In An Air of Cordiality, Sharp-edged Politics on Display in PM Modi’s Chennai Visit

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in Chennai on Thursday for his first visit since MK Stalin took over as chief minister, the most-asked question was, will #GoBackModi trend upon his arrival? Fair question, considering it always had been the case, every time the PM came to Chennai. But that was when the DMK was in the opposition, flexing its social media muscle just to prove a point.

Now, in power, Stalin spearheads one of the most urbanised states in the country. His government is on an overdrive in signing MoUs with manufacturers and exporters. In fact, as Prime Minister Modi landed in Chennai, Stalin’s industries minister Thangam Thennarasu was in Davos, Switzerland, speaking to global CEOs about what the south Indian state had to offer.

Still, the hashtag did make it to the trends list.

The DMK counts among a notable crop of regional parties staunchly in a standoffish mode against the BJP-led Centre. In fact, Stalin’s party started off by making it a point to term it the “Union Government”, decidedly avoiding the word Centre. In their words, the Union Government is closer to cooperative federalism. From there, Stalin’s government has been a check to many political moves from the Centre. From opposing alleged attempts to impose Hindi through the National Education Policy to crying themselves hoarse about GST dues, the NEET exemption bill, and higher tax devolution, the Stalin government has been a major irritant for the Centre.

It is in this context that the Prime Minister’s visit to Chennai can be seen as a high-pressure event conducted in an air of apparent cordiality. Still, there were some hits exchanged: Stalin said unequivocally that Tamil Nadu would not hesitate to raise its voice to protect its rights; he asked for over Rs 14,006 crore of GST dues and NEET exemption, both matters of controversy with the Centre. He also decried lower than expected tax devolution to a state that is a significant contributor to central GDP.

In his speech, PM Modi spoke about being the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Jaffna in Sri Lanka. It is significant that MK Stalin’s government had taken solid efforts to reach relief material to the island nation grappling with economic woes. Modi also backed the National Education Policy, which the state government has rejected for its three-language approach.

While seeming to steamroller schemes that the DMK government has stood robustly against, PM Modi sought to woo the Tamils, calling the language “eternal” and the culture “global”. In the same speech, he lauded the Tamils and subtly sent an oppositional message to the DMK government, at least on NEP.

Still way too early, but there is some buzz about the DMK’s options for 2024. With the AIADMK in a significantly reduced state and the BJP just gaining some traction, the DMK has been strident over the last year politically.

Chief minister Stalin is clearly aware of his political constituency and would play to his strengths, chiefly drawn on an anti-BJP stance maintained from before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

From the events of Prime Minister Modi’s visit on Thursday, one thing is apparent. CM Stalin left no stone unturned to send the message that the DMK is not ready to be wooed. PM Modi too sent a message: we’ll see about that.

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