In 1991, the AIADMK won a massive mandate after the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, benefiting from the sympathy wave for the Congress with which it was in alliance.
Twenty three years later, and ahead of yet another general election, party leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa appears to have stolen a march on her political rivals in the State, this time by taking a step toward releasing seven persons convicted of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination .
From a hardcore critic of the LTTE, whose demand for the arrest of its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran won her praise in the 1990s, to lobbying for the freedom of those convicted of killing Rajiv Gandhi, Ms. Jayalalithaa has adopted a position she apparently believes will fetch her enough political traction in Tamil Nadu.
With the Human Right Commission readying to take up the issue of alleged war crimes by Sri Lanka in the military operations against the LTTE next month in Geneva, the State is certain to witness another round of Tamil nationalist activism to lobby for a strong stand by New Delhi against the Rajapkasa government.
Tamil nationalist groups have been demanding the release of the death row convicts in the Rajiv case for years. In recent times, that clamour has grown stronger with the mood in the State against the Rajapaksa government.
When the Supreme Court commuted the death penalty of Perarivalan, Murugan and Santhan in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case to life imprisonment and gave the option to the “appropriate government” to exercise its remission powers, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister was quick to seize the opportunity.
With her Cabinet adopting a resolution for the release of all seven prisoners, and the three-day deadline to the Centre for its consent, Ms. Jayalalithaa has decisively scored over the likes of DMK president M. Karunanidhi, who consider themselves bigger champions of the Tamil cause, and pre-empted the demands of Tamil nationalist groups.
Regardless of what the Centre decides, Ms. Jayalalithaa would have made her point. If the Centre agrees to the release, she will be the one to reap the political benefits; if not, she will be the one that stood up and demanded it.
The statement by Mr. Karunanidhi reflected her main rival's dilemma. He welcomed the decision, at the same time asserting that the credit for it could not go to the AIADMK alone.
“When I proposed idea of commuting their death sentence in 2011, she ridiculed it. Now,” said Mr. Karunanidhi, “she has taken a decision in favour of it. I welcome her stand.”
He even urged the Centre to give its concurrence to the Cabinet's decision.
Subramanian Swamy of the Bharatiya Janata Party, known for his views against the LTTE, said the move to release the convicts was “illegal”. He said the provisions of the law which Jayalalithaa government had invoked were applicable only when the commutation took place under very limited circumstances.
“The three-day ultimatum is empty as the Centre has made its mind clear. It is going for a review of the judgment. If the Centre objects to the release, Ms. Jayalalithaa might say she tried her best,” Dr. Swamy said.
For obvious reasons, the Congress, decried the release as an attempt to capitalise on Tamil nationalist sentiments. TNCC president B.S. Gnanadesikan said the decision to release the seven convicts was nothing but “competitive politics,” seeking to capitalise on Tamil sentiments.
Analysts said Ms. Jayalalithaa had taken a calculated risk, trading off possible disapproval from her traditional middle-class supporters, who believe in her anti-terrorism credentials, similar to the BJP’s, for what might be a bigger political gain.
“Even if the middle class turns against her, we should appreciate her move, because she has taken a risk,” said MSS Pandian, who teaches at Jawaharlal University.
(With additional reporting by S. Vijay Kumar)