Agri zone act offers TN govt a fig leaf, but CAA protest can blow it away

Much has been written and spoken about how the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, coupled with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), can be a tool of discrimination in the hands of a government that thrives on polarisation and majoritarianism. And, going by the unflagging spirit of the anti-CAA protest across Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK’s support for the legislation could prove costly for it in the 2021 assembly elections.

The party in power may be comforting itself that the polls are a year away, but the National Population Register headcount that is expected to happen this year will keep the issue alive. Chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami has no choice but to take orders from the Centre. These are times when the AIADMK — and the people at large — miss J Jayalalithaa. Irrespective of her party’s strength in Parliament, the iron lady never allowed Prime Ministers and their cronies to browbeat the state into submission. EPS showed signs of having a spine when his government made the mayoral election indirect, checkmating the BJP that was toying with the idea of getting a couple of mayor posts for its representatives.
The latest move, in the form of a legislation that makes much of the Cauvery basin districts a protected agricultural zone, is by far the best this government has done to earn the goodwill of farmers who form a considerable constituency of voters. As per the Protected Agricultural Zone Development Act, eight categories of industries in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam and blocks of Cuddalore and Pudukottai are banned. Prominent among the activities banned is hydrocarbon exploration, which sections of farmers have been campaigning against. The chief minister did not forget to say that he, too, was a farmer.

The introduction of the bill appeared to be a bold move by the state government since oil exploration comes under the jurisdiction of the Union government, but later it turned out that EPS had the green signal from the Centre which may anyway find ways to overrule and go ahead with hydrocarbon projects if it so wishes. Till the elections the act should serve as a fig leaf for the government.

That, however, may not be enough to undo the damage the AIADMK has inflicted on itself by supporting CAA. The party, right from the time of its founder MGR and during Jayalalithaa’s leadership, enjoyed support from vast sections of Muslims, though the DMK, too, had a secure deposit in the community’s vote bank. The AIADMK’s Muslim friends including Muslim Jananayaga Katchi’s Tamimun Ansari, who got elected on the AIADMK symbol, may be forced to leave the alliance if CAA becomes a poll plank.

Some AIADMK insiders say — in private — that they are worried, and so is the chief minister. His hand forced, EPS wants his colleagues to “go and explain” to Muslims that CAA is not anti-Muslim. What he has not acknowledged, however, is that though Muslims are at the core of the anti-CAA agitations, the protest has been gaining momentum beyond the community. And this has added to the image of the AIADMK being the BJP’s ‘B’ team—something that can prove to be a nemesis when fighting an electoral battle in a land of parochial pride.

Making things worse for the AIADMK, the DMK, which has so far confined itself to taking out a couple of rallies and collecting signatures, would be glad to launch itself to the forefront of the protest. An AIADMK functionary confides that he would not be surprised if the party leadership does a volte face closer to the election if it becomes clear that the potential harm its subservience to the BJP can cause, outweighs the benefits. Interesting times ahead.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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