It is a rather bizarre setting, but DMK president and Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin appears unfazed as he rages against the Centre while campaigning via videoconference for the urban local body elections in Kanyakumari district. Rather than pitch the achievements of his government in the last eight months, Stalin persistently harped on the challenge posed to the country’s federal set-up by the Union government in his February 11 speech. But that’s nothing unusual in the Dravidian politics of Tamil Nadu.
State autonomy was a big issue for the DMK since its formative years. The anti-Hindi agitation gave it another dimension, by projecting the party as the saviour of Tamil language and culture. No wonder, the fight against Hindi imposition has been a favourite weapon in the hands of both Dravidian parties while taking on the Centre. For example, the symbolic act of hoisting the tricolour on Independence Day was the preserve of the state governor till Karunanidhi as CM got the powers shifted to the chief minister in 1971. DMK has also never hidden its misgivings on Article 356, since its government had been dismissed twice—in 1976 and 1991.
The fight might be local, but the theme is national, and given the DMK’s history of seeking greater autonomy for states, this theme will only get a broader brush in the coming days. As a first step, Stalin has floated the Federation for Social Justice to bring other parties under its umbrella, under the guise of protecting the reservation offered for BCs and MBCs, which are being undercut by the BJP. The next step would be a convention of non-BJP CMs at Chennai to defend state autonomy—something he promised West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee when she complained to him about her state governor. Clearly, the DMK chief is aiming for a greater national role for himself, in the hope that he would be in pole position among Opposition parties ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
DMK spokesperson A. Sarvanan justifies Stalin taking on the Centre even during local body elections, pointing out that even when it was in alliance with the Congress, the DMK had opposed shifting the Panchayati Raj administration from the State List to the Concurrent List in 1969. “So, there is nothing wrong in talking about federalism while campaigning for local bodies elections,” he said.
The unbroken rule of the two Dravidian parties for over 60 years had also created a new style of personality-oriented leadership—with the likes of MGR, his successors Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, and the latter’s successor Stalin—all using the rhetoric of federalism and fighting for state’s rights as integral to their competitive politics. The Cauvery dispute was a constant pressure point in which both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa had to prove they were no less than the other in protecting the state’s rights. The real challenge came while taking on the Centre or its representative, the governor.
Jayalalithaa took it to crass levels, accusing then Governor Chenna Reddy of misbehaving with her and even having him gheraoed by her party cadres. She boycotted the governor’s Republic Day tea party whenever she disagreed with the occupant of the Raj Bhavan. The DMK, during the previous AIADMK government’s tenure, regularly used to protest in front of the Raj Bhavan, when the previous governor Bhanwarilal Purohit toured the districts to inspect government projects. The DMK called it unnecessary interference in the state administration.
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In his present tenure, Stalin has already made his government’s collision with state governor R.N. Ravi over the NEET exemption bill into a constitutional showdown. After the governor rejected the bill, having sat on it for months, Stalin had the state assembly pass the bill again, which would force the hand of the governor to forward it to the President for his assent. There is no guarantee the President will give his assent in a hurry and might even reject the bill, but that would give Stalin one more handle to uphold his fight for federalism.
Having oversold his party’s promise of abolishing NEET immediately on assuming power, Stalin finds himself in a fix as his government is a spectator, with NEET to be held for a second time since he became CM. Compounding his predicament is the DMK’s own sketchy past record in opposing NEET, especially when in power. “Let us not forget that the Centre’s notification about admissions through NEET was issued in December 2010, when DMK was part of the UPA at the Centre, and its minister S. Gandhiselvan was the Union MoS for Health. Now both the Congress and the DMK are trying to wriggle out from their past misdeed,” pointed out former deputy CM, O. Panneerselvam.
The DMK’s changing posture on NEET is another example of how the party positions itself over issues of state autonomy. Whenever the party has shared power at the Centre, it has been less vociferous on these or on dilution of the state’s powers by the Centre. While the UPA was in power for 10 years at the Centre, and the DMK was part of it for nine of these, the party went soft on issues concerning state autonomy. It sought to mask this by raising its voice on issues based on optics.
