The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is making an all-out bid to make inroads into the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, will contest the upcoming state assembly elections with its traditional ally, the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
Relations between the two parties, which are members of India’s ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), have been strained in recent months. It had seemed that they would not put up a joint fight in the upcoming elections. Many in the AIADMK were not in favor of an alliance with the BJP as they felt the party would be a liability in the eyes of Tamil voters.
The BJP helms India’s federal government and runs governments in 17 of India’s 31 states and union territories, either on its own or in alliance with other parties. But in Tamil Nadu, it has negligible presence.
During the 2019 parliamentary elections, when the rest of India was swept by a Narendra Modi wave, Tamil Nadu remained untouched. Indeed, the BJP lost the one seat it had managed to win in the 2014 general election and its vote share fell from 5.6 percent in 2014 to 3.7 percent in 2019. The party failed to win any seats in the 2016 state assembly elections too.
The BJP’s Hindutva ideology, which is exclusivist and anti-egalitarian, has stood in the way of the party making inroads into Tamil Nadu, a state that has a long history of opposing upper-caste Hinduism and of resisting attempts to impose the Hindi language on the state. The rationalist ideology of the Dravidian movement has heavily influenced politics in Tamil Nadu and parties that do not espouse its principles, even if only in their rhetoric, have failed to strike a chord with voters.
Indeed, since 1967, when the Congress Party was voted out of power in Tamil Nadu, only parties whose origins lie in the Dravidian movement have ruled the state. Power has alternated between the AIADMK and its main rival, the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam.
Given this context, a section of the AIADMK was reportedly uneasy with an alliance with the BJP. Would an alliance with the Hindu-Hindi focused BJP damage the AIADMK’s image as a Dravidian party in the eyes of its supporters?
Additionally, there has been unease in the party over BJP leaders meddling in AIADMK matters. As the main vote-catcher for the NDA in Tamil Nadu, it would be the AIADMK, not the BJP, that would decide who would lead the alliance, AIADMK leaders maintained. The AIADMK would not be dictated to by the BJP.
It does seem the AIADMK and the BJP have resolved some of these differences. While announcing that the BJP and the AIADMK would jointly fight the elections, BJP President J. P. Nadda said that Chief Minister Edapaddi Palaniswami would be the NDA’s chief ministerial candidate. The BJP had reportedly backed his rival, Deputy Chief Minister Ottakarathevar Pannerselvam, for the post in the past.
Apparently AIADMK and the BJP have decided to set aside their differences to jointly contest the assembly elections. Electoral calculations have prevailed.
The AIADMK has been in power in Tamil Nadu for the past 10 years. But it faces strong anti-incumbency sentiment in the state and the party is also riven with infighting. Its chances of returning to power are weak.
Drawing on the support base of other parties could improve its tally.
The BJP may not have much of a presence in Tamil Nadu, but the party can count on the support of upper caste Brahmins, who account for roughly 3 percent of the state’s population. The AIADMK will be hoping that its alliance with the BJP will enable it to draw their votes in constituencies where there are Brahmin concentrations.
Besides, religiosity and spirituality is creeping into Tamil Nadu and with it support for the BJP. Tamil Hindus are increasingly uneasy with denigration of Hindu gods by the Dravidian parties, a sentiment that the BJP has been trying to build on.
The AIADMK will be hoping to draw on that as well.
The BJP on its part has been working hard in recent years to build support in Tamil Nadu. It has sought to shed its image as an upper caste party by appointing L. Murugan, from the marginalized Dalit caste, as party president in Tamil Nadu. It has appealed to Tamil religious sensitivities by invoking the name of a locally popular Hindu deity, Murugan, rather than Ram, who has few followers in the state.
It has been assiduously building its network in the state and has been recruiting high-profile personalities, including cricketers, film stars, bureaucrats, and politicians from other parties to expand its support base.
Aware that without local allies its mission to make inroads into Tamil Nadu would not take off, the BJP looked for its own assets. It began assiduously courting Rajnikanth, an actor with immense mass appeal in Tamil Nadu. But its hopes of riding piggy back on Rajnikanth came crashing down in December when the actor ruled out a political career for himself.
Unlikely to make an impact on its own and deserted by other potential partners, the BJP seems to have decided to go with along with an old ally, the AIADMK.
Meanwhile, it is working on getting the AIADMK to welcome V. K. Sasikala, aide of the late chief minister and AIADMK chief, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, back into the party to prevent a division of votes that would accrue to NDA candidates.
So what are the chances of the AIADMK-BJP winning the elections?
A recent ABP Network-CVoter survey of voters in Tamil Nadu has predicted that the opposition United Progressive Alliance (UPA) will come to power in the state with around 158 to 166 seats. The NDA, which won 136 seats in 2016, is expected to end up with just around 98 seats in the upcoming election, according to the survey.
Anti-incumbency is likely to undermine the AIADMK-BJP’s chances of winning the assembly elections. Yet the election will see the BJP come out stronger. It can be expected to expand its vote share in Tamil Nadu.