The Political Fallout of India’s Telecom Scandal: Sonia’s Frenemies

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India’s simmering telecom scandal has already dented the reputation of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Now, it may soon inflict some political damage to Singh’s Congress Party. At stake is the party’s alliance with a regional partner, the DMK, led for the last 40 years by the charismatic poet-politician M. Karunanidhi. With 18 seats in Parliament, the DMK has been a key ally in helping the Congress-led coalition keep its majority. That partnership is at the breaking point as the Congress leadership tries to distance itself from the DMK, the party most closely associated with the controversial 2008 allocation of 2G wireless spectrum. Without them, Congress will have few options other than to join hands with other regional parties, all with fewer seats.

Just how important is the DMK to Congress? After the 2009 national elections, the DMK had the leverage to demand several key cabinet posts in the new government — including the telecom ministry. Despite widespread criticism of the way he handled the 2008 spectrum allocation, DMK politician A. Raja kept his post, thanks in part to fervent lobbying, some of which was captured in a now notorious set of tapped phone conversations leaked by two Indian newsmagazines.

The decision to keep Raja and placate the DMK eventually came back to bite the Congress Party. Last year, India’s chief auditing agency sharply criticized Raja’s oversight, estimating that the process resulted in as much as $40 billion in foregone revenue. Raja resigned his cabinet post and is now in judicial custody as authorities prepare formal charges against him, expected later this month. Raja has steadfastly denied that he did anything wrong.

Removing Raja was only the first step in the Congress Party’s march to prove that it will live up to its promises to root out corruption. As Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi said in a December speech:

“There should be no tolerance for corruption or misconduct. We have demonstrated this through our actions. Even when no charge has been established, we have asked ministers and chief ministers to step down, pending inquiry. How many other parties can make such a claim?”

Still, critics are demanding stronger action against those implicated in the tainted spectrum bids, and the Congress is under intense pressure to make sure the central government probe shows results. That put Singh and Gandhi on a collision course with the DMK, reaching its climax, according to the Times of India, when the investigation reached Kanimozhi, Karunanidhi’s daughter.

That’s where the story leaves the opaque world of electoral calculations and enters the gothic realm of political dynasties. Karunanidhi is the patriarch of an especially colorful one, and his ascent is memorably (though fictionally) told in the 1997 film Iruvar. It’s in Tamil, superbly acted by a cast including the ingenue Aishwarya Rai, and shows how the DMK used a powerful mix of leftist revolutionary ideology, lower-caste identity politics and Tamil nationalism, along with the heroic stories of the Tamil epics on film, to mobilize the masses against the dominance of north India’s Hindi-speaking, upper-caste elites. Their closest analog in American politics might be the Dixiecrats — if those southern Democrats were atheists whose various wives and children (one of whom is named Stalin) also held public office.

Tamil Nadu goes to the polls for state-level elections next month, and if the Congress and DMK haven’t patched things up by then, that campaign is likely to be a preview of the 2014 national elections. Look for Karunanidhi to somehow turn the arcane details of 2G spectrum allocation into a populist fable, in which the hero triumphs against all odds to stand up for the litte guy. That was his specialty as a screenwriter, and his greatest skill as a politician. As Gandhi considers whether to make amends with Karunanidhi, she might consider whether he is likely to easily forgive the slight to his daughter. Raja was a protégé, but he isn’t family, and that’s a line that Karunanidhi is not willing to cross. There is little that Indian politicians won’t do for their children, something a Gandhi might understand.