BJP hails Tamil in attempt to shed its ‘anti-Tamil’ image ahead of 2024 elections, but here is the catch

The BJP is desperately trying to project itself as a party that respects the sentiments of the Tamil people. But will it work?

ByShilpa Nair

Published Nov 29, 2022 | 9:30 AM Updated Nov 29, 2022 | 9:30 AM

Kashi Tamil Sangamam

Its strong “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan” politics may have given it grand success in most states in India, but it has put the BJP in a spot in Tamil Nadu.

Quick to learn and adapt, the party has started working towards shedding its “anti-Tamil” image in a state steeped in Dravidian politics in the run-up to 2024 Lok Sabha elections. That is, however, easier said than done.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this month inaugurated the Kashi Tamil Sangamam — an initiative to “rediscover and celebrate the old-age links” between Tamil Nadu and Kashi — at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), located in his parliamentary constituency of Varanasi.

Narendra Modi

PM Modi inaugurated the Kashi Tamil Sangamam wearing the traditional Tamil attire. (Supplied)

Dressed in a white silk vesti, shirt and angavastram in popular Tamil style, Modi hoped to be Tamil Nadu’s “representative” in the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh.

“In the Hindi heartland and one of the oldest living cities, PM Modi said Tamil is one of the oldest living languages in the world. Even a Tamilian wouldn’t have shown such courage to say that in the Hindi heartland,” CT Ravi, national general secretary of BJP, told South First.

Playing his part to perfection, Modi spoke at length about the spiritual, religious, and cultural connections between Kashi and Tamil Nadu.

“It is the responsibility of 130 crore Indians to protect Tamil. We need to promote Tamil. Otherwise, the nation would suffer and the language too. As a country, we should move away from linguistic differences,” Modi added.

BJP’s sudden love for Tamil

Political observers believe that the Kashi Tamil Sangamam is only the latest attempt by BJP to shed its “anti-Tamil” image and offset its “Hindi-Hindutva-Hindustan” political force image in a “hostile” Tamil Nadu that takes immense pride in its individualistic linguistic, cultural and spiritual identity, and history.

Prime Minister Modi has been extensively quoting from the Thirukkural on world stages and at home alike, and it doesn’t stop there.

From announcing the creation of a Tamil chair named after the great poet Subramania Bharati at BHU, to consciously switching from Hindi to English while attending public meetings in Tamil Nadu; from highlighting the richness of Tamil culture to recalling the contributions of various Tamil icons, Modi has touched upon all these themes in his visits to the state.

All of which ties in with the BJP’s attempts to project itself as a party that respects the sentiments of the Tamil people.

Other Union ministers have taken a cue from Modi too. During a recent visit to Chennai, Home Minister Amit Shah asked Tamil Nadu government to teach medical and engineering courses to students in Tamil. This came after his push to introduce professional courses in Hindi was met with opposition.

It is a different matter that such an initiative was implemented in Tamil Nadu 12 years ago, where civil and mechanical engineering courses at Anna University and its affiliated colleges are being taught in Tamil.

Why BJP formula lags in TN

Its Dravidian politics that rejects Brahminical hegemony and sets Tamil identity distinctively apart from that of Hindutva, makes Tamil Nadu a tough landscape for the BJP. Unlike Opposition parties in other states, the DMK doesn’t shy away from opposing BJP’s Hindutva or Hindi imposition.

Tamil Nadu assembly

Picture showing Tamil CM MK Stalin hitting out at the Centre over Hindi imposition while speaking during the assembly session.

The DMK has successfully managed to create an “insider versus outsider” narrative to keep BJP in check — a move that state unit president of the saffron party, K Annamalai, is slowing attempting to undo.

When a Parliamentary Committee on Official Language led by Union Home Minister Shah sought to replace compulsory English-language papers with Hindi papers in recruitment exams for central government jobs, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin issued a public warning over “another language war”.

The DMK youth wing took to the streets, the party mounted an online campaign against Hindi imposition. Stalin even wrote a letter to Modi and alliance parties of the DMK exerted pressure. The Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a resolution opposing Hindi imposition by the Union government.

Conflicting messages is BJP’s woe

According to political commentators, initiatives such as the Kashi Tamil Sangamam could remain mere optics and not really translate into political or electoral gains for the BJP, thanks to the conflicting messaging from the BJP itself.

For all the times Modi praises Tamil and waxes eloquent on its linguistic richness, his government at the Centre openly bats for Hindi as a “unifying language”. This doesn’t go unnoticed.

Also, words spoken by the prime minister in praise of Tamil does not reflect in budgetary allocation for its development.

From 2014 to 2019, the Union government spent ₹280.5 crore just to promote Hindi. Modi’s government spent ₹643 crore to promote Sanskrit from 2017-2020, which is 22 times the combined spending of ₹29 crore on the other five classical languages — Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, and Odia — during the same period.

Words just don’t cut it

Speaking to South First, Ramu Manivannan, professor of politics and public administration, said: “Any initiative of the BJP government will have a political and electoral orientation to it. When Modi went to Bali to attend the G20 summit, he took gifts for world leaders which are from the two poll-bound states. As far as the Kashi Tamil Sangamam is concerned, people here are able to see through such politics.”

“It is only the BJP-RSS which is talking about the programme, and they will keep talking about it till elections. However, it is not going to have any impact on their electoral prospects… Yes, Tamil Nadu is very religious. But people of the state have a sense of where to draw the line between religion and politics. That’s really the challenge for the BJP,” he explained.

Questions have been raised about why the BJP didn’t collaborate with Tamil Nadu government if promoting Tamil language, culture was the intent. Not a single representative of the state government was present at the event.

Kashi Tamil inauguration

No representative of the Tamil Nadu government was present at the inauguration ceremony of the Kashi Tamil Sangamam,

Senior DMK leader TKS Elangovan pointed out that the programme has more to do with religion than promoting Tamil language or culture.

“This programme is more to appeal to the Hindus than to promote the Tamil language or culture. If they are really serious about strengthening Tamil, why don’t they spend the same amount of money they are spending to promote Sanskrit?” he questioned.

‘It won’t fetch votes’

Interestingly, even though a BJP leader from Tamil Nadu, who spoke to South First on condition of anonymity, welcomed the move by the Union government, he wasn’t sure if it would fetch votes for the party.

“Many people from the North show keen interest in visiting Rameshwaram. But how many people in Tamil Nadu, except maybe Brahmins and few others, show similar interest in going to Kashi? I’m not sure how much of an impact the Kashi Tamil Sangamam would have on the people,” he wondered.

(With inputs from Anusha Ravi Sood)