In May 2016, as the results for the Tamil Nadu Assembly Election flashed across multiple channels in the country, experts were vociferously engaged in explaining the AIADMK's historic victory. It was the first time in two decades that a Dravidian major had managed to stay in power for two terms continuously in the state, thus disrupting a political pattern and catapulting party chief J Jayalalithaa to an even higher status.
But even as the reasons were being laid out and analysed, many in the AIADMK knew that the final numbers in the election were not just a result of its campaign but a reflection on the DMK's poor decisions regarding seat sharing.
"Our campaign was lacklustre and limited because Amma had been unwell in that period. We were also battling anti-incumbency and anger over how the December floods had been managed," says an AIADMK source. "But if we still won, it was because of the DMK's decision to ally with the Congress and give them 41 seats to contest in," a source in the AIADMK says.
The final results saw the AIADMK winning 134 of the 227 seats it contested in and the DMK winning 89 of 176 seats it fought. The Congress however won a mere 8 seats of 41 seats and its abysmal performance gave the AIADMK the edge it required.
The bitter memories of this defeat, have resurfaced this month, as evidenced from multiple statements made by the DMK over the last week. And this time, the DMK leadership seems convinced it will avoid the mistakes of the past
'Congress needs DMK'
Acrimony between the two parties was out in the open after Tamil Nadu Congress President KS Alagiri alleged that he was unhappy with the seat distribution for the rural local body polls.
The response from the Dravidian party began with a boycott of the protests organised by the Congress in Delhi against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). On Wednesday, DMK Treasurer Duraimurugan took another swipe at the ally.
"If they want to leave, let them. What loss will the DMK face because of this?" he asked. "We are not worried about the Congress leaving, especially not me. The number of votes we get will not be affected. It will only be affected if they have votes," he added, as the men around him laughed.
Sources in the DMK tell TNM that the Congress' allegations that the Dravidian major was violating coalition dharma was unacceptable. The attacks from multiple DMK leaders have all been orchestrated to make a point.
"We have given the Congress a long rope already and now we have to make our stand clear. They are making brash statements about seat sharing for the sake of their local leaders. They forget that they should be grateful to the DMK which allied with them and announced Rahul Gandhi as a Prime Ministerial candidate when no other party in the country was ready to even do this," says a DMK source.
He recalls the defeat in 2016 to emphasise on the Congress' relevance in Tamil Nadu.
"The Congress needs us, not the other way round. They couldn't even win 10 seats in the previous Assembly Elections. We don't have any national aspirations. The local Congress needs to understand how this alliance dynamic works," he adds.
But even as the war of words continue, experts says the dynamic between the Congress and the DMK was always an uneasy one.
A strange alliance?
This uneasy dynamic was first witnessed in the year 1997, when the Congress brought down the coalition government of Prime Minister IK Gujral, over its failure to oust the DMK. Their demand came in the wake of the Jain Commission report which accused the DMK, a key ally of the coalition, of fostering the LTTE, a Sri Lankan Tamil group which assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The Congress had demanded the DMK be ousted from the coalition and its three representatives in the cabinet be removed
For two weeks, the Congress disrupted Parliament and chanted “Remove DMK, Save the country”. But seven years later, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi called DMK chief Karunanidhi to form an alliance ahead of the 2004 Lok Sabha Election.
But ten years later ahead of the 2014 General Assembly elections, when asked about a possible alliance with the Congress, M Karunanidhi had described the association as “kooda natpu kedai mudiyum” (a bad friendship causes utter ruin). Even ahead of the 2016 election, the alliance formed by the DMK with the Congress was a bad calculation, wrote AR Venkatachalapathy, a historian of the Dravidian movement, in The Hindu.
Terming the Congress a 'drag', the historian wrote, "Over the last decade the Congress has become the proverbial albatross for the DMK ship. The Congress has now won only eight of its 41 seats, a strike rate of less than 20 per cent."
And it is this election arithmetic that is now ultimately driving the DMK's vitriol against the grand old party.
Congress doesn't have the numbers
According to economist and political analyst Venkatesh Athreya, the DMK is already making its plans for the 2021 Elections and allying with Congress is a burden. "Having the Congress on your side means you will lose a good chunk of Hindu votes," he says.
"They are perceived as pro-minority and this will work against the alliance. From the numbers in the recent elections, we can see that the DMK has support from Hindus as well and they wouldn't want to jeopardise this. In a closely-fought election, allying with Congress could lead to loss of votes. In Assembly Elections, the fight is more DMK centric and will depend on their brand of politics," he adds.
Senior journalist and political analyst, Bharath, meanwhile, points out that the Congress' existing vote bank will barely influence the state elections. The minority vote, which the Congress depends on he says, is no longer restricted to their party.
"In the Lok Sabha Elections, teaming up with a national party is good for your agenda and in rural local body polls allying with the Congress made sense because they have the support of minorities in Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts," he says. "But since the AIADMK allied with the BJP, a large chunk of Christians and section of Muslims have switched to the DMK. So, the DMK does not need the Congress to gain the support of minorities," he adds.
Moreover the DMK's vehement opposition to the CAA has also improved its image amongst minorities, say experts. "The fight, at the end of the day is only between the AIADMK and the DMK," says Bharath.