Pictures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi paying homage to Muthuvel Karunanidhi as his body lay in state at Rajaji Hall in Chennai may have given rise to speculation if the BJP is open to an alliance with the DMK? But similar scenes were witnessed when AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa died in December 2016.
PM Modi had not only rushed to Chennai but also let himself be seen publicly consoling her controversial aide Sasikala.
It is another story that Sasikala went to jail following the Supreme Court’s verdict upholding her conviction in a disproportionate assets case.
The two factions of the AIADMK sought refuge with the Centre, and came up with a formula to save their government in Tamil Nadu.
The formula saw Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) remaining the chief minister and rival faction leader O Panneerselvam (OPS) as his deputy CM.
That arrangement led to the DMK and other opposition parties in the state to accuse Modi and the BJP of running the state administration through remote control.
Palaniswami and Panneerselvam were often seen looking up to New Delhi for their power and legitimacy — in the face of open threat from Sasikala’s nephew, TTV Dinakaran, to unseat them.
Dinakaran went on to prove that his faction had strength. He won the RK Puram Assembly seat in December 2017 as an independent candidate, defeating the official AIADMK nominee. The DMK lost its deposit in that poll. It was an embarrassing moment for both EPS and OPS as their strategy to contain the Sasikala group flopped.
This was a month after Modi visited Karunanidhi at the latter’s Chennai home before the DMK leader fell ill. That time too, the PM’s visit raised questions about the motives of the BJP.
Meanwhile, as Panneerselvam faced the wrath of his supporters for not being able to do enough to accommodate them in key positions, he admitted that he merged his faction with the Palaniswami group only because PM Modi wanted him to do so. His assertion did not go down well with the central BJP leadership. Neither Modi nor BJP chief Amit Shah wanted to be seen as directly meddling in the AIADMK affairs when the party-run government was on the downslide.
Be as it may, the DMK remained upset that the AIADMK government drew sustenance from the Centre and its plans to unseat them had come unstuck.
So much so, Stalin openly declared that his party could never align with the BJP for two reasons: it could not compromise with the saffron politics of Modi-Shah and found its alliance with the Congress going at a a steady pace.
Stalin also signalled that his party had put behind hard feelings it had against the Congress leadership for damaging it during the 2G spectrum scam.
After the 2014 polls, Congress president Rahul Gandhi too ended his dislike for the DMK and made it a point to call on Karunanidhi after a long gap. He also allowed himself to be photographed with Stalin’s grandchildren on his lap to signal a personal friendship — like the one he has struck with Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD and Akhilesh Yadav of Samajwadi Party.
Karunanidhi too never endorsed the BJP because he was strongly opposed to Hindu religious groups to safeguard his allegiance to Periyar’s self-respect movement, of which he was a creation.
This did not prevent Karunanidhi to align with Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government in 1999 when Jayalalithaa had walked out of the BJP-led alliance she had joined in 1998.
The DMK joined the Vajpayee government. Its ministers remained in power for a long time and only quit before the 2004 polls as Karunanidhi wanted to align with the Congress.
That experiment only proved that the DMK was open to enjoy power at the Centre when it was out of power in the state.
Similarly, in the post-2019 poll scenario, the DMK could well be prepared to join hands with Modi and the BJP if the AIADMK factions have a falling out with the Centre, say insiders. That could suit the BJP too in case of shortage of numbers in the Lok Sabha after the parliamentary elections.
Modi's current engagement with the DMK leaders won’t appear to have gone waste.
(Shekhar Iyer is former senior associate editor of Hindustan Times and political editor of Deccan Herald. Views expressed are personal)