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Can the BJP Win the Battle for Tamil Nadu?

The BJP kicked off its campaign in the southern state, where it is battling the impression of being an outsider.

By Divya Chandrababu for
Can the BJP Win the Battle for Tamil Nadu?

M. K. Stalin, leader of the DMK, currently Tamil Nadu’s opposition, leads a rally.

Credit: Twitter/ M.K. Stalin

CHENNAI — Fresh from a tense conflict with Pakistan, the political campaign trail is off to a feverish start across India ahead of the country’s general elections.

With the election commission of India announcing Sunday that the polls will be conducted in seven phases starting April 11, the battle to form the next government has begun. The National Democratic Alliance led by the ruling party of India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), launched their run with a rally on March 6 in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Prime Minister Narendra Modi took center stage amid his allies here. Modi, who is eyeing a second term in the country’s top job, has brought together a formidable alliance by tying up with the ruling government of Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), and other local political parties who have influential vote banks in various pockets of the state.

The BJP has shown a sudden shift in focus toward Tamil Nadu recently; the rally marked the fourth visit that Modi has made in 40 days. That is significant because Tamil Nadu is where Modi’s popularity has noticeably weaned. The BJP is viewed as an outsider; the electorate has disagreed with the central government’s policies over various issues and there is a sense of neglectful treatment from the central government. The resistance is underscored by the need to keep intact regional autonomy and Tamil identity.

Since last year, every time that Modi has visited the state, he has faced immense backlash with top trending hashtags on Twitter such as #GoBackModi. Similar hashtags trend on Kerala’s social media when senior BJP leaders visit the communist-led government. In Tamil Nadu, the cyberspace criticism was accompanied by black flag protests on the ground organized by political parties in the opposition and fringe outfits, compelling Modi to take to the skies to reach a venue to avoid the dissenting crowd on the streets of Chennai.

Modi’s speech on March 6 sought to appease this discontent by appealing to Tamil sentiments, supporting regional aspirations and espousing the legendary status of former leaders of the state. Modi unveiled a statue of M. G. Ramachandran (or MGR), the late founder of ADMK (later AIADMK) and renamed the central railway station in Chennai after MGR. Modi also launched a slew of development projects as he had done in his past visits.

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By coincidence, Tamil Nadu is also the family home of Abhinandan Varthaman, the Indian Air Force pilot who was captured and released by Pakistan after the Balakot airstrikes. “It makes every Indian proud that the brave Wing Commander Abhinandan hails from Tamil Nadu,” Modi had said during his previous rally here on March 1, breaking his radio silence following the airstrikes. Speaking of the fighter pilot for the first time, he laid down the poll plank of national security.

Tamil Nadu has not just been a major state in aiding successive parties to clinch the seat of power in New Delhi; it has also been dependable in providing numbers in the lower and upper houses of the parliament to pass key resolutions. However, recent events have demonstrated that the battleground in Tamil Nadu will pose a challenge for the BJP.

First, there are differences within the rank and file of AIADMK over aligning with BJP. In the previous general elections in 2014, AIADMK, led by late chief minister and MGR’s successor J. Jayalalithaa, fought it alone in Tamil Nadu and swept the polls winning 37 out of the 39 seats. Jayalalithaa, already a regional heavyweight, saw herself as a national contender, challenging if “Gujarat’s Modi or this Tamil Nadu Lady” was a better leader (Modi was formerly chief minister of Gujarat). She died in office in December 2016 of cardiac arrest and her death is being probed by a special commission as the secrecy surrounding her hospitalization and treatment has come under intense scrutiny.

The powerful Jayalalithaa, revered as “Amma” (mother) by her cadres, ruled with an iron fist without nurturing any political heir. Her sudden death led to a series of dramatic episodes, causing the party to splinter. This abyss provided the BJP with an opportunity to make inroads in Tamil Nadu through a weakened AIADMK. The party, now led by Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and deputy leader O Paneerselvam (who was Jayalalithaa’s choice to take her chair during the times she was jailed over corruption charges), also accepted the BJP’s overtures for their survival.

The anti-BJP sentiment is most evident from the national party being drubbed at the by-election conducted in the R. K. Nagar constituency in Chennai in 2017 to fill the seat that was left vacant following Jayalalithaa’s death. The BJP candidate here got fewer votes than the None of the Above (NOTA) option. The seat was won by T. T. V. Dhinakaran, a former treasurer of AIADMK and the nephew of Jayalalithaa’s close aide V. K. Sasikala who is serving prison time for corruption charges. Dhinakaran made history by being the first independent candidate to win a by-election in Tamil Nadu and later floated a new party — Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK).

The BJP’s muscular image as the “saffron party,” which finds favor in the Hindi-speaking belt, is seen as alienating for those equally espousing a Tamil fervor. One problem is the linguistic push, with the center renaming various welfare schemes and transport infrastructure in Hindi and making the language compulsory in schools. In Tamil Nadu, anti-Hindi sentiment dates back to the pre-independence period. Violent protests erupted in 1965 with reports of Hindi replacing English as the official language. The present opposition party in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), led the protests and found support in states like Bengal until the proposal was dropped. Under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s tenure, it was guaranteed that Hindi and English would be used in official transactions.

Both the DMK and the AIADMK have promoted Tamil and English as mediums in education and employment. The linguistic resistance has also always found linkages ideologically to the Dravidian movement and the two front-line Dravidian parties operate along this dogma. Last year, DMK’s working president M. K. Stalin accused the BJP of imposing Hindi on the state and warned them of a possible 1965-type backlash.

The central government is also criticized as being absent in a range of burning issues that the state has been grappling with. That includes not acting enough to settle the water disputes between Tamil Nadu and the neighboring state of Karnataka and not exempting the state from a common eligibility and entrance exam for medical studies (NEET), which put rural students at a disadvantage. In 2017, a poor Dalit student, S. Anitha, committed suicide after not clearing NEET despite being a top scorer in her class 12 examinations. She continues to be the face of the agitation. People’s angst against the central leadership is also attributed to the fact that none visited the state during Cyclone Gaja, which took a heavy toll on life and property in November 2018. There was likewise no reaction from the prime minister after state police opened fire, killing 13 civilians during an environmental protest in the district of Tuticorin last May. The protesters were demanding the closure of the Sterlite copper smelter plant owned by London-listed Vedanta Resources. The BJP’s wing in Tamil Nadu has not managed to soften any of the blows nor has it been an effective bridge between the center and the state.

Despite a range of issues cementing anti-incumbency sentiment, the BJP will make a show of strength with its allies. The principal opposition that the BJP will be fighting is the combination of the DMK-United Progressive Alliance led by Indian National Congress and a few regional parties. The DMK, which lost all seats in the previous general elections, is advocating the Congress’ Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate even as their other allies have refrained from naming anyone. Also in the fray are Dhinakaran’s AMMK and actor-turned politician Kamal Haasan’s year-old party, Makkal Needhi Maiam. Another actor, Rajinikanth, clamped down on expectations after announcing that he would not contest this election despite floating a party.

This is the first major election without the two regional charismatic leaders: Jayalalithaa and DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi, who died at the age of 94 last August. The iconic rivals clashed for almost three decades in the state. The 2019 elections will be crucial to test BJP’s place in Tamil Nadu as well as determine the next star leader of the politically vibrant state.

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Divya Chandrababu is an award winning independent journalist based in Chennai, India. She was Asia Journalism Fellow, 2018 at the Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore.