Tamil Nadu’s angry voters have a small oil field, a big highway, a medical entrance test, and a police shootout in mind

Tamil Nadu’s angry voters have a small oil field, a big highway, a medical entrance test, and a police shootout in mind
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit, Chief Minister K Palaniswami, Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam and others at the inauguration and foundation stone laying ceremony of the various development projects, in Kanyakumari. (Photo)(
  • Tamil Nadu is going to poll for the first time in the second phase of the 2019 Parliamentary elections in India.
  • The Neduvasal hydrocarbon project and Chennai-Salem expressway project driven by the central government have faced severe public outrage.
  • The Narendra Modi government’s stance on imposing a central exam for medical college admissions has further tilted the scales in favour of its rivals.
  • While the country’s largest copper smelter operated by Sterlite has been shut by court order, the police firing that killed 14 protestors in 2018 is still fresh in the voters’ minds.
  • The blame for the shootout in Tuticorin fell on the ruling state government under AIADMK, which is now fighting the Parliamentary elections in alliance with the BJP.
The voters of one of India’s relatively developed states, Tamil Nadu, are an angry lot. A series of missteps by the Narendra Modi government meant that their indignation has been directed towards the incumbent alliance between the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

On the other side is the coalition between the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Indian National Congress, the Left Front, and a set of other local parties that significance within certain segments-- either geographically or among specific sections of the electorate.

While there are other regional outfits and smaller coalitions in the fray, including the iconic movie star Kamal Hasan who is making his electoral debut, almost all opinion polls in the run up to the elections have handed a landslide to the challengers led by the DMK and Congress.

There are at least four big decisions that work against the incumbent AIADMK-BJP alliance.

A small oil field

In 2015, the Modi government approved a project to dig for oil and natural gas from a 10 square kilometre field in Neduvasal, in Pudukottai district. The reason being the oil field was located in one of the more fertile parts of Tamil Nadu’s delta region around the Cauvery river.

The proposal to dig for oil in the region scratched the wounds of an existing wound in the minds of the local farmers.

A standoff with the neighbouring state of Karnataka over the sharing of Cauvery’s water is decades old. Even after a settlement ordered by the Supreme Court, the farmers’ in Tamil Nadu’s rice bowl feel parched as well as wronged by the system.

Farmers were caught by surprise when they were asked to give up their land to extract oil, while they were still hoping to their share of water to till the land.

A big highway

Farmers have been up in arms in five other districts too, far away from Neduvasal. The point of contention is an eight-lane expressway stretching nearly 280 kilometres west from the state capital Chennai to the industrial town of Salem.

Once again the BJP has found itself in the firing line of the voters as it continues to push for the project despite stiff resistance that the party’s rivals have capitalised on. The Madras High Court on April 8 quashed the land acquisition process for the Chennai-Salem Expressway project.

The challenging coalition led by Congress and the DMK have vowed to scrap the project if voted to power.

A medical entrance test

Seventeen-year-old Anitha, an aspiring medical student, committed suicide in September 2017 after she failed to clear the then newly-introduced medical entrance exam, that goes by the acronym NEET. The National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET) replaced the admission tests for medical colleges across the country with a centralised process.

The people’s resentment against NEET stems from the view that it puts local students, even the high-scorers, at a disadvantage because the curriculum is structured based on the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), which is different from the state syllabus. The state administration’s high-handed approach in the wake of protests, and the BJP’s persistence on imposing NEET, has only hurt the alliance’s chances in the state. Once again, BJP’s rivals have promised to let states decide the mode of admission into medical colleges.

The protests against NEET was not unique to Tamil Nadu, but the outrage in the southern state was the most severe. Tamil Nadu is known for its huge population of aspiring doctors. The state has 22 medical colleges, among the highest in the country, and 4 doctors for every 1,000 people, nearly at par with developed countries like Norway and Sweden.

Despite the enduring resentment, Tamil Nadu had the maximum number of students clearing the NEET exam in 2019.

The shootout

In May 2018, The Tamil Nadu Police opened fire at a sea of protestors outside the country’s largest copper smelter, operated by Sterlite, a Vedanta Group company. More than 10 people died in the shootout and the public anger that swelled further poured on the ruling state government led by the AIADMK.

Sterlite’s plant was accused of violating pollution norms, causing fatal health issues to its workers and the population in its vicinity. Local protests against the plant have been underway in patches since 1996, and they escalated once again in 2018 leading up to the ‘Tuticorin Massacre’. Subsequent probe and judicial inquiry revealed gaping regulatory lapses, eventually leading to the closure of the plant pending investigations and corrections.

The London-based Vedanta Group has been a big donor to both the BJP and the Congress between 2004 and 2015.

However, BJP also found itself further on the wrong side of the debate soon after the issue came to the fore, as some of its leaders tried to colour some of the protestors as anti-social elements.

Going into the 2019 elections, the party is in alliance with the regional party, AIADMK, which bore the brunt of the public anger.

A year on, the memory of the lethal attack on protestors is still fresh among voters, particularly in the region. As is the outrage against NEET, the Chennai-Salem expressway, and the proposed oil field in Neduvasal. The odds are heavily stacked against the AIADMK-BJP alliance.

This is the first-time in decades that Tamil Nadu is going to polls without a strong, regional leader to back.

Over decades, a series of larger-than-life leaders, with their share of taints, from CN Annadurai to MG Ramachandran to M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalitha had turned Tamil Nadu into a politically unbreachable fortress for national parties. The mandate kept passing between the DMK and AIADMK for years.

However, the passing away of Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha in recent years has left a political vacuum that the national parties intended to capitalise on. Neither the BJP nor the Congress by itself has made any significant headway so far.