A confrontation between the chief ministers of Opposition-ruled states and the Centre was expected at the National Development Council (NDC) meeting in Delhi today. It was being talked about in bureaucratic and political circles and top functionaries in the Manmohan Singh government had accordingly formulated a counter-strategy.
It happened. But no one had expected the fireworks to begin so early in the meeting, with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa walking out of the meeting alleging "utter humiliation" and "stiffing (of the) voices of those elected heads" who were not supportive of the Central government. A little later she found a supportive voice in Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, albeit in a different tone and tenor.
While Jayalalithaa complained that she was given only 10 minutes for her speech, it’s the content of her 10-page speech that may have forced the organisers to ring the bell and ask her to finish. It has so far been standard practice that the chief ministers of the bigger and politically more important states are given a greater amount of time to make their points.
Though the session was closed to the media, Jayalalithaa’s written speech, circulated to newspersons later, gave everyone an idea of her onslaught against the Manmohan Singh government right from the word go. "We have assembled yet again for what are turning out to be purely periodic rituals…To be honest, the purpose and intention of such meetings completely eludes me…. Unfortunately, when I read the draft plan document, I found that no reasonable and legitimate suggestion from the states has been accepted and the big-brotherly and undemocratic approach of superimposing on elected state governments the dubious policies, priorities and programmes of a minority ruling coterie in Delhi has prevailed…..” The speech went on to point out the failures of the UPA government at the Centre on various counts.
An hour later, Narendra Modi gave some suggestions for modifying policies in the 12th plan. He joined her in thrashing the Centre over the same issues. He, however, did not walkout and offered cryptic replies to questions relating to her walkout and the 10-minute timeframe. "It is good for them, the less they hear from her," he said. But he hit the UPA government hard for "ideological poverty, lack of leadership, policy paralysis, (and) negative growth" and for "taking the country in a direction that will do no good to the people".
On the timing of the NDC meet to approve 12th plan, Modi and Jayalalithaa were on same side with identical charges. "We are already nearly three-quarters of the way into the first year of the Twelfth Plan. Wonder….if any such comments and views would be taken on board."
More direct support for Jaya came from BJP general secretary JP Nanda, who reminded the UPA of the federal structure of the country where an elected chief minister’s voice had to be heard by the Centre, whether or not they liked it.
If Jayalalithaa surprised one and all by walking out in the first hour of the meeting, the government’s response was swift. The Minister of State for Planning Rajiv Shukla termed her act as "unbecoming of her position". He went to suggest how important it was for the Centre to strictly adhere to the 10-minute limit for the chief minister’s speech. "Even the prime minister spoke for only 20 minutes. The finance and agriculture ministers have to speak for 20 minutes. There are 35 chief ministers and the meeting will last only for 396 minutes. It can’t go on till midnight. It was so magnanimous of the prime minister to have allowed her to speak after he spoke even as her turn was to come later. Instead, she chose to politicise it."
Law Minister Ashwini Kumar too countered her saying "Jayalalithaa should not have had any problem with the 10-minute timeframe. There were so many other dignitaries to speak."
Jayalalithaa's argument was that a chief minister could not be expected to finish speaking in 10 minutes, particularly when the issue at hand was discussion of the voluminous 12th Plan document. Asking her to close it in 10 minutes was an insult to the people of the state. "The NDC meet turned out to be an exercise in humiliation," she said.
Her reference to Manmohan Singh's government as a "minority government" at the outset and her warm exchange of greetings with Narendra Modi, as also her presence in Ahmedabad at yesterday's swearing-in ceremony, are indicative of a possible realignment of political forces in the near future. During the last NDC meeting, an informal meeting of Modi, Jayalalithaa and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik had sparked off much speculation. This time around Patnaik is missing from the picture but no one is negating the possibility either.