In a special session on February 8, the Tamil Nadu Assembly re-enacted the Bill stipulating its opposition to NEET as discriminatory and against social justice. The Bill was passed earlier on September 13, 2021, in the first instance but was returned by the Governor – who chose not to forward it to the President – after 142 days, which is also perhaps, a first. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK leader MK Stalin described the re-passage of the Bill as aimed at not just NEET but at protecting the integrity of the legislature and cooperative federalism. Not surprisingly, the four members of the BJP staged a walk out while the rest of the house, including the AIADMK, passed the Bill.
On April 20, 1974, Stalin’s father M Karunanidhi passed the resolution on state autonomy and noted later that it was one of the reasons for the Union government’s displeasure with him. Clearly, Stalin has thrown the gauntlet to the BJP. The re-enactment of the Bill comes on the heels of his letter on February 2 to 37 leaders on his All-India Social Justice Federation. Some are speculating that the DMK is seeking a national role for itself.
While Stalin would not shy away from such a role, it is also likely that he understands the huge challenges that confront him in the guise of the egos of some of the opposition leaders. The limitations of the playing field do not end with egos. The more important question is – is an anti-BJP narrative strong enough to draw the opposition efforts into one? Stalin might consider that the moment is not yet ripe for such coalescence of forces.
When he takes centre stage, much like his father, Stalin is more likely to remain firmly focussed on Tamil Nadu. In 1994, while characterizing the DMK’s part in national politics Karunanidhi said that the DMK “with its feet firmly planted in Tamil Nadu, had extended its hands nationally.”
The era of national Tamil leaders ended with Kamaraj. Prior to him Rajaji shone on the national scene although he was never a mass leader. While Rajaji reached the nation’s highest constitutional office Kamaraj rose to head the undivided Congress.
DMK founder CN Annadurai (Anna) ushered the Dravidian era in the state’s politics in 1967. His brief tenure was spent in consolidating the nascent DMK government’s tentative hold on the reins of administration. While he spoke fiercely against the Congress party and the Union government’s language policy, Anna was clear that he was not there for confrontation with the Union government. In 1968, while revealing that the Union government had asked for a paper on ownership of Kachatheevu (a 163-acre uninhabited island which was disputed between India and Sri Lanka till 1976), Anna asked the Legislative Assembly , in the interests of bilateral relations, not to press for a discussion. It is unclear if Anna would have sought a national role for the DMK if he had lived longer.
His successor, Karunanidhi, was cast in a different mould. Fifteen years younger to Anna and only 44 when he assumed office, Karunanidhi rose to the occasion to take DMK centre and front with the 1969 presidential election. Thanks to the DMK, the Akalis, and the Left, Indira Gandhi-backed VV Giri squeaked through against the Congress’s Sanjiva Reddy. Later, the DMK threw a lifeline for Indira Gandhi’s minority government. In 1975, while opposing the Emergency, the DMK chief would crow that if not for the DMK, Giri would have not made it to the presidency and Indira Gandhi continued as Prime Minister. Later in 1977, amongst other efforts towards uniting the opposition, Karunanidhi also played his part by convening opposition leaders in Delhi in December 1976. This meeting, he recorded, was germane to the founding of the Janata experiment. Similarly, in 1989, Karunanidhi played host to the launch of the National Front in Madras. Earlier in 1986, his Tamil Eelam Supporters Organisation brought Vajpayee and others to advocate for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause. For 17 years, the DMK also shared power at the Centre. Nonetheless, Karunanidhi’s focus remained the state.
We should not forget that Karunanidhi’s arrival on the national scene coincided with the beginning of the Congress’s decline and later sclerosis. Stalin is not witnessing such fortuitous circumstances yet. The BJP appears still relevant and strong at least in the Hindi states while the opposition remains divided more than ever.
Even though there are 12 opposition ruled states and a plethora of opposition parties, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab elections are pointers to the disarray in the opposition camp. Clearly, the issues differ with the region and parties, and the egos of the leaders are bigger than ever. Stalin had reached out to opposition chief ministers on NEET earlier. It is unclear if this initiative gained any traction. It is worth noting that in 2019, he was on his own when he proposed Rahul Gandhi as Prime Minister.
Mindful of the pitfalls ahead, Stalin may have chosen the lowest common denominator for opposition unity with the Social Justice forum. If it gains momentum, it could play a watchdog role to preserve the gains of the social justice struggle. And perhaps the beginnings of an opposition forum that could put up a good fight against the Modi-led BJP in 2024.
A first-time Chief Minister, Stalin appears keen on a legacy. Currently, his energies are directed at making up for lost time on good governance and fulfilling electoral promises. For this administration, the AIADMK, bruised and lacking a unified leadership, is not the real political foe to concentrate on – at least for now. The BJP is. Stalin’s NEET re-enactment and his forum are salvos fired against the BJP’s centralising attempts and its ideology of uniformity. Both are popular issues and even the AIADMK is ideologically aligned to these, a luxury that his father did not enjoy with his resolution on state autonomy. Stalin and his DMK have no serious opposition in the state – for now. Time alone can tell how the Union government views his assertiveness and bold speak.
Views expressed are author’s own.
R. Kannan is the biographer of Anna and MGR.