As the countdown for Tamil Nadu Assembly polls begin, Jayalalithaa again hoists the issue of release of the assassins of the late Rajiv Gandhi by writing to the Centre in the hope to touch voters’ chord, writes Vijay Grover
Every time polls are announced in Tamil Nadu, the release of the killers of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi becomes an issue for the Dravidian parties.
The recent letter of Tamil Nadu Government to the Ministry of Home Affairs seeking its opinion on releasing seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case hence didn’t come as a surprise. Moving ahead of her political adversaries, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa triggered this debate yet again, just two weeks before the elections were announced. The State Government’s letter stated that it has decided to release the seven convicts and sought the Centre’s opinion under Section 435 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
In February 2014, the Jayalalithaa-led Government had sent a similar note to the then UPA Government after the Supreme Court commuted the death sentence of Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan. The reason then cited was that the delay in decision on their mercy plea makes them eligible for reprieve. The latest letter, written by the poll-bound State’s Chief Secretary K Gnanadesikan to Rajiv Mehrishi, Home Secretary at the Centre, said that the Tamil Nadu Government had received petitions from all seven convicts -- Murugan, Santhan, Perarivalan, Jayakumar, Robert Payas and Nalini- requesting that they be released since they have already served a sentence for 24 years.
Political parties in Tamil Nadu generally don’t miss any opportunity to show their concern for the Rajiv killers with an eye on the elections. The move, many perceive, goes a long way to show their soft corner for the Eelam cause and wooing the voters who still espouse it but don’t express it openly.
Several political parties and their leaders like Vaiko of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Thol Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Chirutagal Katchi (VCK) have made their political careers by championing the Eelam-Tamil cause.
The move by the Jaya Government resonated in political circles with all political parties including arch rivals DMK supporting it. While the Left parties, ideologically opposed to Capital punishment, also requested the Centre to release the Rajiv killers, what surprised many was the cautious and guarded approach of the otherwise nationalist rhetoric-packed Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) on the issue. The Tamil Nadu BJP made an appeal to the Centre to consider the plea of the State Government with a ‘humane approach’.
Amid this, the sole and boldest voice of dissent came from Subramaniam Swamy, who has had a clear stance on the issue since the beginning. “It seems Jayalalithaa has no other work except to write letters. The Supreme Court has already discussed the case in great detail. There is now no question of their release,” said Swamy.
The Union Home Ministry not willing to be dragged into a fresh row was quick to lob the ball in the Supreme Court. “We will abide by the SC verdict, as the convictions were by the SC and setting them aside is also dependent on it”, said Home Minister Rajnath Singh in the Parliament.
The Congress, however, was quick to register its anger. Leader of Opposition Mallikarjuna Kharge protested against the decision, terming it "very unfortunate".
“If such a practice to free such convicts is allowed, then other States might also make such demands. Such a move should not be allowed for the sake of the country's unity and integrity” said Kharge.
The question that is hanging heavily on political minds, is whether the Eelam and sympathetic approach to the LTTE cadre will still appeal to a big section of Tamil Nadu? The political fortunes of the MDMK have been on the downslide in the last few elections. “It is an indicator that the issue doesn’t touch a chord like before. While the rehabilitation of Sri Lankan refugees continues to be topic of discussion, it no more can swing polls. Every political party is trying to take credit for being involved in the rehabilitation for those who were caught in the war zones of North Sri Lanka” said Rajesh Sundarama, News head of a Tamil channel.
The Congress yet again finds itself isolated on the matter in Tamil Nadu. Its political graph has been maintaining a downward trend in the State, as the move to send Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is seen as a move in collusion with the Sinhalese Government. The Party made amends to Tamil sentiments when in April 2000, Nalini’s death penalty was commuted to life sentence by the Tamil Nadu Governor on the basis of a recommendation of the State Cabinet and a public appeal by Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
With just four weeks to go for the polls, all wait and watch how the Sri Lanka-Tamil card plays out. Thol Tirumavalavan of the VCK was the only politician who chose to make his stance public by making an appearance with Nalini during the last rites of her father.
What evokes curiosity is the fact that the DMK which exited the UPA in 2013 is again set to contest the coming elections in alliance with the Congress. The question remains whether it will be Rajiv Gandhi’s legacy which will get votes or whether it is sympathy for Rajiv Gandhi’s killer Nalini which will help parties like MDMK and VCK make it big. Interestingly, the ‘Nationalist’ BJP is looking at tying up with both the parties like it did in 2014 general elections that brought Narendra Modi to power.