Unravelling BJP’s voter-surge narrative on polling day in Tamil Nadu

Contrary to the national narrative, the Bharatiya Janata Party is not seen as a magnet that can attract votes in Tamil Nadu.

ByA S Panneerselvan

Published Apr 25, 2024 | 3:00 PMUpdatedApr 25, 2024 | 4:43 PM

K Annamalai of BJP after casting his vote in Tamil Nadu. (X)

The voting pattern in Tamil Nadu on 19 April sparked debates that evening. The debates were based on the premise that there was a voter surge late evening and that it favoured the BJP-led NDA. The national channels, which stopped checking facts a decade ago, went with the rumour of the voter surge and attributed it to the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the president of the Tamil Nadu BJP, K Annamalai.

The reason for the mistake was the inability of the channels to distinguish between provisional votes and the final consolidated figures. At 7 pm, the Chief Electoral Officer, Satyabrata Sahoo, shared a set of data based on provisional votes that put the overall polling percentage in the state at 72.09 per cent, which was marginally lower than the 2019 voter turnout of 72.47 percent.

In Coimbatore, where Annamalai is the BJP candidate, the provisional figures indicated a jump—to 71.17 percent votes as opposed to 63.84 percent in 2019. There was also a surge reported in the three Chennai constituencies, and the national television media, which are not permitted to run exit polls, came up with a reason that the BJP candidates—former Telangana Governor, Tamilisai Soundararajan from Chennai South and Annamalai from Coimbatore—are winning their seats comfortably. This was based on the provisional figures.

The excitement over the provisional voting percentage was short-lived. Sahoo clarified that the figures were not final and said: “The data we have obtained and shared are approximates based on sample data obtained from the polling station.” The animated debates over the voters’ enthusiasm for Prime Minister Modi’s leadership vanished when the EC released the final figures by midnight.

Related: EC revises TN voter turnout

Back to the usual blame game

The final figures revealed that not only was the overall voter turnout lower than in 2019 but also that the polling percentages in Coimbatore and the three Chennai constituencies were only marginally different from earlier elections.

From triumphant noises, the BJP moved to its usual game of blaming the process. Annamalai and Vinoj P. Selvam – BJP’s Central Chennai candidate, complained that the names of one lakh voters, who they believed were “BJP supporters”, were deleted from the electoral rolls in their respective constituencies. The fact that the Election Commission released the electoral rolls in January, and every political party was using the electoral roll for devising their campaign strategy for different constituencies, made this charge look not only frivolous but as a bail-out strategy to set the narrative in the post-counting days.

To understand the implications, let us look at the three Chennai constituencies—North, Central and South. The three Parliamentary constituencies in Chennai registered an overall turnout of 55.94 percent in the Lok Sabha Election 2024. Chennai Central Lok Sabha constituency recorded the lowest turnout of 53.96 percent in the State. While North Chennai recorded 60.11 percent voter participation, South Chennai saw 54.17 percent. The city constituencies saw a dip from 60.16 percent in 2019.

The dip reveals that there was no Prime Minister-inspired charisma governing the southern metropolis, and the number of visits by Prime Minister Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, and BJP president J P Nadda did not give the party any political dividends.

Post-polling in Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Pondicherry, political leaders from different parties believe that the state, which opted for regional political leadership in 1967, has once again reiterated its support for the regional parties, DMK and the AIADMK.

Related: Temple visits and roadshows

No returns from BJP’s Tamil Nadu push 

The ground-level reports from the 40 constituencies (including Puducherry) reveal that despite the massive mobilisation by the BJP, which includes multiple road shows by the Prime Minister and the fielding of three of its former state presidents, Pon Radhakrishnan in Kanniyakumari, Union Minister of State L Murugan from Nilgiris, and Tamilisai Soundararajan, former state president of the party who was holding dual positions as the governor of Telangana and Lt Governor of the Union Territory of Pondicherry till the other day, there were no political dividends.

It also fielded its current president K Annamalai from Coimbatore and its legislative party leader Nainar Nagendran from Thirunelveli. The ruling party at the Union was opposed to the state ruling party, the DMK, as the latter provided the moral glue to keep the INDIA bloc together and provided the Congress party with a more than fair share of seats.

Three positions of the DMK rankled the BJP as it challenged its centralising tendencies: its steadfast commitment towards federal balance, its unwavering commitment to a secular, plural India based on constitutional values, and its ability to hold on to its alliance partners, who were in the DMK fold for the fourth time.

The alliance partners first came together for 2019 Lok Sabha polls, it continued to the 2021 assembly elections, followed by the local bodies’ election. And the team went in as one unit in the 2024 election.

Also read: AIADMK-BJP ties snap 

The alliance arithmetic

The survival of the electoral arrangement also meant the transfer of votes among the coalition partners was smooth, with little friction at the grassroots level. On the other hand, the opposition is a divided house today. In 2019, the AIADMK-led front had seven partners–BJP, Pattali Makkal Katchi, Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, Tamil Maanila Congress (Moopanar), Puthiya Tamizhagam, All India NR Congress and New Justice Party.

Despite electoral arithmetic in its favour, the alliance won a single seat in Theni, where the AIADMK candidate defeated the Congress candidate. On the other hand, the DMK-led front won 39 out of the 40 seats in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. The average margin between AIADMK and DMK alliances in the seven seats with substantial minority voters was close to 3,00,000 votes. In the rest of the 31 seats, the margin was, on average, 1,92,000 votes.

Contrary to the national narrative, nobody sees the BJP as a magnet that can attract votes in Tamil Nadu. To safeguard its traditional vote bank, the AIADMK, which voted with the BJP at every turn in the Parliament, snapped its ties with the national party. D Jayakumar, a former minister and the spokesperson of the AIADMK, succinctly summed up the political reality. He said: “For nearly a decade, we carried the unwanted luggage called the BJP on our shoulders. Time has come for us to unburden ourselves.” The question is: Will the anti-BJP sentiment in Tamil Nadu resonate nationally?

(A S Panneerselvan is a Roja Muthiah Research Library, Chennai fellow. He was the Readers’s Editor of The Hindu between 2012 and 2021. He teaches journalism at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. Views are personal.)

(Edited by VVP Sharma)