Amma will wait for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘honeymoon’ with the voter to fade away before deciding on the issues that are of real concern to the state and others that may need a considered and balanced solution, say N Sathiya Moorthy and M Kasinathan
First impressions apart, the 28-page memorandum presented by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa to Prime Minister Narendra Modi at their maiden meeting after the latter assumed office seeks central funding adding up to Rs 3.5 lakh crore. It also flagged intractable issues of concern to the state, where the decision rests with the Centre under the Constitution, but previous governments have had little leeway.
A ‘chicken-and-egg’ situation, Tamil Nadu’s fiscal woes owe to subsidies-driven urbanisation over the past several decades. You cut the subsidies, as is being often and erroneously suggested, you end up being electorally unpopular. Jayalalithaa found it out to her dismay in the parliamentary polls of 2004, when she was chief minister.
Worse still, deprivation of the past after holding hands to take them forward could revive militancy, of which TN has the taste of all that is known. Two decades of ‘economic reforms’ has shown up the rich-poor divide in a progressive state such as Tamil Nadu for whatever it is worth.
At one level, it should be a lesson for the rest of India. It is a lesson also for Tamil Nadu to start applying correctives. Barring the reimbursements from the Centre that are due, Jaya’s wish-list includes funding from the Centre, which cannot be sustained and repeated at the national-level.
Yet, TN’s memorandum seeks a ‘fiscal package’ for a developed state, though spread out over a period. It’s a fact that over a couple of decades now, states, particularly the developed ones, too have been chipping in for metro/urban rail projects, which used to be in the exclusive domain of the Centre -- and remains so, administratively even now. How to strike a balance is the larger question that the TN memorandum now flags.
Watering down disputes, but how?
After years of legal action and central intervention, Tamil Nadu now has favourable Supreme Court verdicts on water rows with Karnataka (Cauvery) and Mullaperiyar dam (Kerala). The Centre is the enforcing authority, but the other stake-holders are unyielding.
It’s a Catch-22 situation which no prime minister would want to be faced with. In the past, successive prime ministers had acted on Supreme Court directives lest they should be dubbed partisan. In the early 1990s, the SC and the Centre together found them handling a messy situation.
At the time, Jayalalihtaa in her first term as CM went on a fast when the late P V Narasimha Rao was prime minister. Anti-Tamil riots in Karnataka shocked the stake-holders into silence. In between, the Supreme Court passed the ball back to the Centre’s court, for fresh mediation. As coincidence would have it, Karnataka Chief Minister H D Deve Gowda became prime minister in 1996.
Having made a political issue of what essentially was/is a ‘livelihood issue’ on land, the political stake-holders in the respective states cannot go back to the negotiating table. They cannot be seen as being doing so. Yet, TN is at an advantageous position. It can negotiate from a position of strength with SC verdicts to back it.
Yet, politically it can be dicey for any chief minister in Jayalalithaa’s place to consider it in the TN context. The alternative, for the Centre to read the Constitution to Karnataka and Kerala (with or without explicit directions from the SC at every turn), can create more problems than they can handle, even together.
For Modi, it can create political problems, what with Jaya being seen as a personal friend of his, and the truncated Congress rival at the national-level being in power in the other two states just now. One false step, and the Centre may be in a mess than what the predecessor Manmohan Singh government faced over the formation of Telangana without adequate preparation.
For Tamil Nadu, water rows are on the top of the state’s priorities. They also topped Jayalalithaa’s memorandum. Equally sensitive to the state and its population, for political reasons and otherwise, are the three Sri Lanka related issues.
Among the sub-heads, the ‘ethnic issue’ came above the fishermen’s dispute, which is of immediate concern to Tamil Nadu and the ‘Katchchativu case’ in the Supreme Court. Jayalalithaa is a petitioner in the case as All India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhagam leader, and where the TN government under her enjoined after she returned to power.
Coming straight from Gujarat, where he had been CM for three unbroken terms, Modi could not have expected to receive a memorandum of the kind from another state in the union. Though it’s old wine, Jaya did reiterate the TN assembly demand, asking the Centre to intervene in the ‘internal affairs’ of another sovereign nation, and also help carve out a ‘separate nation’ by seeking a referendum for a ‘separate nation’ there.
To the extent, the Centre’s position and decision would impact on India’s foreign policy more than it is at present, it may have flagged issues of federalism.
In his poll campaigns, particularly in Tamil Nadu and other border-states, Modi as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s poll mascot had talked about taking the states into confidence on foreign policy issues impacting on them.
Whether it’s what he had in mind at the time is the question. It also flows from the known TN position(s) on the Sri Lankan issue at the time, as was being experienced by former prime minister Manmohan Singh. If Modi had a different approach, he will be expected to unfold it in the coming weeks, months and years.
