It is unfortunate for the Bharatiya Janata Party and the central government that the public perception is that the BJP is ruling Tamil Nadu by proxy and holds it solely responsible for the Sterlite protests and police killings in Tuticorin.
Justification of police firing that killed 13 protesters from Tuticorin and neighbouring villages from the local TN leaders only added fuel to the fire and cemented the public perception that the BJP will find it difficult to fight against, in the run up to the general elections in May 2019. Tamil Nadu along with neighbouring Puducherry sent 40 MPs to the Lok Sabha and in the previous elections, the strong Modi wave that swept the country stopped at TN border and bowed to “the supreme revolutionary leader Amma, Jayalalithaa. The BJP could win only one seat and that to thanks to, ironically the strength of the Congress candidate in Kanyakumari that gave the BJP candidate Pon Radhakrishnan a victory in a three-cornered fight. Amma wave across TN swept the state and won 37 out of all the seats on offer. The only leader who could win a seat was regional party Pattali Makkal Katchi leader and former union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss.
Why the public perception on the ground that is going pretty much against the BJP for none of its fault, is important is that the BJP is unlikely to repeat its 2014 performance in Uttar Pradesh and other parts of North India and would be looking at virgin areas like South India
States located down the Vindhyas together account for 130 seats and most of the region appears a no-go area for the BJP.
And more so in Tamil Nadu, which has seemed more or less orphaned after the death of former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa who ruled the state with an iron hand and a tough pro-Tamil Nadu stance on plenty of issues concerning the state – whether it was Cauvery river water sharing, Kudankulam Nuclear power plant protests, GST or NEET.
But after her death the AIADMK government that followed lived dangerously, more due to the merciful support it received from the Centre, did not leave anything in doubt that this Tamil Nadu government headed by Edapaddi Palaniswami and his deputy O Panneerselvam (after a peace brokered between the two AIADMK leaders allegedly by Prime Minister Narendra Modi) was indeed taking instructions from New Delhi. Reversal of NEET position causing untold misery to its medical aspirants in the state is seen by the people of Tamil Nadu as one more instance of capitulation to the BJP.
Cut to Sterlite protests and the firing that the opposition in Tamil Nadu headed by DMK describes it as totally unprovoked, the killing sure does raise many questions to the manner in which the police appeared to be shooting to kill rather than to stop and control violent protesters as the police manual and standard operating procedures.
TN BJP leader H Raja justified the police action and in fact, other leaders saying that Tuticorin would have turned into a Kashmir if tough action was not taken only went onto provoke the protesters further.
Why have the protests that have been going on for several years peaked today?
Chennai-based environmental activist reasoned that instead of heading to the protesters seeking a shutdown of the factory, the government gave permission for the company to expand its capacity that would mean doubling of hazards to health and environment that the copper smelter plant is causing to the region. Farmers lament that the effluents from the factory were destroying the agricultural fields and leading to severe health hazards for the villagers nearby.
The spike in protests was triggered by this permission to expand capacity of the plant to 80,00,000-ton last July and have only been growing due to the stand of the government that seemed to favour the private company. People in the region suffer from breathlessness, wheezing and fear that sustained exposure could lead to cancer.
For the time being, the situation is being brought under control. The Madras High Court has ordered the closure of the company and the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board has snapped power to the company. But with company officials planning to take legal recourse to the government action, the Copper smelter plant saga is far from over.