As the four-year-old BJP led NDA-government faced its first motion of no confidence in the Lok Sabha on Friday, for those in Tamil Nadu, representation came in the form of the two AIADMK MPs who were critical of the Central government, imploring it to be mindful of the states. Ponnusamy Venugopal and Jayavardhan Jayakumar were articulate – and critical – of the Centre and raised several issues that are important for Tamil Nadu.
However, their critical speeches were in direct contrast to how the party voted. The AIADMK supported the Centre on the floor of the Assembly, taking the government’s tally up to 325.
So what exactly is the party’s strategy?
When Ponnusamy Venugopal of the Thiruvallur constituency in northern Tamil Nadu started speaking, he touted the oft-repeated line of the late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa.
“The central government is like a mother and all the states are like children. It is the duty of the mother to take care of all her children with nourishment. It is very sad that there is a feeling among the children i.e. the states, including Andhra Pradesh, that the Centre is not treating her children impartially. Some states are feeling that step-motherly treatment is given to them. Again, it is the responsibility of the mother to reverse such an impression.” he said.
Ponnusamy then went on to ask what the state was getting in return for the 8% that it was contributing to the national GDP.
The MP also claimed “repeated punishment and unfair treatment meted out to Tamil Nadu by successive Finance Commissions for achieving higher growth.”
“The 14th Finance Commission had announced an unfair and unscientific formula which singles out the welfare State Tamil Nadu. We feel that Tamil Nadu has been penalised for the State’s achievement in economic development and population control,” he said.
Ponnusamy also came down heavily on the Centre’s plan to scrap the UGC and replace it with a ‘Higher Education Commission.’ “We hear that the Ministry of Human Resource Development has proposed a draft bill for setting up a higher education commission replacing the age-old University Grants Commission. The Government of Tamil Nadu is of the view that the existing institutional arrangement of the University Grants Commission with regulatory and financial powers is functioning quite well. So, there is no need to disband the University Grants Commission by replacing it with a higher education commission.”
“In the proposed Bill, the financial powers are supposed to be transferred to the Ministry of Human Resource Development. All of us have apprehensions in this regard. So, we oppose the proposed Bill and plea that the present framework of the University Grants Commission should be allowed to continue,” he said.
The MP said Tamil Nadu was one of the 'best performing States after introduction of GST' while also conceding that there would be a significant shortfall in settlement amounts due to Tamil Nadu under the new GST regime.
Thanking Prime Minister Modi for the setting up of the Cauvery Management Board, he said, "if the government does not pay immediate attention to the aspects that I raised, people of the country and specially the people of Tamil Nadu may lose their confidence in the Central Government. So, I would like to reiterate that there must be cordial relations between the Centre and States."
‘NEET a direct infringement on the rights of the States’
Speaking next on behalf of the Chennai South constituency was Jayavardhan Jayakumar who pointed out to the Centre that it had not intervened in certain issues of the state where intervention was required, while it had done the opposite to “exercise unwarranted excess rights” in some cases.
The first time MP flayed the central government over the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET) which continues to be a bone of contention between the state and the Centre.
He said, "The introduction of NEET is a direct infringement on the rights of the states and has caused grave injustice to the students of Tamil Nadu who are already covered by a fair and transparent admission policy laid down by the Government of Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu admission system protects the interest of the students particularly from the weaker sections and rural areas, as such students cannot compete with the urban elite students in common entrance examination. A large number of social and economically backward meritorious students have benefited by the Government of Tamil Nadu decision to abolish common entrance examination. For admission to post graduate courses, the Government of Tamil Nadu gives preference to those who have served in rural areas with special weightage for those working in hilly and tribal areas. The introduction of NEET has nullified such policy initiatives intended to further the socio-economic objectives of the State.”
The MP also said that privatisation of the Salem Steel Plant was against the will of the Government and the people of Tamil Nadu. Slamming the government for the low funding during the Vardah and Ockhi cyclones, the MP said that despite seeking several thousand crores for relief efforts, the state was given only a few hundred crores. "This clearly shows the state of response and the helping hand provided by the Central Government to the State Governments in times of distress," he said.
No walking the talk?
However, despite the strong words against the Centre, the AIADMK voted against the motion of no confidence, aiding the BJP to win comfortably with 325 votes.
In an interview to CS Kotteswaran for Hindustan Times, Thambidurai – AIADMK MP and Deputy Speaker of Lok Sabha, said, “The AIADMK wanted to respect the public mandate which elected BJP with full majority, so why disrupt the public sentiment. When there are polls scheduled after six months what is the need to stop the BJP from completing its five-year term. This applies also to Tamil Nadu where the AIADMK has the public mandate and should be allowed to complete five years term.”
The AIADMK seems wary of upsetting the centre, and there is also palpable of fear of repercussions if the party stands against BJP. The trust vote came just a few days after Income Tax raids on SPK Group, a road contractor in Tamil Nadu with alleged ties to the AIADMK.
In a complaint lodged with the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption in June 2018, the DMK had alleged that many highway contracts were being given to the Chief Minister’s family and benamis. Incidentally, the Chief Minister holds the Highways and Minor Ports portfolio.
Not surprisingly, DMK Working President MK Stalin slammed the AIADMK on the trust vote calling the party ‘spineless’, terming it an unpardonable betrayal of the people of Tamil Nadu.
That the BJP did not need the ruling party here in Tamil Nadu to win the motion of no confidence against it does not merit mention. With a solid majority in the Lok Sabha, the AIADMK were votes only strengthened its numbers. But it appears that the EPS-OPS combine are still beholden to the Centre, playing their cards close to their chest.