BJP and the Nadars of southern Tamil Nadu: Past ties, present uncertain?

2014 was the only time the BJP’s considerable support base in the Nadar-majority districts converted into an election victory.

ByVignesh A

Published Apr 09, 2024 | 11:00 AMUpdatedApr 09, 2024 | 1:36 PM

BJP and the Nadars of southern Tamil Nadu: Past ties, present uncertain?

In the 2014 elections that propelled Narendra Modi to power, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance bagged two seats in Tamil Nadu. Anbumani Ramadoss of Pattali Makkal Katchi won from Dharmapuri. Kanniyakumari elected Pon Radhakrishnan, BJP’s most prominent face in the state, until a few years ago.

The relatively lesser influence of the two Dravidian majors—DMK and AIADMK—and the anti-incumbency, the ‘Modi wave’, contributed to the victory. However, the solid support of the Nadar caste of Kanniyakumari was also a big reason.

The Nadars of Tamil Nadu are among the numerically and economically dominant castes of the southern districts, which include Kanniyakumari, Thoothukudi, Thirunelveli, Tenkasi, and Virudhunagar.

Since the BJP’s inception, the Nadar caste, known for its entrepreneurship, has been its significant support base. The caste also forms a sizable population in the pockets of Sivagangai, Ramanathapuram, and Madurai districts.

Kanniyakumari and Coimbatore are relatively robust Lok Sabha seats of the BJP in Tamil Nadu, where it is trying very hard to make noteworthy inroads.

The BJP became a notable political player in Coimbatore only after the 1997 Coimbatore Communal riots and the subsequent 1998 bomb blasts.

It launched its work in Kanniyakumari almost two decades ago, in 1980, when the RSS founded Hindu Munnani, a right-wing organization, to spearhead the mobilization of Hindus in Tamil Nadu.

Also read: DMK ‘enemy’ of TN

Hindu Munnani – BJP’s entry vehicle 

According to the official website of Hindu Munnani, the organization’s first branch was established in Kanniyakumari. Its first president, P Thanulinga Nadar, a former Congress member, created a ‘Hindu vote bank’ in Kanniyakumari.

Nadar, a two-time MP from Congress, was reportedly vocal against religious conversion from Hinduism to Christianity. Kanniyakumari is the only district where Hindus and Christians are almost equal in number.

In the Kanniyakumari, Thoothukudi, Thirunelveli, and Tenkasi districts, it is standard for Nadar families to have Hindu and Christian members.

Kanniyakumari district and some portion of Tenkasi district were parts of the erstwhile Thiruvithamkoor (Travancore) kingdom and the short-lived Travancore-Cochin state before their merger with Tamil Nadu (then Madras Province) in 1956.

The political character of this district partially aligns with that of Kerala, where the Left parties and the Congress dominate the political space.

This aspect of Kanniyakumari and the relatively weaker influence of the Dravidian majors also made it easier for the BJP to establish itself as the primary opponent of Congress in this Lok Sabha constituency, with the backing of the Hindu Nadars.

The Kanniyakumari constituency and its predecessor before delimitation, the Nagercoil Lok Sabha constituency, were represented mainly by the Congress, its factions, or break-away parties; the DMK won from here once (2009), and the AIADMK lost the only time (2014) it contested from Kanniyakumari.

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Devendra Kula Vellalar caste and BJP

2014 was the only time the BJP’s considerable support base in the Nadar-majority districts converted into an election victory. Buoyed by this, the party attempted to make inroads into districts neighbouring Kanniyakumari, which also has a sizeable Nadar population.

As part of this strategy, the party started warming up to the Devendra Kula Vellalar (widely known as Pallar caste), an agricultural Dalit caste. Its members constitute the majority of Dalits in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu.

Puthiya Tamilagam is the party that represents the interests of the Devendra Kula Vellalar caste. A section of this caste has been vocal about moving to the Other Backward Caste category from the Scheduled Caste list, and that section saw the BJP as a supporter of this demand.

Puthiya Tamilagam’s entry into the NDA fold and its leader K Krishnasamy’s contest from the Tenkasi (SC) Lok Sabha seat gave the impression that the BJP can further solidify its position in the state’s southernmost districts.

In 2019, the BJP contested five Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu in alliance with AIADMK and other parties. Except for the western seat of Coimbatore, all others—Kanniyakumari, Thoothukudi, Sivagangai, and Ramanathapuram–have a sizable population of Nadars and Pallars. However, the party drew a blank in all five.

In 2021, the Narendra Modi government passed a bill to club seven sub-castes, namely, Devendra Lulathan, Kadaiyan, Kalladi, Kudumban, Pallan, Pannadi and Vathiriyan, under the generic name of Devendra Kula Vellalar.

However, the caste remains on the Scheduled Caste list, much to Puthiya Tamilagam’s displeasure.

The short-lived bonhomie between the BJP and the Devendra Kula Vellalar organizations has seemingly ended, and the party now has to rely mainly on Nadar votes again in the deep-south districts.

Puthiya Tamilagam leader Krishnasamy is contesting from Tenkasi, this time in alliance with the AIADMK, which severed ties with the BJP last year.

