Will Annamalai’s attacks on the DMK revert the anti-BJP feeling in Tamil Nadu, asks N Sathiya Moorthy.
There is only one explanation for the visible bonhomie between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin at a couple of functions in which both participated in Chennai recently.
In a way, Modi was responding to Stalin’s ‘divide-and-rule’ approach to politics and political administration since assuming office in May 2021 — separating Centre-state relations and personal equations on the one hand and politico-electoral adversity on the other.
It was thus, two days after the all-smiles PM-CM chit-chat for cameras and the public to capture, the state assembly passed a second censure motion against Governor R N Ravi, once again moved by Stalin.
It was followed a few days down the line by state Bharatiya Janata Party chief K Annamalai releasing what he titled as the ‘DMK Files’, on the morning of Tamil New Year’s Day, April 14.
The assembly resolution, piloted by Stalin, as with the previous one, was caused by Ravi’s more recent provocative statements in the public domain.
Responding to a question at an interaction with civil service aspirants a few days earlier, he said that if the governor did not respond to a bill, twice passed by the state assembly, it was presumed ‘dead’.
The ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and its electoral allies, and also some independent commentators, were up in arms, pointing out that the governor was violating Constitutional provisions, which did not give him any choice over assenting to a twice-passed bill after he had returned it once.
Pending non-clearance of a twice-passed NEET-exemption resolution, this one was about Ravi sitting on the bill banning online gaming.
Independent of the Constitutional niceties, the public mood too was in favour of the ban as at least 40 persons had committed suicide after getting addicted to online gaming and incurring heavy debts.
If in the past Ravi cited technicalities that the state assembly did not have the power to pass a legislation, which otherwise fell under the central list of the Constitution, he readily cleared the bill, only hours after the assembly passed the resolution.
Critics attributed the governor’s sudden change-of-mind possibly to two factors.
One, the possible advice Modi gave him while driving together from one function venue to another in Chennai two days earlier.
Two, there was the assembly revelation by Finance Minister Palanivel Thiagarajan that Ravi’s Raj Bhavan’s money management left much to be desired — and much more to be explained.
Yet, there is no explanation on what new facts had come to the governor’s notice that he swept away his earlier reservations to giving assent to the anti-gaming bill.
Possibly, Ravi too had come to understand the mood of the Supreme Court while dealing with a near-similar matter involving the Bharat Rashtra Samithi government in Telangana and Governor Tamizhisai Soundararajan, formerly the Tamil Nadu BJP president.
If all this in a way put the Tamil Nadu BJP on the defensive, especially because party leaders and social media activists had rushed to Ravi’s defence, state BJP President K Annamalai’s ‘DMK Files’ has since taken some sting out of it all.
In the reverse, it has also injected some in the reverse, targeting the ruling DMK. But therein lay an embarrassing catch for the BJP and Annamalai.
Annamalai’s Tamil new year’s day news conference was coming for six months and more. He promised one in April — though the dates were changed, subsequently — after questions were raised about the ownership of the ‘limited edition’ Rafale watch (costing Rs 300,000 plus) on his wrist six months ago, and he promised to produce the bill for his second-hand purchase — but only in April.
At the time, he also promised a long list of corruption charges involving individual DMK ministers — also in April — based possibly on the assumption that Electricity Minister V Senthil Balaji was behind the ‘Rafale watch expose’, who in turn was also Annamalai’s early target last year.
There are three focus points from Annamalai’s news conference. One, he rolled out a long list of the financial worth of many DMK ministers, including Stalin and son Udhayanidhi.
The list also included the names of a few MPs including T R Baalu and Dayanidhi Maran, both former Union ministers, and Kanimozhi Karunanidhi.
Topping the list of 17 was incumbent Lok Sabha member and former Union minister of state S Jagathrakshakan, with Rs 51,000-plus crores (Rs 510 billion plus). Stalin came at the bottom of the list with Rs 200 crores (Rs 2 billion).
More importantly, Annamalai charged Stalin with accepting Rs 200 crores in bribes, through two shell companies, to ‘tweak tender regulations’ for phase one of the Chennai Metro Rail in 2011, when he was deputy CM under chief minister father M Karunanidhi.
At the news conference, Annamalai said he would move central agencies for investigation into the matter.
Third, Annamalai also released the bill for the Rafale wrist watch, claiming it was only one of the two in the country, and was that of a friend in Coimbatore.
In the course of his not-so-friendly conversation with newsmen, he also said that he took seven years in office as an IPS officer in Karnataka to clear his education loan from banks, and that his friends were now paying for his upkeep and personal office.
Social media critics, possibly including those from the DMK, were quick on the uptake, by claiming contradictions over the watch business. They pointed out how Annamalai had earlier claimed that his watch bore the serial number 149, but has now produced the bill for watch number 147.
They sought to embarrass Annamalai even more by asking how someone who was living off the largesse of friends could afford a Rs 300,000 plus wrist watch as recently as 2021. This argument and the counter are going to linger for some more time, at the very least.
