How different are North and South India? Over the last five years, anxieties have grown about the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Union government attempting to impose the party’s way of thinking on southern states, particularly those like Tamil Nadu and Kerala where the saffron party has a minimal presence. It might be telling that at the very start of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term, the first controversy is a reflection of these concerns.

The government put out a draft National Education Policy this week, based on the report of a committee headed by former Indian Space Research Organisation chief Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan. The draft recommends the implementation of the three-language formula, a policy that dates back to the 1960s, when the government believed that mandatorily making primary school students in non-Hindi states learn Hindi would help ensure that it eventually becomes India’s link language, replacing English.

The three-language formula has always been controversial. It was ardently opposed by Tamil Nadu, with successive governments making the point that education is a state subject and that a two-language policy (Tamil and English) gives students the freedom to decide what third language they would like to study. Other Southern states have also resisted the policy.

The anxiety emerges as a reaction to a long-held belief of politicians in the North, whether Congress or BJP, that India needs one common language for it to become more unified. This view also sees English as a “foreign language” that cannot play that role. In the 1960s and onwards, this led to anti-Hindi protests in the South.

The same dynamics played out on a smaller scale last week after the draft education policy was released, with politicians from across the South criticising the move. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief Stalin said imposing Hindi would be like “throwing stones at a beehive”. #StopHindiImposition trended on Twitter. The reactions prompted the Centre to put out a clarification saying that the policy is only a draft and that “no language will be imposed on any state

The controversy, however, reflects a larger trend that is expected to play out over the next five years. Unlike its earlier image of being a party of the Hindi “heartland”, the BJP now has a significant presence in non-Hindi states. But, other than Karnataka, it remains a bit player in the South. In particular, Tamil Nadu and Kerala’s rejection of BJP politics in these elections prompted some warnings from supporters of the saffron party that these states “will pay” for their choices.

But aside from the politics, there are broader questions of federalism at stake. Since the Southern states have a smaller population, will they be penalised by the next Finance Commission which determines the financial relations between the Union government of India and individual states? Will the upcoming delimitation of parliamentary constituencies see the North get a substantially larger number of parliamentarians, for similar reasons? Will the BJP seek to alter the food and cultural habits of those in the South, which are considerably different?

How the Centre answers these questions may well be one of the defining themes of Modi’s second term in power.

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