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TAMIL TANGLE

Brinkmanship over a bandh

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The DMK has now become the largest UPA ally. This factor has triggered renewed political activity in TN.

It is nearly two years yet for the next general elections, but strong posturing and quiet realignment have begun to churn Dravidian politics. The Bharat bandh called on September 20 by the BJP to condemn multi-brand FDI in retail trade, the fuel price hike and several other issues elicited a lukewarm response in Tamil Nadu. What triggered interest in a state with a miniscule saffron party presence was the politics played out on the sidelines by the ruling AIADMK and its rival, the DMK.

On September 18, a day of high drama, the DMK, a key UPA ally, announced its decision to join the nationwide oppositionsponsored bandh a short while after Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee decided to pull out of the UPA. The AIADMK government, which until then was seen as tacitly supporting the opposition's bandh call, hurriedly issued a statement saying that schools would remain open and other essential services would function as usual, thus narrowly averting making common cause with its archrival.

Tamil Nadu school education director, K Devarajan, went on record to say the government had not taken a stand yet, but admitted there had been a plan to shut down schools as students were bound to be inconvenienced due to the bandh. "There was a proposal (to declare a holiday for schools), but before we could decide, somebody went public with it, " he said. CM and AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa, however, chose not to go public with her stand on the bandh. The AIADMK unions functioned as usual on the bandh day and her state government ensured that the protests did not disrupt public services across the state in any way.

Earlier, before the AIADMK had backtracked, DMK spokesperson and MP, TKS Elangovan, said about the party's decision to join the bandh: "The Congress might have its compulsions, but we have our views and policies and we are with the people. " As an aside, senior leaders pointed out that while the party would leverage its strength in the alliance to force the UPA government to roll back diesel prices and FDI in multi-brand retail, it was not likely to withdraw support.

Party chief M Karunanidhi later urged his cadres and party-affiliated trade unions to make the bandh a success even while ensuring it went off peacefully. "People are already reeling under the increase in transport, milk, electricity charges and the prices of essential commodities. The Centre's decision to increase diesel price, limit subsidised cooking gas and allow FDI in multi-brand retail has burdened the common man, " he said.

What is of significance is the unexpected repositioning of the UPA allies. With the exit of Mamata's 19 MPs, the DMK, with 18 representatives in the Lok Sabha, finds itself to be the single largest ally of the Congress and is bound to flex its muscles. The party had already formed a loose alliance within the coalition, ganging up with Sharad Pawar's NCP and the Trinamool Congress to act as a pressure group against the Congress. On bandh day, Union minister M K Alagiri, the DMK's sole representative in the Union Cabinet, met Pawar and NCP Union minister Praful Patel to discuss the political developments and how they could use their weight in the UPA to call the shots.

On September 14, when the UPA government made the series of announcements on FDI, fuel price and LPG, Karunanidhi said, "They (the Centre) did not consult us. " Asked if his party would quit the UPA over the issue as Mamata was threatening to, Karunanidhi replied, "I don't know how to threaten. " As for AIADMK, still shying from making its closeness to the BJP official, it is early days yet. Party chief Jayalalithaa, who has been consistently urging her cadres to start preparing for Lok Sabha polls, has preferred to keep her options open for now.

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