Pranab Mukherjee will take charge this Wednesday as the 13th President of India, a journey that began right here in Chennai, when the then Finance Minister sought the blessings of DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi first. While other UPA coalition partners such as Mamata Banerjee were upping the ante on Pranab's nomination, Karunanidhi extended his party's unconditional support. And post the elections, while the UPA is continuing to be a house of squabbles-thanks to NCP and TMC-the DMK it seems has become a safe backyard for the Congress.
But will this last? Will the DMK too up the ante and spearhead a campaign seeking presidential pardon for Murugan, Perarivalan and Santhan, the three death row convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case? Last August, the outgoing President Pratibha Patil had turned down the trio's mercy plea to her, asking her to recommend to the government that the death sentence be commuted to life sentence. This rejection also triggered a public debate in civil society, on whether it is an act of cruelty to keep such petitions pending for years. In the case of the trio, convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, the mercy plea was held up for eleven years.
Another high profile death row convict case is that of Afzal Guru. He was convicted by the Supreme Court in August 2005 for the 2001 attack on the parliament, and his mercy petition is expected to be one of the toughest challenges that Pranab Mukherjee will be facing in the coming days. A day after he was elected, Pranab had refrained from commenting on the case when asked by the media, saying he needed to go over the files. Something he cannot do, until he assumes office. Political observers in Tamil Nadu say that Afzal's may not be the only case of mercy petition awaiting his scrutiny. The most high profile would be the Ajmal case, but there will be others as well. Such as Perarivalan, Murugan and Santhan's.
Observers say that technically, the trio convicted for their role in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, can once again appeal to the President, Pranab Mukherjee, once he assumes office. And Karunanidhi may just find it convenient to raise the issue all over again. "As a UPA Loyalist, Karunanidhi has been a comparatively trouble free ally," say observers.
Take a look at the others. While Trinamool has been a difficult partner in most issues, such as the nomination of Pranab for President, the fuel hikes, and even threatening to go solo in the next Assembly elections; NCP's Sharad Pawar has been on a peev party, ever since Pranab abdicated the number two slot in the UPA after his presidential election. An 'outside' ally, such as Samajwadi Party's Mulayam Singh Yadav , who offered to support Pranab in the presidential elections, almost did a U-turn, and by voting for the opposition camp's presidential nominee, and then wanting to change that vote are clear pointers that the threads of the patch work quilt are fraying. And Shiv Sena, which also voted in favour of Pranab in the presidential elections, has said Pranab should not pardon Afzal Guru .
Karunanidhi on the other hand, readily agreed to drop the controversial call for a separate 'Tamil Eelam' from the agenda, when the Tamil Eelam Supports Organisation (TESO) meet to be held on August 12. (After all, Lankan issue is the bugbear for the state politicians.)
TESO , was the brain child of Karunanidhi, that he floated in the 1980s, a time when there was a lot of sympathy for the ethnic conflict in Lanka . But during the decades' long ethnic strife in Sri Lanka political leaders in the state oscillated between separate statehood and devolution of power for ethnic Tamils in the island nation.
TESO was put on the back burner and it was only recently that Karunanidhi brought it to the forefront, saying he would not rest until Tamil Eelam becomes a reality.
So 'Tamil Eelam' was on the agenda of the August 12 conference. However, when Union Home Minister P Chidambaram recently asked him to drop the particular agenda, Karunanidhi readily agreed to the coalition partner's wish.
However, in the coming days, when the Afzal Guru Mercy plea issue reaches a crescendo, political leaders in Tamil Nadu may be tempted to bring up the mercy petition of the Rajiv Gandhi case, over whom the death sentence has been hanging for the last twelve years. Opposition parties in particular may raise the issue of the plight of Tamil fishermen in 'international' waters, and the chief minister J Jayalaltihaa had also told the Centre to stop offering India as a training ground for Lankan air force. Clearly, Sri Lanka is not an easy issue at home, right now, with political parties all too aware of the struggle for devolutionary powers in Tamil majority areas of Lanka. If the convicts try to come up with a mercy plea, their cry will resound in political circles, say observers.
Of course, the state government has to forward the plea request to the home ministry, which will have to consider it. The next step would be for the Cabinet to decide upon it, after which it would be forwarded to the President. The President need not arrive at a decision over night, but keep it in the pending file and study it at length.
As he assumes office, mercy petitions will be on the agenda for President Pranab and one of them might well be from Tamil Nadu.
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Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist