhomie between Chandrababu Naidu and Karunanidhi during this period that would help him ink a pact with Andhra Pradesh for the Telugu Ganga project and allocation of Krishna water for the parched northern Tamil Nadu, specifically Chennai.

Any delicate coalition is prone to bickering and the Congress, which provided outside support to the United Front, in April 1997 pulled the rug from under the feet of Deve Gowda. As polls were imminent, a compromise was quickly drawn up – the United Front would put up an alternative prime minister, since Deve Gowda and the Congress had faced friction. I.K. Gujral was chosen to lead the nation as the compromise candidate of the United Front government, with the Congress agreeing to continue outside support.

Within eight months, though, this government too fell, with Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav walking out of the United Front alliance. The Congress’s demand of dropping the DMK from the alliance on the basis of the Jain Commission’s interim report, which dealt with Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, was refused by the Gujral government. The interim report had stated that the DMK had links with the LTTE. The Congress once again withdrew support.

Successive hung parliaments

Polls beckoned yet again and the Parliament was hung. The BJP, with the AIADMK’s Jayalalithaa in tow, managed to come back to power, again in a coalition, and Vajpayee was made prime minister. The DMK remained with the United Front. The Vajpayee-led government lasted thirteen months. When Jayalalithaa’s demand that the DMK government in Tamil Nadu be sacked was not heeded by Vajpayee, she pulled the plug in 1999 and withdrew support of her eighteen MPs in Parliament. Vajpayee lost the confidence motion in Parliament by a single vote, thanks to the ‘No’ vote of Orissa Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang – whose right to vote in Parliament Vajpayee himself had batted for.

In September-October 1999, the country went to polls yet again. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was formed, with the DMK in alliance. On 13 October 1999, Vajpayee was sworn in as prime minister and the government finally completed the five-year term. The DMK landed three ministerial berths, with Murasoli Maran, T.R. Baalu and A. Raja joining the Vajpayee cabinet.

But the DMK and Karunanidhi later regretted the alliance. ‘He has told us many times that he should not have gone with the BJP, especially after the Godhra killings and riots,’ says Raja. ‘He told me once that they have converted Hindutva, which is a school of thought, into a religious anthem. But he had given his word that he would remain in the alliance for five years. It was a political promise and he said he had to keep it.’

The DMK lost its vote share in the future assembly polls, as the AIADMK under Jayalalithaa gained in strength. The future of Tamil Nadu’s governments too rested on alliances with caste-based parties that garnered and held on to small but significant vote shares.