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Centre emissary balm for DMK
- vajpayee reaches out to angry southern ally

Chennai/New Delhi, Jan. 17: Minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office Vijay Goel today assured a sulking M. Karunanidhi that the BJP still valued his party’s presence in the Central coalition and was not “flirting” with his rival Jayalalithaa.

Goel, who air-dashed to Chennai this evening, met the DMK chief at his Gopalapuram residence for over 30 minutes. He was accompanied by Union minister of state for shipping S. Thirunavukkarasar.

The unscheduled visit by Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s emissary comes close on the heels of Karunanidhi’s recent attack on the government’s divestment policy. The sudden criticism had fuelled speculation that the Dravidian party was preparing the ground to quit the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in the wake of Jayalalithaa’s support to the Centre on several issues, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

DMK-BJP ties came under further strain after the ADMK chief was invited by Narendra Modi to Gandhinagar to attend his swearing-in as chief minister. Speaking to reporters after their meeting, Karunanidhi said Goel had not come as Vajpayee’s “emissary” per se and the visit was mainly to enquire about the health of Union minister Murasoli Maran, who is convalescing in a US hospital after a serious heart ailment.

Sources in Delhi said Goel’s brief included discussing a successor to commerce minister Murasoli Maran.

The talks assume importance because of reports of a Cabinet shuffle by the month-end. Speculation is rife that the government would like the BJP to have the commerce portfolio in view of its importance vis-à-vis divestment. Goel, however, sought to send the correct political signals when he told reporters he was happy to hear that Maran was “recovering”. “Our relationship with the DMK is very good and we very much consider the DMK a valuable and reliable ally,” he said.

Before leaving for Chennai, Goel had said that warming up of relations between the ADMK and the NDA should not be seen as a sign of the BJP moving away from the DMK.

“It is right that Tamil Nadu chief minister and ADMK leader Jayalalithaa supported the Centre on a number of issues like POTA. After all, there are issues on which the Opposition can help the ruling party,” he said. “However, this cannot be construed as the BJP moving away from the DMK, which is an important partner of the NDA. It is wrong to even make such an assumption,” Goel said.

But DMK sources said their chief was in touch with Congress and Left leaders and has almost made up his mind to quit the NDA at an appropriate time. Karunanidhi has already declared there is no truck with the BJP at the state level and that the alliance was only at the Centre.

Goel played down the DMK’s criticism of the Centre’s economic policies, saying various political parties had expressed their differences over the issue. But, as two DMK nominees, including Maran and T.R. Baalu, were members of Vajpayee’s council, “I see no problem,” he added.

Asked if the DMK was uncomfortable that disinvestment minister Arun Shourie was handling Maran’s commerce portfolio in his absence and whether the party had asked it to be handed over to one of its nominees, Goel said: “We have not discussed this problem.”

When a similar query was posed to Karunanidhi, the DMK leader said he did not have the habit of lobbying for ministerial posts. “Let Mr. Maran first return in good health,” he said, asked if the DMK wanted a portfolio reallocation.

Goel emphasised that the DMK had no problem with the NDA at the national level. On the strained relationship between the BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit and the DMK, particularly in the context of the February 26 Assembly byelection from Sattankulam, he said local problems could be sorted out.

Karunanidhi, on his part, clarified that his attack on the divestment issue should be seen as a “warning” against the ill effects of globalisation and liberalisation. He hoped the visit would improve the Tamil Nadu BJP’s ties with the DMK, particularly with Goel having denied that the BJP was “flirting” with the ADMK.

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