File image: DMK chief MK Stalin
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 17 and the recent softening tone of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has raised a lot of eyebrows on whether there is a political shift in the Dravidian party’s stance towards the national ruling party.
In a surprising move, BJP state chief L Murugan welcomed the DMK government’s announcement to appoint non-Brahmins as temple priests, indicating a significant shift from the days when he accused the DMK of being an anti-Hindu party. The abrupt ceasefire between the two parties has thrown the BJP’s electoral ally the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) off guard.
Having captured power by accusing the AIADMK government of acting as a proxy of the BJP government at the Centre, Stalin, who is yet to find his feet on his new role as Chief Minister, is engaged in a tight rope walk at the moment, when the state needs the Centre’s support to tide over the financial crisis, get exemption from NEET and stop Karnataka’s move to build a dam across the Cauvery River at Mekedatu.
According to the 2021-22 interim budget, the overall outstanding debt as on March 31 is estimated to be Rs 4,85,502.54 crore, and it is projected to increase to Rs 5.70 lakh-crore by April 2022. This does not include the outstanding liabilities of the state’s Public Sector Units such as the transport corporations and the electricity board which adds to the debt burden with Rs 1.68 lakh-crore in 2017-18 itself.
While demonetisation and the GST have disrupted state’s tax collections since 2017, the inter se share of Tamil Nadu in central taxes has been reduced by successive finance commissions. When the 14th Finance Commission increased the states’ share in central taxes to 42 percent, the Union government responded with more cess and surcharges that need not be shared with the states. The pandemic has added to the state’s financial woes. Tamil Nadu lost more than 75 percent of its State Own Tax Revenue (SOTR) in April- May 2020 due to the lockdown imposed last year.
Ever since the suicide of a 17-year-old, who took the extreme step after she was unable to clear the NEET exam despite scoring 1176 out of 1200 marks in her broad exams, NEET has been an emotive issue in Tamil Nadu. The DMK was sharply critical of NEET and promised to scrap it as soon as it came to power. The reality, however, is that the state needs to Centre’s nod for such an exemption.
The Cauvery water dispute is the major issue on which the BJP government earned the wrath of Tamil Nadu when the Centre sided with Karnataka and opposed the formation of the Cauvery Management Board at the Supreme Court in 2017.
If Stalin fails to take effective action to stop the Mekedatu dam, the DMK faces the risk of losing support in its traditional stronghold of the Cauvery delta region where it won 37 of the 41 assembly seats in May. The issue is certain to have its impact throughout the state, since Cauvery is the granary of Tamil Nadu and the river is culturally significant.
Instead of starting a confrontation on all these major fronts, Stalin has chosen to follow a cordial route. During the press conference in New Delhi after meeting Modi, Stalin recalled his father M Karunanidhi’s words: Uravukku Kai koduppome, urimaikku kural koduppome (we will extend a friendly hand for cordial relations, and will raise our voice for our rights). Ever since Karunanidhi became the DMK leader, the party is accused of extending a friendly hand to the Centre while ruling the state and raising its voice against the Centre only when in Opposition.
Stalin’s soft approach towards the BJP faces the risk of evoking resentment from a huge section of voters who backed the DMK which fought the assembly polls on a strong anti-BJP platform. Besides, all the DMK allies — the Congress, Left parties, the MDMK and the VCK — are strong critics of the saffron party. Though the growing divisions and lack of charismatic leaders in the AIADMK will be a big advantage for the DMK for the time being, people may be forced to look at a better alternative if Stalin is seen as BJP’s new ally in Tamil Nadu.