The post of the Indian prime minister is rarely one of sartorial statement. However, in Tamil Nadu the DMK and the AIADMK have made it into a contest between the ubiquitous dhoti and the elegant sari, with both parties confident that the state had a Prime Minister in the making.
Can Tamil Nadu politicians get to that seat of power?
For weeks now the AIADMK leaders have been harping on winning all the 40 Lok Sabha seats in the State in the upcoming Parliamentary election in 2014. "A clean sweep by the AIADMK in the elections will make our leader the next Prime Minister. Keep it in mind and work tirelessly," AIADMK minister O. Panneerselvam recently told his cadre.
Not to be outdone, last week, DMK chief M Karunanidhi upped the ante when he said that people expected Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram to rise further in his career . Speaking at the book release function of P Chidambaram, Oru Paarvai ( P Chidambaram, a perspective) in Chennai, after a speaker said that "a dhoti clad Tamil should become the Prime Minister" , Karunanidhi said "When you say a dhoti-clad Tamil should be the Prime Minister, you would have found a fitting reply to the view that a sari-clad Tamil should be the Prime Minister," he said, in what is a clear reference to the aspirations of many in the AIADMK.
This is not the first time that someone from Tamil Nadu has been in the reckoning for the prime minister's post. K Kamaraj, who was the Congress president in 1963, opted to make Lal Bahadur Shastri the prime minister in 1964, and when the seat fell vacant two years later, he made Indira Gandhi the prime minister. Like Kamaraj, G.K. Moopanar was another Tamil Nadu politician who opted out of the prime ministerial chair. In 1972, when the United Front - and Jyoti Basu in particular - wanted him to become the prime minister, Moopanar refused the post.
Will things be different this time, if the post is offered to these two Tamils, one wearing a dhoti as though it were a bespoke suit, and the other draped earthy, classically elegant saris? Do either of them have the charisma to be the national figure, among so many contenders?
Political observers say that Chidambaram's name emerged in political circles a few months ago, after Pranab Mukherji was named the presidential candidate, via a cartoon that did the rounds for quite a while. It showed a cat, with the unmistakable face of P Chiidambaram as the 'surprise person who can make it to the prime minister's seat.' Chidambaram himself has never projected himself as a prime ministerial candidate. When reporters quizzed him on Karunanidhi remarks, Chidambaram said "If you are expecting a light-hearted comment, I will tell you this: I know that some of you think I am foolish. But I am not so foolish as you think." He also said "I don't know whether I should take your question very seriously. But let me give you a very serious answer. I know my limitations. "
However, in the era of coalition politics, finding the names of Jayalalithaa and Chidambaram does not surprise him, says political analyst and writer, Gnani . "They have been through the rough and tumble of politics for decades now, having faced the electorate many times," he says. Pointing out that one prerequisite is tremendous administrative skill, Gnani says that Karunanidhi, Chidambaram and Jayalalithaa have that in abundance.
"Karunanidhi, Chandrababu Naidu and Mayawati have all been game changers, whether we like their politics or not, and the alliance dynamics of the last ten years has ensured that these regional politicians have a say in who forms the government in the Centre whenever there is no clear majority" he says. "We have seen quite a few politicians lacking charisma or a pan-India base make it to the prime minister's post, and that may happen again," he adds.
Senior political journalists concur with Gnani and say the field is wide open . Jayalalithaa recently said that her party will not align with either the Congress or the BJP (which is in power in Karnataka) in the Lok Sabha polls, since they failed to give Tamil Nadu its due share of the Cauvery water.
"She could become a kingmaker, if not the queen herself," says an observer.
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Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist