It was on a diehard secularist stance along with Arjun Singh and N.D. Tiwari that Ranga left the Congress in '93 accusing P.V. Narasimha Rao for not being able to protect Babri Masjid. He contested the '96 polls from his native Salem as a Tiwari Congress candidate. Unsuccessful, he returned to the Congress and joined the team that was persuading Sonia Gandhi to take over as the aicc chief.
Ironically, just a week before Sonia's formal entry into politics as the Congress' star campaigner, Ranga left the party to join the bjp. When aiadmk general-secretary Jayalalitha refused to concede the Salem seat to him, he was forced to contest as an outsider from Trichy. His '98 campaign was marked by vituperative attacks against the dmk and its president M. Karunanidhi. Even before Jayalalitha raised the issue of dismissing the dmk government, Ranga was more vocal in demanding its ouster. And after the Coimbatore bomb blast, his language was only a little different from the rss' in describing the minorities. And then Ranga started appearing on political platforms draped in a saffron shawl.
He did win the Trichy seat defeating tmc candidate L. Adaikalaraj. And it was him the bjp deputed to put gloss over Jayalalitha's tantrums. He defended every indefensible step of the Vajpayee government in appeasing Amma. Later, the L.K. Advani camp vainly tried to use him to fix Amma. His comment-"Jayalalitha is not honouring the spirit of coalition"-triggered off the events that led to the Vajpayee government's fall. To complete the cycle, Ranga is now contesting from Trichy with the dmk's support.
He himself sees nothing wrong in the U-turns he's taken. Says he: "There is nothing amoral or wrong in aligning with a political party which you think is in the best interests of the country. The bjp is not communal and the dmk is the best alliance partner. I am going to win with an impressive margin."
Consistency in politics may not be his forte, but one can't fault him on not nurturing his constituency. During his 13-month tenure as Union minister, he played a key role in getting orders for the bhel plant in Trichy and clearing some of the power projects for the region. He also made it a point to be in Trichy at least once every two months. While the aiadmk provided him the mass base in '98, the dmk is now giving him its well-knit cadres for electioneering. Fortunately, even his principal opponent Adaikalaraj is labelled a turncoat. Adaikalaraj left the Congress in '96 to form the tmc along with G.K. Moopanar. After his defeat in the '98 polls, he returned to the Congress "to strengthen Sonia's hands". In Mayiladuthurai, Mani Shankar Aiyer is busy doing a Ranga: putting gloss over Amma's actions and giving his own spin to political developments. "Jayalalitha snubbing Sonia? I believe her when she says she was trapped in the sea of humanity that had come to see and hear her. I can see the resurgence of her support base in my constituency,"he says justifying Jaya's boycott of Sonia's Villupuram meeting.
Handpicked by Rajiv Gandhi in '91 to contest from Mayiladuthurai, Mani defeated dmk candidate P. Kalyanam by a huge 1.5 lakh-plus margin riding on the wave generated by Rajiv's assassination. His slogan during his tenure was to make a Dubai out of Mayiladuthurai in five years. That did not happen for various reasons. He was instrumental in converting huge agricultural tracts here into aquaculture production centres, but the apex court ruling against the aquaculture industry put paid to the plans. And might bear on his political fortunes.
Like Ranga, Mani also left the Congress just a few weeks before Sonia's entry into politics. He joined Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress and tried to contest from Darjeeling. But Mamata wasn't accommodating enough and he rushed back to the Congress seeking a ticket to contest from Mayiladuthurai. Hardly amused, the then Congress president Sitaram Kesri refused to give him one. He contested as an independent from Mayiladuthurai but came a poor third securing 72,000 votes.
In those elections, tmc candidate S. Krishnamurthy had defeated pmk candidate P.T. Arulmozhi by 40,000 votes. Then the tmc was in the dmk front and the pmk in the aiadmk front. This time around the tmc has aligned with a conglomeration of Dalit groups and the pmk is in the dmk front, post-bjp tie-up. The final outcome is going to be decided on the basis of whose vote the tmc will split. Hence, Mani is targeting the tmc more than the pmk or the dmk.
Ask him about Moopanar and tmc candidate Krishnamurthy and Mani comes up with choice epithets. "Moopanar's the ultimate symbol of feudalism. No Dalit will ever believe that this biggest absentee landlord of the country would protect the rights of the downtrodden,"he says. "He has no respect for democracy and has the audacity to nominate household servant Krishnamurthy as a candidate. Moopanar is the biggest fraud imposed on the people of Tamil Nadu by the media. With this election he'll move away from his present marginal existence to total irrelevancy."But despite his dire predictions, Moopanar as the son of the soil commands a decent following, which may not be enough to win elections but is substantial enough to ruin others' chances. And Mani's tirade can help little.
In Madurai, it's a solo performance by Subramanian Swamy. The man who brought down this government with the most famous tea party in India's history is bitter about being dumped by everyone. Says he: "Jayalalitha owes her political existence to me. In '91, I was instrumental in toppling the Karunanidhi government and paving the way for her to become chief minister. But she ditched me. Again, in '98, by aligning with her, I helped her regain moral authority. People were willing to forgive her because I, her principal foe till then, joined hands with her. When she was desperate for an alliance with the Congress, I organised the tea party and brought her and Sonia Gandhi closer. Today she's dumped me and will pay a huge political price for this."
Swamy meanwhile fights a four-cornered battle in Madurai against the dmk, the cpm backed by the aiadmk and the Congress and the tmc backed by Dalit groups. Swamy launches direct attacks on all of them: "The cpm government in Kerala is anti-Tamil and is not willing to increase the height of the Periyar dam. The Mannargudi Mafia (read Sasikala and family) runs the aiadmk. (tmc candidate) A.G.S. Rambabu was a disaster as an MP. In Madurai, the dmk is a private property of (Karunanidhi's son) Alagiri; its only job is to indulge in anti-social activities. Because of all this, I'll win by 50,000 votes."Political pundits predict otherwise: they say 50,000 votes is all he's going to get.