Curious story of Congress-DMK ties

August 20 was a significant day for the Congress in Tamil Nadu. On the day marking the 63rd birth anniversary of the late Rajiv Gandhi, the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee invited chief minister and DMK supremo, M. Karunanidhi, to unveil his portrait. The irony of the situation was that Karunanidhi had been repeatedly accused, in the past of allowing the LTTE a free run of the state, and held it responsible for Rajiv Gandhi's assassination.

But that history has been 'conveniently' buried and forgotten due to coalitional exigencies. For Karunanidhi too, it was a break with convention and a deviation from his stand that he would not visit the office of any other political party.

The unusual Congress-DMK camaraderie displayed that day at the rambling Sathyamurthy Bhavan, TNCC headquarters in Chennai, marked a political transformation of sorts in Tamil Nadu that was neither dampened by the sparse presence of Congressmen nor the absence of representatives from the various warring factions in the badly riven state unit.

The two parties have traditionally been strident critics of each other. Their mutual antagonism peaking post-Rajiv assassination, with Karunanidhi being accused of having encouraged the LTTE, leading to his killing by a suicide bomber in May 1991. The DMK had ruled the state between 1989 and January 1991.

In fact, the Congress had pulled down the United Front Government of I.K. Gujral merely on the ground that the DMK should not be allowed to continue in the ministry. This was in the wake of some adverse observations against DMK functionaries in the report of the Jain Commission, which probed the conspiracy angle of the Rajiv assassination.

Go further back in history, and a similar antipathy can be detected. In 1972 the late Congress leader, K. Kamaraj displayed scant respect for the Dravidian parties and had scathingly remarked: "Irandu katchigalum orey kuttaiyil oorina mattaigal (both parties, the DMK and the AIADMK, are like fronds dipped in the same bog or tarred by the same brush)." He had good reason for his acerbity. In post-Independent India, the Congress had ruled Tamil Nadu until 1967, when the legendary leader Kamaraj himself suffered a most ignominious defeat. Student DMK leader P. Srinivasan defeated him by 500 votes in the Virudhunagar assembly election. This was soon after Kamaraj himself had remarked: "Naan paduthu konde jaipen (I can win sleeping)." That election saw DMK come to power for the first time in the state.

It was Indira Gandhi who changed the equation. In 1971 the Congress, led by Indira Gandhi, came to a 'tacit' understanding with the DMK for the first time. The two parties, however, grew apart, following suspicions that Indira Gandhi had engineered a split in the DMK, resulting in the late matinee idol, M.G. Ramachandran quitting the party in 1973 and subsequently floating the AIADMK.

The Emergency saw the Dravidian parties distancing themselves from the Congress. But by 1980 the DMK and Congress came together again, this time clinching a formal tie-up for the Parliament election. The alliance registered a remarkable victory, with the AIADMK, then led by MGR, winning just two seats. But the honeymoon soon came to an end, and it was in the 2004 Lok Sabha election that the two parties cosied up again in a 'historical' tie-up.

Significantly, since the late 1960s the Congress has been bothered only about how many seats it could wrest out of its Dravidian allies for the Lok Sabha election rather than capturing power in the state. The last time that someone seriously talked about bringing 'Kamaraj rule' in Tamil Nadu was Union Minister E.V.K.S. Ilangovan, who only received a tongue-lashing from his party high command for his effort and almost lost his job after Karunanidhi expressed his displeasure.

In the recent weeks too, the Congress with 35 seats in the 234-member Tamil Nadu Assembly, has been trying to reassert itself as a major ally. A section of the TNCC is said to be unhappy with the DMK which has only 96 seats and is dependent mainly on the Congress for survival for denying them a share in power. But the special rapport that Karunanidhi seems to have with Congress president Sonia Gandhi has ensured that disgruntled local leaders are not tempted to disrupt the new-found camaraderie between the two parties. Faced with rebellion from allies like Pattali Makkal Katchi and the Left, for Karunanidhi too this unusual bonhomie with the Congress has become necessary. And so it carries on, this curious and not entirely comfortable political relationship.

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