On the substantive charges against DMK ministers, even BJP-sympathetic ‘independent’ media analysts have tweeted how the financial worth of individuals was in the public domain, in the form of income tax returns, among others, and accessible to individuals, independent of political affiliation and position.
Some of them expressed disappointment as they had expected new expose on wrong-doing by incumbent ministers under Stalin’s stewardship.
Annamalai’s charge against Stalin, who is also the ruling DMK supremo, gained the top place in newspaper headlines the next day. As was to be expected, the DMK as a party promptly declared that it would initiate legal action against Annamalai, which it did on Sunday with a Rs 500 crore (Rs 5 billion) legal notice.
But there is also a fall side to this claim of Annamalai. The anti-BJP social media has triggered public memory to the forgotten IT raids on incumbent AIADMK ministers in the midst of the 2016 R K Nagar assembly by-election, to fill the vacancy caused by the death of charismatic party chief minister Jayalalithaa.
They have also raised questions about the fate of the unprecedented IT raid on the office of then chief secretary P Rama Mohana Rao — seeking to know the fate of these cases under the Modi regime at the Centre.
The question thus remains if, for instance, Annamalai’s attacks on the ruling party and government will be able to revert the anti-BJP feeling that Ravi’s actions and speeches have only fuelled in Tamil Nadu, with an inherent penchant for concepts like pan-Tamil linguistic and cultural pride, unmatched elsewhere in the country, and those like genuine federalism, apart from social justice.
Definitely, Annamalai has the day to himself. It is unlikely to penetrate without accompanying/follow-up action by central agencies, or by the governor, who may act on a petition(s) that the former may seek to present in the coming days.
In between, Annamalai has also promised to meet the media on April 21, when he says he would answer newsmen’s questions. At the time, he may come out with his future course of action.
It will also be then that Annamalai would be asked to explain his recent statement that he would similarly expose all parties and governments that have ruled the state — including leaders of the AIADMK, which is still expected to be the BJP’s team leader in the Lok Sabha polls in Tamil Nadu.
If one of these were to happen, either the AIADMK would not be in the BJP alliance, or Annamalai would not be the state party chief at the time of the elections.
This has remained the standard operating procedure of both the BJP and the Congress in their times. The high command encourages the state unit to target ally and opponent alike with the hope of strengthening the party base, but give in at the time of elections.
This time round, it began with Jayalalitha’s hospitalisation and death in 2016, but with two breaks, for the Lok Sabha polls of 2019 and assembly elections, 2021.
It remains to be seen if the Centre’s action, if any, on Annamalai’s charges will come before or after the Lok Sabha polls.
Seeking to discredit the DMK pre-poll may cut either way.
It need not necessarily cut into the DMK’s electoral fortunes, which inevitable anti-incumbency may achieve to an extent, with or without it. But it would leave a deep cut and scars in the DMK cadre’s immediate memory, if pre-poll, the BJP at the Centre ends up having to woo the DMK for neutrality, if not outright support, in the Lok Sabha, for continuing to head a government for the third successive term.
Here, there is a difference between the DMK and the AIADMK, as far as the BJP’s approach goes.
The BJP wants the AIADMK still as an electoral ally, but on its terms — especially in terms or seats and constituencies.
The DMK, the BJP may need, if at all, post-poll. The Modi-Shah duo seems to have seen reason in the argument that a BJP-DMK poll alliance in the state would be a mutual burden, leading to both losing votes and seats, because of the Hindutva/anti-Hindutva incompatibility.
This does not mean that the DMK is desirous of an alliance with the BJP, now or later. It is an acknowledgement of the BJP’s realisation that they have nothing to gain from a pre-poll alliance with the DMK, unlike in the case of the AIADMK — but both have only everything to lose.
After all, the BJP cannot market the DMK, which it has been painting as anti-Hindu, anti-god and even anti-national.
The DMK just cannot afford to lose its minority vote-bank, which is substantial and which adds to its core Hindu vote-bank that is not Hindutva.
Even changing the governor or the state BJP chief or both would not change the DMK’s anti-BJP poll posture. Nor would it alienate the DMK from the Congress ally, which the BJP had tried enough, though behind-the-scenes.
That way, yes, there is a perception that not all is lost for the DMK vis-à-vis the BJP-ruled Centre, with the post-poll future especially in mind. Responding to Stalin’s publicised letter to Union Home Minister Amit Shah, the CRPF denied that their recruitment examinations used to be held in Tamil in the past, and that was dropped this time in favour of only the English/Hindi option.
However, days later — that, too, a day after Annamalai’s DMK Files — the CRPF announced the decision to hold recruitment exams in 13 languages, including Tamil. Stalin readily welcomed the decision, thanked Shah and proposed that even the question papers for all Union government recruitment exams should be in the regional languages.
DMK cadres see it as a victory for Stalin. Critics say this is a response to Stalin ‘surrendering’ to the BJP Centre, but they haven’t given any details. They also pity the DMK allies, starting with the Congress, which stand to lose in the Lok Sabha polls.
Yet, it is imaginative decisions such as these, going beyond gestures, which may go to increase the BJP’s footprint in Tamil Nadu, and effectively so.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com
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