As anticipated, the Congress and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) are taking steps to sort out their differences and not let the public exchange between the two parties grow further.
The first step towards a rapprochement was a visit by Puducherry Chief Minster V Narayanswamy, a close confidante of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, to Chennai to meet DMK president MK Stalin on Saturday.
Differences between the allies came out in the open last week after Tamil Nadu state president, KS Alagiri made public his unhappiness with the allocation of positions for the Congress in local body elections that were held in the state. In response, senior DMK leader Durai Murugan said the DMK would not be affected if the Congress left the alliance.
However, the problem did not stop with public statements and the DMK decided not to attend a meeting called by the Congress to discuss the Citizenship Amendment Act. This was a major mistake on the part of the DMK which has taken a strong ideological position against Prime Minster Narendra Modi in general and has been at the forefront of opposition to the CAA.
The DMK’s failure to attend the meeting was an avoidable embarrassment and threatened to weaken the party’s commitment, at an ideological level, to one of the most powerful agitations against the union government. Even senior party leaders are believed to have felt that it should not have allowed its differences with the Congress to dictate its decision on the issue.
Given the electoral arithmetic in Tamil Nadu, the Congress is essential for the DMK to have a clear edge over the AIADMK in the next assembly elections, scheduled to be held in 2021. In fact, there is a possibility of an earlier-than-scheduled poll and it is time for the DMK-led coalition to start preparing for a do-or-die battle.
While the DMK is clearly the dominant political force in the state, the ruling AIADMK, under chief minister E Palaniswamy, seems to have held its own in by-elections to assembly constituencies. This shows that the DMK, which led the alliance to sweep the parliamentary elections, will have to brace itself for a tough fight to the finish in the assembly polls and the Congress’s small vote share is essential for the coalition.
Further, a rift in the alliance would only split the opposition vote and create fissures in the ideological opposition to the BJP. Clearly, the DMK cannot afford the electoral consequences and the Congress cannot afford to let go of its most powerful ally. This is why the two sides simply cannot afford to part ways.
In fact, it is not clear what triggered such a public exchange between leaders from the two parties at this stage. Given the history of the DMK-Congress relationship – MK Stalin even took the lead to declare Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate for the alliance and had demonstrated person commitment to Rahul and Sonia Gandhi -- the recent spat does not seem to fit in to the sequence of things.
It is also clear that the DMK would not have engaged in a public exchange or boycotted a CAA meeting without Stalin’s approval and this is why the rift seems a little hard to explain.
Some sections believe it could be the result of both sides hardening their position before entering into seat-sharing negotiations for the next assembly elections, but threatening the alliance at this stage may not be a wise or healthy bargaining strategy.
Irrespective of the reasons, both sides seem to have revealed that they cannot afford to walk away from each other and are expected to send out signals of cooling off and camaraderie in the coming days.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)