And when the new National Education Policy (NEP) was announced, DMK president MK Stalin became one of its loudest critics, accusing the Centre of using it to impose Hindi and Sanskrit at the cost of Tamil. He also blamed the AIADMK government in the state and the BJP at the Centre for at least four student suicide deaths related to NEET, reiterating the party’s demand for a ban on the exam on the grounds that it is disadvantageous to government school students. When Parliament and the Assembly convened, DMK’s elected representatives arrived wearing masks with “Ban NEET, Save TN Students” printed on them.
MP and DMK spokesperson TKS Elangovan says the party’s opposition to Hindi is not new. “We have been very strong in the anti-Hindi agitation right from 1939. The DMK’s first victory was on account of the language issue in 1965.” Over half a century on, it would appear that the party is sticking to the playbook of highlighting the hot-button issues of Tamil pride and shrinking federal autonomy once more, as Tamil Nadu heads to the polling booth in a little over six months.
In a state which has been historically at the forefront of resisting Hindi hegemony and whose very name reflects the importance of its language, any attempt to sideline Tamil ends up touching a raw nerve.
“The language issue keeps getting arcticulated but close to the elections, it gets more importance,” says R Manivannan, head, department of political science, University of Madras. “NEET and NEP will go against the BJP in the elections.” Both the language debate and NEET have popular appeal in the state, agrees C Lakshmanan, associate professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies. “There will be some gain for the DMK. But to what extent that translates to votes needs to be seen.”
For DMK, which has been out of power for two consecutive terms, the stakes have never been higher. The first assembly polls in the state after the death of popular leaders J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi, 2021 will also be the biggest test yet for Stalin, who was elected president in 2018 within days of his father Karunanidhi’s death.
The 67-year-old’s electoral track record since he took charge is a mixed bag, leading a sweep of 37 of 38 seats in the Lok Sabha elections but losing the Vikravandi and Nanguneri by-polls last October, which helped the ruling AIADMK under Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami bolster its strength to 125 seats. The Lok Sabha victory was at least partly attributed to the anti-BJP sentiment in the state.
There have also been reports of unease in DMK over the growing clout of Stalin’s son, Udhayanidhi, appointed youth wing secretary last year. MLA Ku Ka Selvam, who was dismissed from DMK in August after he met BJP president JP Nadda, told the digital news platform The News Minute that party members now have to listen to Udhayanidhi while those over 55 years have been reduced to “dummies”. Selvam has since challenged his dismissal in court, and declined to comment when contacted, because of the court case. “Udhayanidhi’s elevation might prove detrimental because it sends the wrong signal. Stalin should have waited at least till he became CM,” says Lakshmanan. Elangovan denies any such rift. “Everyone accepted Udhayanidhi in the party. No one questioned the decision when he was made secretary.”
The AIADMK has its own challenges, the biggest of which is anti-incumbency, which used to see the two Dravidian parties alternate in power since 1984, till Jayalalithaa’s surprise return in 2016. It also needs to get its house in order. While Palaniswami has proved wrong sceptics who thought he would not last as CM, he now has to deal with internal rivalry with deputy O Panneerselvam and walk the tight rope with ally BJP. Last month, eyebrows were raised when posters of “OPS for CM” popped up in the state though the duo were quick to release a statement that all decisions will be taken democratically. EPS is also trying to assert AIADMK’s independence, with the cabinet deciding to continue with the twolanguage policy rather than the three-language policy recommended by NEP. “AIADMK is a prisoner of circumstances but it cannot afford to go to the polls with BJP, due to NEP and NEET,” says Manivannan.
In a sign of the tension between the allies, BJP state vice-president VP Duraisamy, who joined the party from DMK, said the 2021 polls would be a fight between DMK and a BJP-led alliance. The AIADMK has played down the remarks. “The high command will take the final decision but any alliance will be headed by AIADMK,” says party spokesperson Kovai Sathyan. On the rivalry between EPS and OPS, Sathyan says it is the DMK which is hobbled by multiple power centres and “a big rift” between its IT wing and political analyst Prashant Kishor, hired by Stalin. “Kishor has not given DMK any momentum. As far as our strategy is concerned, we will highlight our government’s achievements,” he says. Taking no chances, EPS has roped in Sunil Kanugolu, a strategist for Narendra Modi in 2014 and for Stalin in 2019.
The BJP, which saw its vote share shrink to 3.7% in 2019, will take it to double digits in 2021, says state vice-president and former IPS officer K Annamalai. “About 41% of voters are below 39 years. It is an aspirational group that wants developmental politics. We will grow the party with them,” says Annamalai, who himself is 36 and joined BJP last month.
While analysts make light of any impact that super stars Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth might have, the role of Jayalalithaa’s jailed former confidante, Sasikala, who might be released before the polls, and her foster son TTV Dhinakaran, will be more significant when the state heads to vote. Till then, the cauldron of Tamil pride will keep boiling.