Factionalism has always been a problem for Congress’ Tamil Nadu unit and after Kamaraj, the party has not had a single charismatic state leader in decades.
For the Congress, Tamil Nadu was one state where the going looked good-until a month ago. Multiple opinion polls predicted a sweep for the grand old party and its ally the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), with several polls suggesting that they would win all the 39 seats. The 40 seats (one in Puducherry) were to form the biggest chunk of seats in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) tally in virtually every national survey of late.
That seems set to change. Over the last month the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has methodically gone about creating a formidable alliance against the UPA in Tamil Nadu. Together with the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) of Ramadoss, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) of actor Vijayakanth, the Tamil Manila Congress (TMC) of GK Vasan and a few smaller parties (PT,PNK) the BJP has created what on paper looks like a force capable of taking on the Congress-DMK-CPI-CPM-MDMK-IUML-KMDK-VCK-IJK alliance.
The Congress has managed to grab 10 Parliament seats for itself to contest, a number that many feel is more than a good deal for the party considering that it has only around 5% or so vote share in the state. In the 2016 assembly elections, the Congress grabbed 41 seats from the DMK and ended up winning just eight, thus effectively putting paid to the DMK's chances of forming the government. At that time it was speculated that the DMK erred in giving away too many seats to the Congress and that the vote transfer from the DMK did not happen as it should have to the Congress candidates. This time too there is such talk but since this is the parliamentary election the murmurs are milder and the vote transfer is also expected to be smoother.
The Congress was once the ruling party and a powerful force in Tamil Nadu but ever since it lost power to the DMK in 1967 it has mostly ended up playing second fiddle to one of the two Dravidian parties in return for seats and support in Parliament. Twenty years ago the Congress vote share was close to 15% and the dictum was that the Dravidian party that allied with the Congress won the elections. However, since then the vote share of the Congress has dwindled further to reach the 5% mark where it stands today. The party missed a big chance to stake claim to a share of power in the state when it supported the minority DMK government from outside between 2006 and 2011 ensuring its survival in return for the DMK’s support at the Centre. With a bit of a push the Congress could have been part of the government then.
Factionalism has always been a problem for Congress’ state unit and its headquarters at Sathyamurthy Bhavan in Chennai mostly grabbed headlines for the physical fights between factions that regularly took place there. After Kamaraj, the party has not had a single charismatic state leader in decades. Even GK Moopanar, the last of the big names for the Congress from Tamil Nadu, was not a mass leader but more of a tactician and backroom person.
Since then there have been a series of state party chiefs, each more colourless than the other who have led the party into virtual oblivion. The present state chief KS Alagiri is a loyalist and senior leader without a mass base, chosen more as a holding operation after the previous President Thirunavukkarasar (who had previous stints in the AIADMK and the BJP) was considered to be largely ineffective. The only leader in recent times who looked like he could rebuild the Congress in Tamil Nadu was the mercurial EVKS Elangovan who took on all comers with his abrasive style. However, too often he crossed the line of political decorum and had to be replaced when his manner of functioning was starting to put off potential allies.
After the demise of former chief ministers M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa it was widely expected that the Congress would utilise the opportunity to rebuild the party and try to garner votes of those disenchanted with the two Dravidian majors. The party still attracts voters in several pockets of the state, including the southern districts of Kanyakumari, the Cauvery Delta region and certain pockets in western Tamil Nadu. However, the lack of a charismatic young leader to take the party forward has meant that the leadership has again settled for the safe option of tying up with the DMK and riding piggy back for a few seats.
Despite the alliance that the BJP has forged, the DMK-Congress combine is still expected to do well in the elections and garner a sizable number of seats. Though the sweep that was expected may not materialise, the Congress may still gain enough from Tamil Nadu to build for the future. The question is does it have the hunger to do so?
Sumanth Raman is a Chennai-based television anchor and political analyst. Views are personal.For more Opinion pieces, click here.