Yet, Jaya has been relatively conciliatory on the fishers’ issue. For the first time, the state government has acknowledged the need for TN fishermen to take to deep-sea fishing as well, instead of cramping the already over-crowded and over-exploited Palk Bay region between India and Sri Lanka.
It can be a catch or a bargaining-chip, but Jaya’s pending ‘Katchchativu case’ can put cold-water on her asking the PM to find a ‘permanent solution’ to the fishermen problem. The latter was contained in a more recent missive to the PM, after Sri Lanka Navy detained TN fishermen.
Cornering all glory
For a change, the demoralised Dravida Munetra Kazhagam’s M Karunanidhi has also called for a ‘permanent solution’ to the issue. If however he thought that his call for the state government to call an all-party meeting to discuss the dead-locked Cauvery issue would receive a favourable response, it was not to be.
Karunanidhi had cited the Karnataka initiative, where the BJP welcomed the Congress state government’s move. BJP ministers in the Modi team from the state also pooh-poohed TN’s memorandum. The ‘bonhomie’ of the kind known to Karnataka and Kerala are alien to Tamil Nadu, whoever was in power and whoever was in the Opposition -- between the DMK and the AIADMK, that is.
What should surprise Jaya-watchers is not her declining bête noire Karuannidhi’s suggestion point-blank. Her reasoning for doing so instead has caused eyebrows to rise. Jaya said that the new PM needed to be given time to address such issues.
The ‘hidden message’, if it could be called so, was/is clear. When she thinks that the PM has settled down, she would not hesitate to up the pressure on protests by notches, as successive TN governments have been known to have done over the past so many decades.
In her memorandum to Modi, she even points out how she had written to his predecessor 41 times in three years on fishermen’s arrests. “But the previous government did not take up the matter forcefully,” she adds.
AIADMK cadres were upset when they discovered that ‘Amma’ was not the first CM to be given time by the new prime minister. Kerala’s Oommen Chandy (Congress) and Odhisa’s Naveen Patnaik (Biju Janata Dal) had preceded her by a day. Jayalalithaa made it a business meeting -- that it was anyway meant to be -- than a courtesy call, she not having participated in Modi’s inauguration despite personal invitation, as had been speculated endlessly.
Keeping with the national mood, she also praised the President’s address to Parliament without reservations. Her two-page statement on the President’s address had the word ‘welcome’ in six places. There was also a liberal usage of positive adjectives like ‘happy’, ‘applaud’ and ‘praise-worthy’, any number of times.
Yet, PM Modi and CM Jaya have their respective jobs cut out. Behind Jaya are a state and a people who have been made to feel that they have been wronged all along. It comes decades after the successful ‘democratic mainstreaming’ of the ‘separatist’ DMK, from which followed the AIADMK with its relative ‘nationalist’ traits.
Coming to power on the strength of strong and underlying ‘nationalist’ sentiments going beyond ‘Hindutva’, PM Modi needs to balance his act. TN’s demands, particularly on the home-front, are legitimate.
The Constitution has tasked the Centre, explicitly and otherwise, with maintaining the unity and integrity of the union. Modi will require fresh and imaginative ideas to achieve it in this case.
He may need to revisit the issues, bottom up, and find ways to address the needs, demands and apprehensions of all stake-holder states, without leaving anything to the future and chance. He may be the right person, at the right place and time.
CM Modi, PM Modi
The feeling of TN being ‘wronged’ cannot be automatically and unreservedly extended to the state’s expectations from the Centre on the ‘ethnic issue’ in particular. The issue transcends not only national boundaries. It has consequences that also go beyond Sri Lanka.
Here, CM Modi may not be of much help to PM Modi. The latter cannot shrug off his shoulders and allow matters to drift more than under his predecessor’s dispensation.
Where and how to draw the line, and draw it strong will be a task that PM Modi and his personality cannot escape. Here, PM Modi will have to learn on the job, putting his political skills to much use, as always.
Between now and the 2016 Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa will depend more on the continued demoralisation of the DMK rival and the confused signals emanating from her statements of the kind for the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance allies in the state, to decide on the best course to address/tackle PM Modi and his overwhelming popularity at the national-level.
Amma will wait for Modi’s honeymoon with the voter to fade away before deciding on the next course. There are issues that are of real concern to the state. There are some that may read closer to her heart. There may be others that may need a considered and balanced solution.
Unlike most state governments across the country, Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi as TN chief ministers have had established personal rapport with the PM of the day, without encouraging their ministerial colleagues and ministries to operate at their levels, to coordinate the state’s demands with the Centre.
She will keep the glove on until the time she thinks the nation and Modi are ready for it. Whether she finds a need to remove it will depend mostly on the other party -- as Tamil Nadu is bound to think, and justify, too, at times.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is director, Observer Research Foundation (Chennai chapter). M Kasinathan is a Chennai-based journalist and political analyst.