Related: Tamilisai happy to re-join BJP

Challenges for BJP in Nadar belt

Though the BJP won a Lok Sabha seat in 2014 without the support of DMK and ADMK, for the first time, the party could not replicate its victory in 2019.

Pon Radhakrishnan, rewarded with a MoS position in the first Modi cabinet after the 2014 election victory, lost the seat in 2019 to Congress’s H Vasanthakumar, also a Nadar like Radhakrishnan, by a margin of over 2.5 lakh votes.

In the 2021 bye-polls to Kanniyakumari, necessitated by Vasanthakumar’s demise, Radhakrishnan again lost, this time to Vasanthakumar’s son Vijay Vasanth. However, the BJP improved its tally by over 77,000 votes and reduced the loss margin to 1.37 lakh.

In the 2019 election, then-state BJP president Tamilisai Soundararajan lost to DMK’s Kanimozhi Karunanidhi by over 3.47 lakh votes in the Thoothukudi constituency. The DMK owed the phenomenal victory to Thoothukudi strongman Anitha R Radhakrishnan, a minister in the MK Stalin Cabinet.

Radhakrishnan, a six-time MLA from Thoothukudi’s Thiruchendur assembly constituency, was expelled by AIADMK in 2009 and joined DMK the same year.

DMK also expelled him in 2015 after he lauded the Karnataka High Court judgement that acquitted J. Jayalalithaa from the disproportionate assets case. Nevertheless, he soon scripted his entry into the party and was allowed to contest again in 2016 and 2021.

Tamilisai Soundararajan, also a Nadar like her predecessor Pon Radhakrishnan, was made the state unit chief in 2014 after the latter became a Union minister.

Even after the party appointed K Annamalai, a Kongu Vellala Gounder from the western Karur district, as the state unit chief, Tamilisai was given gubernatorial positions in Telangana and then Puducherry, reportedly to keep the Nadar supporters in good humour.

However, the political clout that Anitha Radhakrishnan enjoys among the Nadars of the deep-south districts and his deep pockets have made him an unassailable political force in Thoothukudi and its neighbouring districts in the last decade, and it has become increasingly difficult for the BJP to keep its Nadar vote bank intact.

“Since Nadars are entrepreneurial, murmurs of disappointment over the implementation of GST can be a challenge to the BJP, not just in the southern districts, but across the state,” says AR Meyyammai, a senior journalist from Tamil Nadu.

Amid expectations of R Sarath Kumar, actor-turned-politician and leader of AISMK, a Nadar-based party, aligning with the BJP, he actually merged it with the national party last month. His spouse, Radikaa Sarath Kumar, also an actor, is contesting from Viruthunagar.

However, the candidacy of Vijaya Prabakaran, son of late actor and DMDK founder Vijayakanth, contesting against her on behalf of the AIADMK alliance may nullify any benefit the merger may bring to the BJP.

Also read: Modi discusses strategy

Strategy 2024 – southern Tamil Nadu

The BJP wants to put up a full-fledged fight in Tamil Nadu this time, with its state unit chief and three former state presidents in the fray.

Tamilisai Soundararajan is contesting from South Chennai.

The leader of the BJP’s Legislature Party, Nainar Nagendran, is from Tirunelveli, which has a sizable population of Muslims, Pallar, Pillais, and Nadars. Nagendran was a former AIADMK minister between 2001 and 06. He switched his loyalties to the BJP after Jayalalithaa’s demise.

The seizure of an unaccounted cash of ₹4 crore near Chennai on 7 April from three alleged supporters of Nainar Nagendran has dealt a severe blow to the party’s image.

When Tamilisai was still the governor of Telangana, she visited Tirunelveli and interacted with the residents when heavy floods ravaged the city in December 2023.

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman, too, visited Thoothukudi in December and refuted the ruling DMK’s charge that the Centre did not give the state any flood relief.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Thoothukudi in February to lay the foundation of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) second spaceport at Kulasekarapattinam in the district, and the BJP is very active in trying to take credit for this.

The prime minister also tweeted about how ‘callously the DMK and the Congress gave away the Katchatheevu islet to Sri Lanka in 1974.’ The islet is situated near the maritime boundary of the Ramanathapuram constituency.

It was even rumoured that Narendra Modi might contest from Ramanathapuram this time.

However, former Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, expelled from AIADMK, is contesting from this seat as an Independent backed by the BJP.

“Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi regularly raised the Katchatheevu issue whenever they did not ally with the Congress. For Jayalalithaa, it was an issue on which she could attack the Congress and the DMK. Now, the BJP is following Jayalalithaa, but it does not decide votes,” says Meyyammai.

While the marital relationship between Hindu Nadars and Christian Nadars was very average, such weddings have reduced in the past decade due to communal polarization. It is undoubtedly an advantage for the BJP, she said.

With Pon Radhakrishnan maintaining a relatively low profile and Tamilisai Soundararajan contesting from a Chennai seat, how the Nadar-dominated seats will vote for the BJP this time is the question.

(The writer is an independent journalist based in Tamil Nadu. Views are personal.)