For example, it pitched hard for the unviable Sethusamudram Project—of building a shipping channel between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu—claiming in 2004 that it would improve the state’s economy and went to town celebrating getting classical language status for Tamil. The project got enmeshed in court cases before being cold-storaged after the BJP came to power at the Centre. The classical status for Tamil that Karunanidhi got from the Centre with great fanfare, only kick-started a race that saw other languages like Kannada, Telugu and Odia pitching for a similar status by their respective state governments. In the process, the antiquity and uniqueness of Tamil got dimmed.
While these optics helped the DMK reiterate its position as the guardian of Tamil and state interests, on crucial issues like NEET, it was found badly wanting. Even as it skidded on NEET, Jayalalithaa in 2013 asserted the state’s share of Cauvery water by getting the award of the Cauvery River Water Tribunal notified in the central gazette, thus giving it necessary legal standing.
“Jayalalithaa was more action oriented while fighting for and protecting the state’s rights. When the Supreme Court imposed a 50 per cent ceiling on reservation, she ensured Tamil Nadu’s 69 per cent quota remained undisturbed by getting it included in the Ninth Schedule. She was not on best terms with the then P.V. Narasimha Rao government. Yet, she had her way. Similarly, she was vehemently opposed to GST during her lifetime,” pointed out a former advocate general.
On the other hand, the DMK has been quick to make compromises in the past. Its founder Annadurai gave the clarion call for a separate Tamil land in the 60s, but curtailed the demand when call for separatism was termed seditious after the war with China. “The demand might not be there, but the reasons (for a separate Tamil land) still exist,” he said with his usual rhetorical flourish.
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Similarly, he had likened the governor’s post to a goat’s beard (ie, unnecessary), and demanded its abolition. But the DMK fell silent on the issue whenever it shared power in Delhi. Rather, it wrangled with the Centre to get its preferred nominee appointed to the Raj Bhavan whenever possible.
In its present battle with the governor, the DMK has found support from Mamata Banerjee and Pinarayi Vijayan, who too are engaged in political duels with their respective governors. With the Centre adding fuel by changing the criterion for central posting of IAS and IPS officers, and now proposing one registration system for properties across the country—non-BJP ruling parties like DMK, TMC, CPM and even TRC are forging a united front to take on the BJP government.
“The DMK always seeks to divert attention from its non-performance by whipping up unnecessary polemics. It should admit that NEET can be abolished only by an act of Parliament, which is unlikely since every other state has got adjusted to the qualifying exam, and would not want another change after five years of NEET. Rather than confusing students on whether they should prepare for NEET or wait for it to be abolished (not happening), the DMK must prepare students to take the exam with better preparation and greater confidence,” argued S.G. Suryah, state BJP spokesperson.
The DMK’s strident anti-Centre and anti-BJP rhetoric might also be tuned towards the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, when regional parties like DMK, TMC, TRC, Shiv Sena and SP are likely to determine the direction of anti-BJP politics, rather than the Congress. Unlike other regional satraps, Stalin still has uses for the Congress, considering the latter still commands a five per cent vote bank and has a sway over Christian votes in the state. While the DMK has been stingy in giving seats to the Congress in both the Lok Sabha and assembly elections, it is in no mood to dump the national party.
The Congress too realises this, something that found echo in Rahul Gandhi’s sudden concern for Tamils during his Lok Sabha speech. The Congress needs the DMK, more than the other way round, if it has to forge a strong anti-BJP front along with the Shiv Sena and NCP. “One reason why Stalin keeps harping on anti-BJP propaganda even at local body elections is to keep Muslim and Christian votes aligned with the DMK. After NTK leader Seeman demanded the release of Muslim prisoners convicted in the Coimbatore serial blasts and other terror plots—which found resonance among Muslim youth—the DMK is a bit nervous about Muslims not voting for the DMK en bloc. Hence, he is training his fire on the BJP constantly,” reasoned political commentator Raveenthiran Thuraisamy.
For the BJP, all this is good news. “Under the guise of fighting for state autonomy, Stalin spewed anti-BJP venom. The truth is he is nervous about BJP’s growth, and sees us as his real challenger in the future. This fits in with our strategy for the 2024 Lok Sabha and 2026 assembly elections,” pointed out BJP spokesperson Narayanan Thirupathy. The results of the urban local bodies elections will show whether the BJP, fighting on its own, has actually made a dent in Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian politics.
(This appeared in the print edition as "First on Federalism")