Wednesday will kickoff the NDA poll campaign in Tamil Nadu with Prime Minister Narendra Modi flying into Kancheepuram and launching various government schemes. Although AIADMK is leading the alliance in Tamil Nadu, Wednesday will see Modi launch the 2019 election campaign, with partners like the PMK and PT by his side. This is the fourth visit of the PM in less than 40 days, even as the poll bugle is yet to be sounded by the Election Commission.
While the Prime Minister will on Wednesday unveil projects in roadways, railways, and energy sector worth Rs 5010 crore, his last visit was on March 1 to Kanyakumari. In that visit, Modi flagged off the Thejas Express between Madurai and Chennai, proposed the restoration of the rail line between Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi, the Pamban Bridge and unveiled projects worth nearly Rs 3000 crore. Significantly, Modi used the occasion to trumpet the roots of IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who had been captured by Pakistan after his aircraft was shot down. The PM had then said, “It makes every Indian proud that the brave Wing Commander Abhinandan hails from Tamil Nadu.” It was lost on no one that the Prime Minister’s first public acknowledgement of the IAF pilot, who was released later the same day, came in Tamil Nadu.
On February 10, Modi visited Tirupur and laid the foundation stone of a 100-bed Employees State Insurance Corp (ESIC) health facility. He also used the occasion to flag off the 10km section of the Chennai Metro Rail and also laid the foundation stone for a new building at Trichy Airport and modernization of the Chennai airport. All this was done via video conference from Tirupur.
The Prime Minister’s first visit to Tamil Nadu in 2019 was on January 27, where he laid the foundation stone for the All India Institute of Medical Sciences to be built in Madurai. This came four years after the AIIMS project was first announced by the Centre in February 2015. On that occasion too, Modi unveiled other projects.
But it’s not just the Prime Minister, who is raining sops and schemes on Tamil Nadu. His cabinet colleagues have been busy inaugurating schemes and projects for the state. On Tuesday, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman launched pension scheme for the workers in the unorganized sector in Chennai. The same day, Union Minister for Road Transport and Shipping Nitin Gadkari launched the special purpose vehicle for establishing a container terminal in Kanyakumari via video conference. On Monday, Union Power Minister launched thermal and solar power projects in Thoothukudi.
So, what explains BJP’s sudden thrust on Tamil Nadu?
The obvious answer is that in a poll year, it is only expected that the ruling party at the Centre would push through as many projects and schemes as it can before the Model Code of Conduct comes into effect. But in Tamil Nadu, it is the perception battle that the BJP is fighting.
Since April 2018, nearly every visit of the Prime Minister has seen the opposition led by the DMK and its ally the MDMK trend #GoBackModi on Twitter. MDMK Chief Vaiko has held protests ahead of Modi’s visits, waving black flags and releasing black balloons when the PM took to the sky to avoid demonstrators on the ground.
But protests apart, the BJP has been criticized for neglecting the state, whether it is over NEET or on the Cauvery issue and the Mekedatu project – where the party has been accused of siding with Karnataka where it is in the Opposition. Following Cyclone Gaja that devastated parts of the state in November 2018, the anger against the Centre was two-fold. While many asked why the Prime Minister chose not to visit the cyclone-hit regions, others questioned the Centre for not releasing enough funds. While the Tamil Nadu government had sought Rs 14,190 crore for rehabilitation, the Centre released about 10% of this demand, approving funds for Rs 1146 crore.
This perception of neglect by the Centre has been so much that the PMK drew up a 10-point charter to justify its alliance with the AIADMK and the BJP. The charter “to retrieve the rights of Tamil Nadu people” included declaring Cauvery delta districts as a protected farm zone, releasing the seven life convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, the state being exempt from NEET among other demands.
Even the AIADMK, has most recently accused the Centre of cutting down funds meant for the state. In his budget speech in February, Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam had pointed out that over Rs 3800 crore was still pending from the Centre.
The multiple visits and project unveilings led by PM Modi in a state where the BJP has negligible presence is an attempt to not only blunt this criticism but also to smoothen poll tie-ups with its allies in Tamil Nadu for 2019. And while the BJP has managed to cobble together a ‘mega alliance’ with the AIADMK, whether it will successfully be able to counter opposition criticism that it has “betrayed” Tamil Nadu’s interests remains to be seen.
Anna Isaac has reported on politics in Tamil Nadu for more than a decade.
Views are author's own