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The Defection Bazaar

An alleged attempt by the Congress and AIADMK to buy out two TMC MLAs raises a storm

The Defection Bazaar

IN the dirty world of politics, some states are dirtier than the others. In the south, the Union Territory of Pondicherry has again hit the headlines with a dramatic JMM-like episode, complete with moneybags and MLAs. The art of engineering defections has now been perfected, well almost. The latest display of greed rocking Pondicherry politics is the alleged attempt by the Opposition AIADMK and the Congress to destabilise the ruling DMK-TMC Government.

On March 13, the Pondicherry Legislative Assembly witnessed dramatic scenes with the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) MLA M. Kandaswamy alleging that he had been offered bribes by AIADMK and Congress leaders for switching loyalties. Kandaswamy, a Dalit MLA representing Bahour constituency, told the startled House: "I was approached by state AIADMK Secretary D. Ramachandran, AIADMK Legislature Group leader K. Natarajan and the driver of Congress Legislature Party leader V. Vaithilingam, accompanied by the private bus operator Bharathi Kannan at 1.30 am. They gave me Rs 9.5 lakh in cash and asked me to cross over. They said this Government was going to fall by 10 am and I could join the new cabinet, too. When I resisted the offer, they left the money, saying I should reconsider the decision and join them at the Raj Nivas around 10 am to take part in the swearing-in ceremony." Both Ramachandran and Vaithilingam are former chief ministers.

Another TMC member and Parliamentar y Secretary to the chief minister, K Raja-sekaran, claimed that he too was approached by the same team on the same day. The most curious aspect of all this is that V. Vaithi-lingam, one of the alleged culprits, was present in the House when this startling disclosure was made but chose not to react.

Later, the money was displayed at the Speaker's chamber and a formal police inquiry was ordered by the Speaker. The case was duly handed over. Things became messy when Lt Governor Rajendra Kumari Bajpai ordered that the case be transferred to the Vigilance Department. Now, the Cabinet has decided that the charge is serious enough to warrant a CBI inquiry.

There are a few gaps in Kandaswamy's account. Why did he not file a police complaint right after D. Ramachandran and Co approached him? Why did he wait to raise the issue on the floor of the House?  Explains Home Minister P. Kannan, who is also president of the TMC's Pondicherry unit: "Logistical restrictions. Kandaswamy's village has a small police station where there would have been only a constable at that time. Instead, he chose to talk to me and I, as home minister and leader of his party, asked him to bring the money to the House so that the issue could be highlighted in a proper manner. Further, it is not realistic to expect a constable to act immediately against a team in which two former chief ministers were lead players."

 Both former chief ministers deny their role in the drama. While Ramachandran dismisses the entire exercise as a "smear campaign", Vaithilingam contends that the drama was enacted by the TMC to contain the growing disenchantment within the party. Says he: "The general perception in Pondicherry is that the present government will not last long. Unlike the TMC in Tamil Nadu, the Pondicherry unit is a motley lot that was pieced together just before the elections. The members are drifting in all directions. Just to ward off the crisis, they used Kandaswamy to enact this drama."

Vaithilingam's denial is open to many interpretations. Firstly, he is convinced that the Government will fall. For that to happen, some members of the ruling alliance have to cross sides. Says the CLP leader: "If the Government falls, DMK members will remain in the DMK. That cannot be said of the TMC." This leads to the next possibility of using the present chaos in the TMC and split it. By wooing two of the six TMC MLAs, the Congress can ensure they do not attract the provisions of the anti-defection law which accepts a one-third split as legal.

Though Home Minister Kannan denies any discontent within the TMC ranks, he is quick in pointing out a curious bias in the fact that the Dalit MLAs were the first to be approached for defections. Says he: "Kanda-swamy was targeted because he is a Dalit. Unlike the earlier Dalit MLAs who succumbed to pressure, Kandaswamy opted for a principled stand." According to some reliable sources, the Congress-AIADMK plotters did attempt to break the TMC. Says a senior police official: "Kandaswamy had in fact accepted the money. But within an hour a posse of men loyal to the home minister landed at his place and prevented the defection and saved the Government." This is said to be the real reason for the time gap between the bribe attempt and the issue becoming public in the assembly. The only hon-ourable exit left for Kandaswamy was to turn a noble man-of-principle.

The police suspect that the money came from a private financial institution belonging to a family member of Vaithilingam. Vaithilingam denies it: "The finance company in question is not owned by my father-in-law as it is projected. He is just one of the directors of that company." Recalling his running feud with Ramachandran for the last 17 years, he maintains that the conspiracy theory will not hold water. Says he: "Ramachandran played a key role in defeating me in my first ever electoral contest in 1980. We are both Reddiars, and he does not like a rival from within the community. It is unimaginable to see both of us working together." Indeed, Ramachandran and Vaithilingam did not canvass together, despite their parties being electoral partners, in the last general elections.

But, the internal rivalry may not necessarily have stopped them from coming together to oust a common enemy from power. Another possible motive could be pinned down to V. Narayanswamy, the current incumbent in the lone Rajya Sabha seat from the Union Territory. Narayanswamy, an office-bearer of the Congress Parliamentary Party, cannot be reelected unless he has majority support in the assembly. So, the TMC leadership also sees his hand in the whole affair. If the Congress manages to get the Rajya Sabha seat, it can ridicule the TMC's claim that it is the true Congress in Pondicherry. Further, in a single move, Vaithilingam, who had a torrid time during his tenure as chief minister at the hands of Kannan, who was then the Speaker, could have taught a lesson or two to his archrival.

With various theories clouding the issue, the Cabinet has decided to call in the CBI. The inclusion of two Opposition heavyweights in the case has already signalled the onset of a political war of attrition, with the ruling coalition claiming to have given a severe blow to the political culture of defections in this territory. The only major difference between this politico-legal show and its infamous predecessor, the JMM bribery case, is that the MPs who have allegedly received money have been arrested and, in Pondi-cherry, the main accused, Rama-chandran and Bharathi Kannan, have sought anticipatory bail. However, Vaithilingam has decided not to seek anticipatory bail.

The CBI probe will commence from the first week of April. The ruling DMK-TMC is also planning to demand the recall of the Lt Governor for what it says was a partisan role in the entire episode. TMC MP N.S.V. Chittan has already raised the issue in Parliament and was backed by all DMK members. Unlike Uttar Pradesh Governor Romesh Bhandari, Bajpai has no friends in the United Front to save her.

And as for the people of Pondicherry, they feel that the case should be suitably buried by getting rid of the Lt Governor as any probe would also bring to light the clandestine meeting between the TMC MLAs and opposition leaders, thereby showing the fledgling political party in poor light. Something the TMC heartily agrees with.

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