Thursday’s protests across Tamil Nadu was less pro-Cauvery and more anti-Modi in character and content -- including in it various development projects in the state that are perceived as ‘environmentally unfriendly’ and hence ‘anti-Tamil’, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
If the ruling BJP leadership at the Centre had thought that through the massive, job-creating multi-nation DefenceExpo in Chennai suburbs, the party could project Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ plans in ‘Dravidian’ Tamil Nadu in a big way ahead of elections 2019, it was not to be.
Along with that the party leadership’s perceived idea of promoting Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to her ‘native’ Tamil Nadu electorate in an equally roaring fashion, as the BJP’s possible chief ministerial candidate in the state assembly polls, due in 2021, that was also not to be.
Instead, their joint launch of the DefenceExpo on April 12 was drowned in a cacophony of ‘Cauvery protests’ involving a multitude of pan-Tamil peripheral groups and minor ‘Dravidian’ electoral outfits, pushing even the mainline DMK working president M K Stalin’s padyatra elsewhere in the state to the background -- even if for those many hours and days.
It was but a coincidence that the PM visit was preceded by the first league match of IPL cricket tourney in the city only two days earlier, on April 10, where the local ‘Chennai Super Kings’ outfit under captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni was returning after a two-year ban, following match-fixing charges.
The adamant attitude of the IPL-BCCI leadership to have their way with the Chennai play-out despite advance notice of impending protests, together with Monday morning’s Supreme Court’s oral direction for the Tamil Nadu and Karantaka governments to maintain law and order pending the disposal of the Cauvery case, meant that the unsure and unsteady administration of AIADMK Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami could not take chances.
Of course, the Special Protection Group, created under special law to protect the prime minister and other VVIPs and their immediate families, could not have taken any chances, either.
The ‘strongest’ prime minister of India in recent years and decades, Modi too could not have avoided his twin programmes in the city on the already-appointed day.
There was no question of Modi, of all prime ministers, shying away from an event where defence manufacturers from across the world, were displaying their wares, owing to protests of whatever kind.
There was also no question of his staying away from a programme put up by the nation’s defence ministry, whose name is synonymous with ‘security’ in the average Indian’s mind, especially when the three services had also planned a display of their valour for everyone, especially for the PM, to see.
The other was a function in the famed Adayar Cancer Institute, whose nonagenarian chairperson, Dr V Shantha, has become an institution in herself -- and PM Modi staying away would not have gone unnoticed, not only nearer home, but equally afar.
With the state government responsible for the PM’s overall security, under instructions from the SPG secretariat, and the ruling AIADMK mindful of possibly falling popularity ahead of elections 2019, if not the eternally-postponed local bodies polls, hopefully before that, the police was at sixes and sevens in strategising for, and handling the situation.
If nothing else, the protestors who had planned to rally against the IPL first and the PM’s visit later, had dubbed the AIADMK leadership as anti-Tamil and servile to the Centre and the BJP.
Given their self-proclaimed ‘liberal’ credentials, many of these protest groups would talk of democracy and dictatorship, to lay claim to their inherent and/or constitutional ‘right’ to express their dissatisfaction over the IPL and the PM’s visit when the ‘entire state was hurt over the Cauvery sentiments’.
Shying away from getting caught in a legal and political trap at the same time, the state administration and the police would sanction their right to protest, yes, but without interfering with the other party’s ‘right’ to perform -- be it the IPL players, or the prime minister of India delivering his ‘motivational’ speeches elsewhere in the city, twice and on the same day.
Yet, nothing may have prepared the PM for what awaited him on arrival in the city -- even if briefed fully in advance. There were protests galore in various parts of the city despite the fact that Modi was not taking the road route anywhere, other than from the helipad, closest to the two programme venues.
For the Cancer Institute function, a helipad had been created on the adjoining IIT-Madras campus, otherwise home to scores of deer which also populate the adjacent Raj Bhavan property on the one side and ‘Children’s Park’, a ‘National Park’, on the other side.
In the normal course, the PM may have driven down to the venue from Chennai airport, only a few kilometres away -- but not this time.
Though an opening had been made on the compound wall separating the IIT campus and the Cancer Institute, Modi was still driven down from one gate to the next, through the main, Sardar Patel Road, on the outside.
It is another matter that some students stood in the IIT driveway, showing black flags at the PM, as ordained by all protest organisers, whether political parties or not.
So much so, MDMK’s Vaiko, an electoral ally of the BJP-NDA in elections 2014, called the latter a ‘coward’ for not taking the road route while in the state lest he ‘face popular wrath’ over the Cauvery issue.
The latest in the series is Vaiko’s wife’s brother’s son, Saravana Suresh, who set himself ablaze after setting out on his morning walk regimen, and has been rushed to hospital.
Coming as it did only hours after Vaiko had advised the youth of the state not to do things like that at Stalin’s Cuddalore rally the previous night, it should have been personally shocking for him.
Otherwise, it was a protestors’ day when the PM was in town -- and not just in Chennai, but across the state. As if to prove Vaiko right -- or, wrong -- the peripheral groups in the city also let off a large number of black balloons with anti-Modi, and pro-Cauvery legends scripted on them.
Their message was clear. If the PM would not drive down Chennai roads to face the protestors, they would send out their message in the air, where he would be flying.
That they could do it only at and from a safe distance from where the PM landed and flew from, and away from the charted course of his flying machines, made sure that Modi was far away from harm’s way.
That way, the DMK-led political Opposition’s protest across the state, announced long before the other groups had pronounced their plans, made sure that the pressures of the anti-Modi protest was seen and felt in every little town and village in Tamil Nadu.
In a way, it was less of pro-Cauvery protest after a point than more of anti-Modi in character and content -- including in it various development projects in the state, both in the public and private sectors, but perceived as ‘environmentally unfriendly’ and hence ‘anti-Tamil’.
DMK’s Stalin and others, who were winding up their days’ long pro-CMB padyatra at sea-side Cuddalore the same evening, were seen wearing black shirts, as he had dictated earlier.
The DMK HQ in Chennai and all district headquarters, and many of the other participating political parties, and the homes of their leaders, including those of Stalin and his father and party supremo, the octogenarian, M Karunanidhi, had black flags hoisted in the front.
What more, photographs and TV footage showed the octogenarian Karunanidhi, who has only slightly recovered from age-related mobility and memory problems, among others, wearing a black shirt, and posing from his wheelchair.
All of it was against Modi, against whom, yes, it’s the largest public protest of the kind since becoming prime minister anywhere in the country, that too when his BJP was dreaming of making a big pitch for a greater electoral stake in ‘Dravidian’ Tamil Nadu, what with the exit of popular AIADMK chief minister Jayalalithaa and the near-simultaneous immobility of Karunanidhi.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter