Higher education policy may be at the core of the Tamil Nadu assembly polls next May, with a potential to break the ties between the ruling AIADMK in the state and the BJP counterpart at the national level, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
Those that identify elections in Tamil Nadu only with yesteryear politics centred on film star-politicians, may have something coming.
Higher education policy may be at the core of the upcoming assembly polls next May, with a potential to break the smooth-sailing ties between the ruling AIADMK in the state and the BJP counterpart at the national level.
The toughest of the lines so far has been taken by the state government itself, and before the Madras high court. The government has declared that it will not even publish the prospectus for medical admissions in the state, that too under the nation-wide NEET scheme, until Governor Banwarilal Purohit gave gubernatorial assent for 7.5-per cent internal reservations.
The quota, fixed by the Justice Kalaiarasan Committee appointed by the state government, became possible after the Supreme Court upheld powers for ‘internal reservations’ of the kind. As if to beat the DMK rival on the education-centric anti-AIADMK posturing and public protests, the government of Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami got a Bill passed by the state assembly unanimously during its three-day statutory session under Covid conditions.
Again, in an unprecedented move in recent times, a delegation of five ministers, have since called on Governor Purohit, to impress upon the need and immediacy for him to grant assent to the Bill.
Taking off from there, DMK Leader of the Opposition M K Stalin too has written to the governor in the matter. He has openly called upon CM Palaniswami to organise a protest programme to press the governor in the matter, and has promised the DMK’s participation. The CM has to only decide the date, time and venue, he has said.
Though the local media too has not highlighted it enough, this may be the toughest of any decision that any state government in the country may have taken on education-centric federal issues, since Independence.
Given that there is resistance from the AIADMK cadres to the party leadership kowtowing to the BJP-ruled Centre’s unilateral decisions and positions on most federal issues, the reunited leadership of EPS and his deputy O Pannerselvam (OPS) has been left with little choice in such matters.
The cadres, not only of the AIADMK but every regional party, starting with the DMK rival, is alive to the increasing number of first and second-time voters in a state where literacy rate and higher education rates are also going up consistently over the past years and decades.
Equity in Education has become a core concern for all political parties, barring at times the BJP, whose traditional constituency is concerned more about what is euphemistically called ‘meritocracy’ -- translating as NEET, NEP, under the Modi 2.0 dispensation at the Centre.
This year’s NEET examination is not exempt from social media controversies, some of which the mainstream media could not ignore. On day one, the mainstream media went to town on how Jeevithakumar, who had passed out of the government school in Silvarpetti in backward Theni district, has scored 664 out of 720 marks, with the national ranking 1823.
Kumar also tops the rank-list of all government school students across the country. Modi bhakts went gaga on the social media against the ‘motivated campaign’ against NEET that it was loaded against poor children from rural areas. BJP cadres even took to the streets in some places.
However, Jeevithakumar’s story is only half-reported, claims another section of the social media, clearly identifiable with an anti-BJP, anti-Modi streak all along. A female teacher from the locality put up a YouTube video, running down the Sangh Parivar, but stating that this was the boy’s second attempt at NEET.
More importantly, she declared that his success became possible only after she ‘adopted’ Jeevithakumar after he failed NEET last year, and put him in a private coaching centre in Namakkal, where the management gave him some concession and teachers gave him extra time.
The lady said that many well-wishers worked with her to make it possible, and even named an American who gave Rs 75,000 for a part of the special school fees. Her question was simple: “How many poor students from rural areas and government schools could hope for good samaritans?”
However, at least two girls from a rural government school in western Coimbatore district have cleared NEET this time, without private tuition or any other push. S Ramya nor P Bistis Prisca studied at the Government Higher Secondary School at Velliangadu, near Karamadai, but did not attend any private coaching. They could manage with their text-books, local newspapers have reported.
Here, the greater question about NEET reappears. As critics in the state especially have been reiterating, NEET provides medical seats only for a few students from the state, whether inside or outside Tamil Nadu. But under the earlier scheme, with the Tamil Nadu government setting up medical colleges in every district, all aspirants could be accommodated, producing enough doctors for the state’s people, who are anyway paying for their education.
While NEET has become a continuing saga at the commencement of every academic year, another higher education controversy has hit the state and also the AIADMK-BJP alliance in Tamil Nadu, no thanks to the overzealous initiative of Prof M K Surappa, vice chancellor of the prestigious Anna University.
