Grouse Questionnaire: Challenging Modi at every turn, is MK Stalin leading the opposition sweepstakes?

Everyone loves Mamata, but it’s Stalin’s DMK that has kept the BJP at bay in Tamil Nadu.

WrittenBy:Vrinda Gopinath
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There’s a Tamil saying which, loosely translated, says: “Pull a mountain by tying a hair. If you win, you get a mountain. If you lose, you lose a hair.”

If there’s one person who has been popping up with persistent alacrity to challenge the RSS-BJP’s diabolic attempt to turn the country into a Hindutva rashtra, it’s Tamil Nadu chief minister and DMK heir-chief MK Stalin.

And so, this is the third episode of the Grouse Questionnaire (see previous episodes here and here), where opposition leaders and parties are asked probing and searing questions about the strategy, motive and dealings, and the answers given too based on true events, if they are to seriously challenge the NDA government led by prime minister Narendra Modi in state elections and the 2024 general election. And it is Stalin and his obstinacy for a true federal republic, insisting that states are independent and have primacy too in the union government, that is ahead in the opposition sweepstakes.

Everyone loves Mamata “Didi” and her fierce vanquishing of Modi-Shah in the recently concluded state election in West Bengal. But it is Stalin and the DMK that have forcefully kept Modi and the RSS-BJP out of the state, where the latter scored a big fat zero in the 2019 general election, whereas Didi gave away a shocking 18 seats to Modi’s BJP.

So much so that in the rural local body poll in Coimbatore held last week, the BJP’s candidate got only one vote; even four voters in his family reportedly did not support him. Of course, it later transpired that they were in another ward but the joke was clearly on the BJP and its pathetic showing in the election.

More importantly, Stalin has persistently asserted the rights and independence of states. So, will the challenge to Modi come from the eastern and southern states? Let’s take a look at events so far.

Why is Stalin constantly harping on the NEET exam as a blow to federalism?

Last week, Stalin wrote to 12 chief ministers of non-BJP governed states and Goa to rally support against the National Eligibility and Entrance Test, or NEET, imposed by the centre as a common entrance exam to medical colleges in states. Stalin said it was crucial to restore the primacy of states in entrance exams and to assert their constitutional right in deciding admissions to higher education colleges.

Now, admissions through NEET have been a bone of contention for the DMK in Tamil Nadu. Several students, mostly from poorer sections, have died by suicide this year for fear of failure. Ever since NEET was introduced in 2013, students appearing for it have dwindled in the rural sector, and successful candidates are increasingly from the upper caste and urban class.

Before NEET, in Tamil Nadu, which has a whopping 69 percent reservation for education, a vast number of reservation category students came from rural and urban poor backgrounds, studying in Tamil-medium government schools. Admissions were granted on the basis of their Class 12 exams.

These student graduates went back to their villages to set up practice and, over decades, the state established one of the most robust health care systems at, more crucially, the local government level.

In one stroke, the centre broke the system with NEET and, as the Stalin appointed AK Rajan committee to look into the impact of NEET in the state showed, students in rural Tamil Nadu are failing to pass the NEET exam. Seventy percent of students today choose to work in private corporate hospitals; earlier, 70 percent chose to work in government hospitals all over the state. As the report warned, increasingly the healthcare system in the state is heading for collapse as there may not be enough doctors to be employed in government hospitals if the trend continues for long.

Alarmingly, due to NEET, students in the state were also gradually shifting to the central CBSE board from the Tamil Nadu state board.

Not surprisingly, any scheme with the word “central” is like waving a red rag at the DMK, and it has been opposed vociferously.

But have states responded to Stalin’s letter?

Well, Maharashtra is considering scrapping NEET and allowing admissions on the basis of Class 12 scores, so as to give students from state boards a fair chance. This call came soon after Stalin moved a bill in the state assembly last month – it came on the heels of yet another suicide – calling for the abolishing of NEET. Except for the BJP which walked out, all parties, including rival AIADMK, supported the nill. Stalin also called the union administration “cold-hearted”.

So, Stalin has hit out at the centre at the outset?

Yes, in the strong and anti-centre tradition of the Dravidian movement launched by Periyar in the 1940s, Stalin as chief minister has hit the ground mouthing the party’s trademark anti-centre rallying cries. First came his salvo to Modi and Shah when he insisted in referring to “union government” to their “central government” in his tweet reply to their congratulatory messages on his victory. It’s a union of states, Stalin explained later, not a centre as an authority overseeing the states.

Not before long, Stalin was hurtling to assert state autonomy and a federal structure. The DMK opposed the new electricity bill by the Modi government in May, saying it was designed by the centre to take away the state’s rights which will now have no say in the appointment of officials in the state regulatory commissions. The centre will now provide direct power subsidy to farmers and domestic consumers; and the bill allows the centre to set up its own enforcement authority which will have the power of civil courts in power purchase disputes between discoms and power companies.

The list seems endless in the last few months.

Yes, then came the opposition to the one nation, one ration card scheme when Stalin accused Modi of dominance through such schemes. “The PM-led government is desperately indulging in activities aimed at uprooting federalism,” thundered Stalin. His opposition has swung from refusing to accept the proposed Draft Cinematograph Bill 2021 as the union government can direct the Central Board of Film Certification to re-examine a film even after certification, among other provisions.

Last month, Stalin opposed Modi’s plans to monetise the assets of PSUs and he registered his protest against Modi’s National Monetisation Pipeline through a special attention calling motion in the state assembly. He has asked nine state chief ministers to oppose the centre’s new draft Indian Ports Bill, 2021, as it will reduce the state government’s autonomy in the port’s regulation and management. He also opposed the centre’s decision to privatise airports saying the move usurps the rights and autonomy from the states.

Of course, Stalin also moved a resolution in the assembly asking the centre to revoke the three farm laws as it was against the farmers’ interests. Instead, his government presented a separate budget for agriculture, a first, and dedicated the budget to protesting farmers.

But despite the DMK’s protestations of the centre’s domination, it has happily been part of "central" governments, both BJP and Congress, in the last two decades?

Critics have pointed to the DMK’s dilution of its stand for a true federal union of states when it participated in the so-called centrist parties-led governments by both the BJP and Congress. The DMK, they say, betrayed the cause of no business with so-called Hindi parties, and had even gone to the extent of keeping a deafening silence when the Congress-led UPA government, of which the DMK was a coalition partner, sent troops to Sri Lanka in 2009 to fight the Tamils in the northern province of Jaffna. Does the DMK have to compromise with the northern political parties because they have massive fortunes to protect, ask critics.

The DMK business empire, which includes the Karunanidhi family of three wives and their children, the Maran cousins, to powerful party members, stretches from universities to broadcast media and movies, real estate to granite mining, even the liquor business.

Is this why Tamil nationalist parties are now challenging the DMK by being more Tamil rather than Dravidian?

While the state election in April was mostly bi-polar between the DMK and AIADMK, what has rung alarm bells for the DMK is the emergence of the Naam Tamizhar Katchi led by actor Seeman, which may not have won any seats but emerged as the third party with 6.7 percent of vote share, up from 1.1 percent in the last election.

The NTK has extreme views, from supporting the LTTE and idolising the late V Prabhakaran, to political power only for native Tamils, as they accuse the DMK of having many non-Tamil leaders.

Will the NTK do an AAP in Tamil Nadu? It can happen only if one of the major parties crumbles, as happened in Delhi, for the NTK to strike really hard. Until then, it can only pin-prick the DMK.

Has Stalin remained true to the Dravidian movement beyond challenging federalism?

Periyar’s Dravida movement overturned the caste elites on its head, literally wiping out brahminical dominance in over a century. The DMK was swept to power riding on the multi-caste coalition of OBCs and SCs around a Dravida-Tamil identity, and it has served the party well. And, unlike casteist parties in UP like Mayawati’s BSP and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s SP, the DMK went beyond caste to demand social justice by access to education, health and jobs. It has worked wonders with the knowledge economy first unleashed in southern states.

For starters, Stalin has signed orders that allow the appointment of over 200 priests in temples managed by the department of Hindu religious and charitable endowments, and to the horror of many, half were from non-brahmin castes, including SC backgrounds. It even got the irrepressible Dr Subramanian Swamy threatening to go to court for meddling in temple affairs. Schools for priesthood for all castes have been revived across the state, the rituals will no longer be in the brahminical Sanskrit, but in Tamil now.

Stalin also blunted the BJP’s threat in the state by going out of his way to show the DMK was not anti-Hindu when it introduced a bill in the assembly saying encroachments on temple land was a cognizable and a non-bailable offence. Stalin also said all released temple land from encroachments would now have schools, colleges and libraries.

Despite these modern democratic initiatives, the family dynasty continues to be family firm?

Stalin worked his way up in the party organisation for over three decades, as his father, the late M Karunanidhi, was the helm until his death in 2018, even though Stalin was the heir apparent and was working president. Today, to everyone’s astonishment, Stalin has already foisted his actor-now-politician son, Udhayanidhi Stalin, who blazed the campaign despite dynasty barbs from the AIADMK and Modi, and Shah. Udhayanidhi was elected from his grandfather’s constituency of Chepauk-Triplicane, and was tutored by his uncle, Dayanidhi Maran. He is also president of the party’s youth wing.

Udhayanidhi’s first move was to introduce a robotic sewer cleaner in his constituency in a bid to rid society of the menial practice of manual scavenging. A good move but people are perplexed why Stalin is in such a hurry to install his son in DMK politics.

Is it because the DMK can strike at the centre in the 2024 general election? Many regional leaders, from Mamata “Didi” to Sharad Pawar among others, are making moves for a national profile. Will Stalin’s ambitions go beyond the state? Until then, the DMK will have to live with “Son-isitus”, as a party member ruefully remarked.

Also see
article imageNot a wave, but still a victory: Stalin’s journey to Tamil Nadu’s chief ministership


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