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Rahul Gandhi's Jayalalithaa Visit Is A Major Step For The Congress

Beginning of a political churn in Tamil Nadu.

07/10/2016 5:22 PM IST | Updated 07/10/2016 5:57 PM IST
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Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi. (Photo by Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

"I want to give maximum energy to Jayalalithaa ji so that she gets well soon," said Rahul Gandhi after paying a visit to the Tamil Nadu chief minister who has been admitted to Apollo Hospitals in Chennai for over two weeks now. While the transfer of energy line has got Twitter going ROFL, Gandhi is himself looking for some energy and momentum in Tamil Nadu, where his Congress party counts for next to nothing.

The Congress vice president is the first senior leader outside of Tamil Nadu to call on the ailing Jayalalithaa. Not that he got to see her in person at the hospital, but at a time when none of the Chennai-based senior opposition leaders like Karunanidhi, Stalin or Vijaykanth have driven to Apollo, Rahul Gandhi chartering a special plane to fly New Delhi-Chennai sends a message.

On the face, it is easy to dismiss this as just courtesy shown by Rahul Gandhi to a senior politician, someone whose health is a matter of concern. But make no mistake about it, it is a politically significant step, considering the Congress is an ally of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu.

The Congress and Rahul Gandhi are well aware of their own limitations in Tamil Nadu. They have been relegated to the fringe for four decades now and even in the 2016 elections, the party won just 8 of the 41 seats it contested as part of the DMK alliance. Comparatively, the DMK won 89 of the 176 seats it contested, more than 50 per cent. Clearly, the Congress was given more seats than it should have been and was a political liability in a tightly-fought election.

Rahul's visit to Chennai to enquire about Jayalalithaa's health is the first step towards taking fresh guard in Tamil Nadu and the beginning of a political churn. It is not likely to amuse M. Karunanidhi. The wily politician knows the Congress VP is floating a trial balloon, letting his actions speak louder than words. This will be counted as the first serious rupture in the DMK-Congress alliance.

What could be on Rahul Gandhi's mind? He is aware that since the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is in power in Tamil Nadu for another four-and-a-half years, it makes sense to reach out to it, despite the acrimony of the past.

Secondly, sources say he is wary of the BJP poaching on the AIADMK MPs, should Jayalalithaa be hospitalised for a longer time, as Apollo Hospitals has already indicated. The AIADMK has 37 Lok Sabha and 12 Rajya Sabha MPs, a sizeable chunk that can make or mar legislative business.

Three, Rahul wants to be seen as lending support to the AIADMK, especially after BJP MP Subramanian Swamy wrote to the Union Home minister Rajnath Singh that President's rule should be imposed in Tamil Nadu for six months till such time that Jayalalithaa recovers fully. It is not a scenario the AIADMK would like and the visit was Rahul Gandhi's way of conveying to the second rung leadership in AIADMK that the Congress will be on its side, should the BJP, on Swamy's advice, get adventurous.

Rahul Gandhi, sources say, is looking to play a mediator's role to solve the Cauvery dispute outside the courts.

Four, Rahul Gandhi, sources say, is looking to play a mediator's role to solve the Cauvery dispute outside the courts. His party being in power in Karnataka helps and he would look at a give-and-take arrangement to earn goodwill in both states. It will be easier said than done, given the animosity that has been built up between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over Cauvery river water sharing and the formation of a management board, but a section in the party feels, politically, it is worth a shot. If nothing, it will make Rahul look like a statesman.

Rahul's flash visit was also an occasion to gauge for himself the situation on the ground. With Apollo Hospitals, on the advice of Dr Richard Beale from the UK and three specialists from AIIMS, New Delhi, having confirmed a longer stay in hospital for Jayalalithaa, Raj Bhavan is also worried about governance getting impacted in the absence of seasoned political leadership.

But if AIADMK history is anything to go by, no stopgap chief minister will be appointed. In 1984-85, then chief minister MG Ramachandran, when he was hospitalised first in Chennai and then in the US for four months, no one was appointed as interim CM. Jayalalithaa would prefer to copy-paste that precedent also because appointing anyone could start dissident murmurs in the party, which otherwise is controlled with an iron hand. At a time when she is not in the best of health, that is a headache Jayalalithaa could do without.

The Congress in Tamil Nadu was taken by surprise by Rahul's sudden visit. It will now wait for how others in Tamil Nadu's political theatre react to the surgical strike. And as far as Rahul offering his "energy" to Jayalalitha is concerned, the question is whether Amma will want any energy from a sick unit called Congress.

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