J. Jayalalithaa may have edged ahead of her rivals in Tamil Nadu by her unusual move to try to set free seven people convicted in Rajiv Gandhi's assassination after the Supreme Court commuted the death sentences of three of them into life imprisonment. But in the process, she appears to have botched her chances of being a serious contender for the prime minister's post.
In retrospect, however, the entire drama looks like a set-piece affair whose prologue and epilogue are known.
For a start, the Tamil Nadu chief minister could not have believed that she would get away with a highly controversial initiative whose legality was not the only point in doubt. She must have known that not only will her attempt to emerge as the champion of the cause of Tamil Eelam be shot down by the Supreme Court but also that she will be regarded with curiosity and distrust in the rest of the country.
If anything, Jayalalithaa's move has confirmed that the regional leaders are yet to acquire the outlook to play a national role. They are so preoccupied with local issues that they are unable to take a broader view.
The kind of chauvinism demonstrated by Jayalalithaa can be expected from smaller parties in Tamil Nadu which make no secret of their commitment to the separatist agenda of the Sri Lankan Tamils even if their chances of success have become remote in the aftermath of the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Nor is it certain that the Sri Lankan Tamils want to go down that fateful road again.
But for a chief minister to initiate a process by which those involved in the assassination of a former prime minister of India will be able to roam free with impunity cannot but seem unacceptable to a large body of public opinion in the country.
Even in Tamil Nadu, it is doubtful how sizeable is the percentage of the population which will welcome such a move notwithstanding the belief that the AIADMK's voting percentage will shoot up.
It goes without saying that both the ruling AIADMK and the principal opposition party in the state have been guided by the crassest of motives in seeking reprieve and freedom for those linked to the 1991 murder.
The fact that the killers belonged to one of the most ruthless terrorist groups which not only killed Sinhalese politicians but also moderate Tamils groups shows the LTTE does not deserve the high regard with which it is held by some Tamil Nadu outfits.
Even if the Sri Lankan army is guilty of murderous operations against both the LTTE and the Tamil population, their depredations do not exonerate the LTTE's excesses.
Moreover, it is evident that the Tamil Nadu parties are bent on using the sorrow and distress caused by a civil war to further their own cause in a competitive bid to outdo their rivals.
There is no denying that there is a determined effort by the Tamil diaspora and their Indian sympathizers to keep the issue of Eelam alive even if it appears to be a lost cause. But a realistic appraisal of the issue is clearly not the objective of Jayalalithaa and M. Karunanidhi as they battle each other to win the hearts and minds in Tamil Nadu.
It is also possible that the fact that the two leaders are regarded as Tweedledum and Tweedledee who drearily replace each other in the seat of power in alternate elections possibly encourages the chief minister and the DMK supremo to milk an "international" issue to boost their images.
Their cynical exploitation of an emotive subject might have been pardoned if an Indian prime minister had not fallen victim to the LTTE's suicide bomber. It is a measure of the maturity of Indian democracy that the assassination of another prime minister by her Sikh bodyguards hasn't led to a ban on the occasional praise of the mastermind of a Sikh terrorist organisation in Punjab.
But the Punjab government has little to do with such functions. In Tamil Nadu, it would have been different if the Supreme Court had not intervened. Besides, Jayalalithaa has ensured that the issue will remain live in the foreseeable future even if she could not achieve her objective of seeing the seven convicts walk free on her 66th birthday.
Thankfully, India's large size ensures that the pipedreams of Eelam and Khalistan are of little consequence to vast masses outside Tamil Nadu and Punjab. Even in the provinces bordering the two states, the locals couldn't care less about these separatist endeavours. At the most, their import is reduced to creditable cinematic productions like "Madras Café" and "Maachis".
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com