As it turned out, Surappa had written to the Centre over the head of the state government, the university senate and syndicate, that they could manage to generate a high Rs 1,500 crores for being declared an ‘Institute of Eminence’ (IoE), with the Centre making a like contribution.
In the first place, the issue was one of propriety. After all, the government had hurried through the process earlier by bifurcating Anna University into two separate institutions -- one, to qualify for the IoE status and another with a modified nomenclature, which would continue to be the affiliating university for government and private engineering colleges across the state. So, why should the VC take such initiatives, that too involving huge financial commitments, was the question in the mind of the state government.
However, the issue took a more serious turn when Opposition leaders, starting with DMK president Stalin, began pointing out how Anna University could raise that kind of money only if increased the fees multi-fold. This, as they said, would mean that poor students could not hope to become engineers. They had already opposed the state government’s decision at bifurcation, that too through an Executive Order, in the place of an amendment to the existing Anna University Act.
They have a point. Since the commencement of the economic reforms and greater privatisation of engineering education (which commenced when MGR was chief minister for a decade until the late eighties), successive state governments have consciously facilitated more and more poor students to join the government engineering colleges, where they did not have to pay ‘capitation fees’ of any kind, any time. The brightest among them aspired for a seat on Anna University campus itself. This will be rendered impossible under Prof Surappa’s scheme, it would seem.
The issue has been put to rest since, what with the state government declaring as unilaterally as they had decided on seeking IoE status, that they did not any more want the status for Anna University. This is again a bold decision by the AIADMK government, coming as it has done after the unification at the party leadership -- whether or not it holds until the assembly polls and possibly beyond.
The irony about the Tamil Nadu elections, especially since the parliamentary polls last year, is that then the Opposition focussed a substantial part of their campaign time on targeting the state’s ruling AIADMK ally of the BJP. The way the assembly poll plank is panning out, the reverse may be true, with the AIADMK being forced to defend what party cadres say are ‘indefensible’ aspects of the Modi government’s policies and programmes, especially those that are sensitive in ‘Dravidian’ Tamil Nadu.
That being the case, while the state BJP will be called upon to go hammer and tongs at the DMK-led Opposition with the Congress rival as a major ally, the AIADMK will be put on the defensive, as the sentiment within the party does not just gel.
If then the AIADMK has gone ahead and made decisive moves just after the inter-party patch-up, the message is that the Centre needed to consult and consider the regional realities of BJP’s allies, particularly in ‘Dravidian’ Tamil Nadu.
Translated, this could mean the AIADMK’s first ‘bait’ for the BJP, too, to rethink the alliance if they so desired.
In contrast, the state BJP seems eager to prove their revived /residual strength in the traditionally strong Kanyakumari Lok Sabha seat, where by-elections are due. The seat fell vacant after incumbent Congress member, H Vasanthakumar, became the first victim of Covid among parliamentarians.
Vasanthakumar defeated Pon Radhakrishnan, the incumbent BJP ministerial colleague of Modi, by a record 2.6-lakh votes. The BJP now hopes to win back the seat with AIADMK’s alliance-backing, and would be happy if the Election Commission holds it, say, by February.
A victory could be a morale-booster for BJP cadres and Modi bhakts in the state, and could also provide a fulcrum for the party to negotiate an ambitious deal either with the AIADMK for the assembly polls, or lead a third front, on the very same strength.
Past elections have also shown that the BJP has a better strike-rate in Kanyakumari seat if there is a multi-cornered contest, and loss in a direct fight. It implies that some people in the state unit may not be unwilling for the BJP to contest the Kanyakumari polls on its own -- though there are many more who would want an AIADMK alliance to feed their personal hopes of winning their seats in the assembly polls.
Overall, there is also hope in the BJP camp especially that early by-polls in Kanyakumari could strain the rival DMK-Congress alliance than the latter may be willing to accept. They at least hope for a blame game between the two even if the DMK lets the Congress contest the seat again but the latter ended up losing.
What their rivals have to say is that the same situation might happen to the BJP-AIADMK alliance, if the BJP nominee were to lose.
Either way, the emerging situation in Kanyakumari could strain the relations between allies in the rival camps -- whoever wins or loses -- that too ahead of the assembly polls, which would then only be weeks away.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.