Tamil Nadu politics never surprises anyone. A few days ago, the principal opposition party, DMK, was out on the streets to exert pressure on Governor Banwarilal Purohit to give his assent to a legislation passed by the Assembly, handing out yet another embarrassment to the ruling AIADMK.
The Edappadi K Palaniswami government, which piloted the Bill that provides for 7.5 per cent horizontal reservation in medical admissions for government school students who clear National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET), looked hapless with its arch-rival succeeding in stealing the thunder.
The Tamil Nadu Assembly passed the Bill unanimously on September 15 but the Governor, who is sitting on it for over a month, had on October 22 sought another "three to four weeks" to arrive at a decision, prompting the DMK to get into agitation mode.
And DMK president M K Stalin, who led the protest march towards the Raj Bhavan, did not mince words when he declared that Purohit refusing to sign the Bill and the AIADMK government "remaining silent" was indeed a political issue and they will continue to fight it politically.
Add to the long list, the DMK's love-and-hate relationship with Governors since it came to power for the first time in 1967. Though the protest was against Purohit, the real target was the BJP, which the DMK accuses of meddling with Tamil Nadu affairs ever since the death of J Jayalalithaa in 2016.
NEET is already an emotional issue in Tamil Nadu and conduct of the exam in 2017 contributed to much of the anger that the Narendra Modi-led dispensation at the Centre and the AIADMK faced from people in 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Taking up the issue of delay in signing the Bill that would ensure 300 students from government schools get into medical and dental colleges, Stalin has made NEET a major political issue in the run-up to the 2021 elections. Stalin is not just projecting the AIADMK as "weak" and "helpless" but is also dragging the BJP and the Modi government by branding them as "anti-Tamil Nadu."
Stalin is also on the course to make the 2021 assembly elections as a fight between "Tamil Nadu versus Delhi", citing issues like Hindi imposition, insistence on conducting NEET, "denying reservation to OBC students" in medical seats surrendered by the state in all-India quota, and “weakening the federal structure.”
By flagging these issues close to the election, Stalin is trying to brand the BJP as "anti-social justice" and AIADMK as "subservient" to the saffron party. Prof Ramu Manivannan, Head of the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Madras, said the DMK will gain much, morally and electorally, by attacking the BJP and accusing it of "letting down the interests of Tamil Nadu.”
"That is the only way the game seems to be placed now. Attacking the BJP more and connecting the AIADMK with the saffron party works to the advantage of the DMK. The DMK is already projecting the elections as a fight to reclaim the state's lost glory. This will work heavily in favour of the DMK with another Dravidian party on BJP's side," Manivannan told DH.
The Governor may eventually sign the Bill or may even put it on the back burner, but NEET would remain an election issue with the DMK declaring that it would dispense with the exams once it came to power. That how the promise would be carried out with the BJP at the Centre has not been explained by the DMK.
The protest by the DMK has already forced the BJP to go on the defensive. Leaders of the state unit are now queuing up to "appeal" to Purohit to give his assent to the legislation as it involves students from government schools.
And the strategy of taking head-on the Central Government is time-tested and has been successful in Tamil Nadu where late Jayalalithaa invoked “state pride” to tilt the tide in her favour in 2014 by calling the contest a “Lady versus Modi” fight. Stalin himself took a leaf out of Jayalalithaa's playbook in 2019 to defeat AIADMK-BJP alliance.
Will Stalin succeed in his strategy of projecting the 2021 elections as a fight between “Tamil Nadu and Delhi'' or the BJP and AIADMK be able to successfully counter the narrative? Answer in a few months.