The Prime Minister may huff and puff, but Tamil Nadu remains lukewarm

It’s tough for BJP, harping on Hindi, muscular nationalism and an 'alien' culture to penetrate and reach the hearts of the Tamil people.

ByR Rangaraj

Published Apr 02, 2024 | 1:55 PMUpdatedApr 02, 2024 | 1:55 PM

The Prime Minister may huff and puff, but Tamil Nadu remains lukewarm

The BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have huffed and puffed in Tamil Nadu, but the State has generally rejected the party’s Hindutva line. Notwithstanding Modi’s several visits to Tamil Nadu, the State has remained a bridge too far.

The PM has sought to woo the Tamils with a sprinkling of couplets from Thiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural, thrown in a few awards like Padmashree, Padma Bhushan and so on to celebrities like Rajnikanth, Ilayaraja and Vyjayantimala Bali, and has now promised that he would speak in Tamil through the AI mode.

However, all this has not cut much ice with the Tamil Nadu electorate, and the Tamils have remained lukewarm. The social media is full of memes lampooning Modi and the BJP.

Related: Bone of contention

Katchatheevu question

The latest instance of raking up the Katchatheevu issue (the island was handed over to Sri Lanka in 1974 under the Indira Gandhi-Sirimavo pact) may also not yield significant dividends as the Modi government at the Centre had itself taken no step with Sri Lanka to restore the island to India. In fact, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, in his earlier avatar as MEA Secretary, had repeatedly turned down any such initiative, stating that Katchatheevu was a part of Sri Lanka.

J Jayalalithaa, M Karunanidhi, and now MK Stalin had written several letters to the Union government seeking steps to recover Katchatheevu but the Modi government had not taken up the issue with the Sri Lankan government even once, according to official records. All that the BJP will achieve is to cause some embarrassment to the DMK in the run-up to the 2024 elections. Still, the DMK has covered its track by referring to the State Assembly resolution and several letters to the Union Government demanding the return of Katchatheevu.

Also read: South push

Tamil Nadu’s 39 seats

Modi has launched a vigorous campaign to alter this situation and hopes that 2024 will mark a turning point and provide some seats to the all-India kitty. The party reached saturation point in the Hindi belt in 2019. Tamil Nadu, with 39 Lok Sabha seats up for grabs, is the biggest State in the South.

Barring the period from 1998 to 1999, when the BJP was part of a strong alliance with the AIADMK in 1998, winning three LS seats, and with the DMK in 1999 (4 LS seats), the BJP was down to zero in 2004 and 2009. In 2014, the BJP-led front, the NDA, won two seats (BJP 1, PMK 1), opposing the DMK and the AIADMK.

This time, the BJP seeks the electorate’s mandate without the support of the AIADMK and DMK. The party’s diffidence was evident when it kept trying for an alliance with the AIADMK until the eleventh hour, though the latter had announced a parting of ways.

Several factors are behind the BJP’s failure to make a mark in Tamil Nadu, despite being the ruling party at the Centre in 1999 and 2014.

The BJP is still seen as a Hindi party, a ‘cow-belt’ organisation, in sharp contrast to the egalitarian concept of the major parties towards inclusiveness. In the South, and especially in Tamil Nadu, literacy is high. Even lower middle-class families tend to send their children to the convents, many run by Christian missionaries.

Related: Return to state politics

Cosmopolitan society

Rubbing shoulders with Muslims, Christians and people from different faiths right from school, people have tended to grow up in a cosmopolitan society. Tamil Nadu has opened its doors to people from all parts of the country to work in peace and pursue active careers with merit and hard work.

At the same time, the people are rooted in their own culture and resist any attempt to impose culture from outside. While people are religious, they do not permit a mix of religion and politics or religion and government. They believe that the Government should be common to the people irrespective of faith or any other affiliation.

In elections, local issues dominate rather than nationwide subjects. The BJP is caught in a dilemma when it comes to issues like sharing Cauvery water, as it does not want to displease both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu (as seen in the Karnataka-Maharashtra border row as well) and risks falling between two stools.

The DMK has no restrictions when it places the State’s interest above those of the neighbouring States. The DMK and various parties like the Communists and the Congress have found common cause in the fight against the Governors being used by the BJP-led government at the Centre, as also the use of Central government agencies against the opposition-run governments in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and elsewhere, and this has helped cement these parties into a potent and formidable, even winning alliance.

Related: ‘Governor defying SC’

BJP’s typical politics

The BJP’s ill-advised moves to try and cripple the State governments through the Governors have come in handy for the opposition parties to put all the blame on the Centre and hide their own blemishes. The picture of regional or local pride against the ‘outsider’ tag of the BJP continues to reflect in elections in Tamil Nadu.

Only in a few isolated places like Kanniyakumari did communal clashes between a section of Hindus and Christians decades ago lead to the kind of polarization the BJP seeks to bring about. That is why Pon Radhakrishnan of the BJP was able to win from here in 2014 (it must be remembered that the DMK jettisoned the Congress in 2014) and could give a tough fight to the DMK-Congress alliance this time, too.

Elsewhere in the State, the BJP is making some progress but it is slow despite the attempts of its president K Annamalai to position the party as a real alternative to the DMK and AIADMK.

With the DMK harping on the Dravidian model, secularism and freebies, particularly to women, students and farmers, and presenting a cosy picture of Tamil pride and culture, it has been tough for the BJP, harping on Hindi, muscular nationalism and what is seen as an ‘alien’ culture to penetrate and reach the hearts of the Tamil people.

Till the eighties, the BJP (and its earlier avatar of Jana Sangh) was treated as an untouchable. It was only in 1998 that AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa did the unthinkable of forging an alliance with the saffron party. It paid some immediate dividends, but in the long run, the AIADMK realised that the BJP was a liability since the DMK was able to consolidate the votes of the minorities. After the 2004 debacle, Jayalalithaa kept away from an alliance with the BJP, and it was only after her death that a weakened AIADMK chose to have BJP as a partner.

Related: BJP’s alliance

Aloof from DMK, AIADMK

Under its new leader, Edappadi K Palaniswami, the AIADMK has realised that it would not be possible to break the DMK-led alliance in Tamil Nadu unless it, too, adopted an anti-BJP posture. The AIADMK has come to believe it cannot improve its political fortunes in Tamil Nadu as long as it is part of a BJP-led front.

Therefore, the BJP is forced to have its own front, opposing both the DMK and the AIADMK, and trying to make a virtue of it by declaring its intent to free Tamil Nadu from the evil clutches of the DMK and the AIADMK.

In trying to achieve this, the BJP has the opportunity of reaching out to about 35-40 per cent of the electorate, which is not with the DMK or the AIADMK but has only the choice of voting for the lesser evil under the first-past-the-post electoral system.

The problem for the BJP remains in presenting a clear picture of its strategy in Tamil Nadu. There has been very little Central investment in Tamil Nadu in the last decade, and the BJP government scorecard in the State highlights negative factors. A case in point is the reluctance to release funds to the State owing to damage due to heavy rains and floods, and the DMK highlighted the ‘rude’ responses from Union ministers on the issue.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Chennai who has covered elections since 1977. Views are personal.)