Having tasted power in a substantial sense in the last decade as part of stable governments, rather than in a few short-lived regimes, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) may require a reworking of its national political strategy to return to the Centre after the next polls.

As of now, its options are limited: the Congress has just been abandoned; the BJP remains the “communal” other and a third alternative is not yet on the horizon. Finding an ally for the Lok Sabha poll and a potential Prime Ministerial candidate the DMK can project to the voters may not be easy.

It is only the second time in the last 14 years that the DMK is not a part of the Union government. But for the first half of 2004, after the exit of the DMK from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in December 2003 ahead of the 2004 general election, the party has been continuously in power since 1999.

This was a unique phase in the 64-year-history of a party that began as a counter-narrative to Indian nationalism, and graduated from ethno-linguistic separatism to parliamentary politics, from occasional electoral understandings to active coalition membership.

Besides, it has been part of three ‘third front’ governments, the National Front regime of V.P. Singh in 1989-90 and two United Front regimes led by H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral in 1996-98.

In the last 42 years, the DMK has been primarily involved in anti-Congress politics, joining key national combinations against the country’s grand old party – the movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan and the Janata Party experiment in 1977, V P Singh’s National Front (1989-90) that brought regional parties on a common stage against the Rajiv Gandhi regime and the United Front of 1996-98, a non-Congress grouping.

Twice in the past, the DMK had been in an electoral alliance with the Congress, but what made the 2004 tie-up unique was that it was the first time that the national party accepted that coalition politics was here to stay and that the days of a single-party government is over. Years of acrimony between the DMK and the Congress leadership – Indira Gandhi, because of its anti-Emergency stand and Rajiv Gandhi, due to fundamental differences on approaching the Sri Lankan Tamil question – gave way to a new era in coalition politics involving age-old rivals.

DMK president M. Karunanidhi struck an instant rapport with Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and often commended her for “renouncing” the prime minister’s office when an opportunity arose. Even today, Mr. Karunanidhi has said little by way of strident criticism against the Congress leadership while parting ways.

Historical and political exigencies pushed the Congress towards arch-rival DMK in 1971 for an extraordinary electoral understanding under which the national party, then a faction led by Indira Gandhi, settled for a mere nine seats that the DMK parted with in Tamil Nadu, and chose to forego the entire Assembly cake by not contesting any seat.

In 1980, the DMK shed its Emergency-era antipathy to Indira Gandhi by reaching out for an alliance, and utilised the Lok Sabha election result in favour of the DMK-Congress combine to dislodge the AIADMK government of M G Ramachandran.

A wave of sympathy swept MGR back to power in the State.

Since 1984, the AIADMK and Congress came together in what both parties used to term a “natural alliance” and it lasted several elections. AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa crossed the Dravidian Rubicon by having joining a coalition headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1998, but her patience ran out in a year, and she went into the 1999 general election in the uneasy company of the Congress under Sonia Gandhi.

The DMK stepped into the NDA on the path laid out for it by the AIADMK, as ideological legacy was no more seen as a barrier between a party that stood for secularism and social justice and one that swore by Hindutva. For the next five years, it justified its presence in the NDA by pointing out that contentious issues had been kept out of the NDA’s national agenda for governance.

Ultimately, when it wanted to leave late in 2003, it cited deviations from the common agenda as the reason.

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