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Will it be exile for Raja?
The former telecom minister and Karunanidhi confidant has put the DMK in a quandary. Should they hold on to him in the hope that the electorate has a short memory or sacrifice him for a cleaner image? It's a tough gamble.
The torrid summer of 2007, when politics in Tamil Nadu took an unexpected turn and chief minister and DMK president M Karunanidhi's grand nephew Dayanidhi Maran fell out of favour, it was A Raja who replaced him - in more ways than one. He took Maran's place as telecom minister in UPA-1 and became Karunanidhi's crutch, almost literally, often seen at his side - a solicitous confidant and among the most favoured by the party patriarch.
But the multi-crore 2G spectrum allocation scam and his subsequent resignation as Union IT and communications minister could change all that. With barely five months to go for the poll battle in the state, worry lines have deepened for the party leadership wondering how to handle Raja, who also happens to hold the key post of DMK propaganda secretary. Earlier, if it was silencing strident critics within sections of the Pradesh Congress Committee that proved a problem for Karunanidhi, now it is trouble in his own stables that's causing anxiety. While the party is likely to continue to rally behind Raja and counter criticism by throwing corruption charges back at the opposition, there are apprehensions among seniors that the issue could more than dent the DMK's image and prospects in the assembly election. That, many feel, would give ally Congress a strong bargaining chip to negotiate for more seats and a possible post-poll powersharing arrangement.
When a defiant Raja touched down in Chennai after the stormy Parliament session the day after his resignation, hundreds of his supporters, DMK cadres from his home district Perambalur and his Nilgiris constituency gave him a rousing reception, hailing him as their 'raja' (king). While some skeptical political observers dismissed it as an orchestrated moraleboosting exercise, the DMK leadership watched with some interest the reactions of party cadres. Their worry - how to put Raja to use in what threatens to be a high voltage opposition election campaign directed at him?
Pointed out a senior party man not willing to be named, "There was certainly some anxiety among the seniors about the leadership's adamancy in not advising Raja to step down despite the opposition clamour for his scalp and pressure from the Congress. Now that he has, our worry is how big an embarrassment he would prove for us. " There is growing unease among senior leaders within the DMK regarding Raja. While one section is advocating that the Dalit face of the party should stick to campaigning in the six assembly segments of his Nilgiris constituency in western Tamil Nadu, there is concern that a negative Raja impact, even in this small slice in a crucial belt, could prove costly for the party.
More significant for Raja, though, is the subtle change that is likely in the political equations within the DMK. Party sources say the Raja camp is anxiously watching any move that sections within the family are likely to make to discredit or sideline him. After the 2009 Lok Sabha election, Dayanidhi Maran had been keen to get back the telecom portfolio which he had held since 2004 and had to give up in 2007. But Rajya Sabha MP and Karunanidhi's daughter Kanimozhi ensured that the hefty portfolio went to Raja. Whether Kanimozhi and her mother Rajathi Ammal, the two strong Raja backers, besides Karunanidhi himself, would be able to insulate him from the subtle family dynamics remains to be seen.
The question whether Raja will be a liability for the ruling party will certainly have to be reckoned with as elections draw closer. Some analysts feel the enormity of the alleged scam in the 2G spectrum allocation and the astronomical figure of Rs 1. 76 lakh crore as the projected loss to the government exchequer could have some impact. But DMK Lok Sabha MP and party spokesman T K S Elangovan told TOI-Crest, "I don't think the spectrum issue is a serious poll plank. It will be our government's performance that will take centre stage. We will continue to defend Raja and question the veracity of the CAG report. Let the courts take a decision on the matter. "
Perhaps this is the line that the party leaders are hoping to take when they hit the dusty campaign trail in coming months. The DMK will continue to stoutly defend Raja, while keeping him back stage, and showcase its "performance" by publicising a slew of welfare measures. It will possibly announce new ones on poll eve to deflect the barbs away from Raja.
"I admit there's an anti-corruption mood in the country right now, " says Tughlak editor and strident DMK critic Cho Ramasamy. "But the DMK has the time. Until the assembly elections are over, no court is going to pronounce a verdict in the spectrum case. And as time wears, the intensity of the anti-Raja campaign we see today will also get diluted. As for Raja, he is not a big leader here and not even looked upon by Dalits as a leader. "
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