BJP’s Calculus for Deal With AIADMK: Why Covid Vaccine May Be Its Trump Card in TN Polls

N Sathiya Moorthy
·5-min read

With the Tamil Nadu assembly polls due by May, and the ruling BJP at the Centre playing hard to get for its partner AIADMK in the state, the question arises if the party is hoping to cash in on the possible success of the probable Covid-19 vaccination campaign, expected to commence later this month.

By the same stretch, what may be applicable to Tamil Nadu may also be true for the other states - West Bengal, Kerala and Assam - where assembly polls are also due.

There is no denying the electoral advantage accruing to the BJP from the Covid-19 vaccination drive, prima facie, but a lot will also depend on the success rate and the vaccination coverage in the states where polls are due.

For its part, the AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu, too, has rolled out vaccination plans, acting on the Centre’s periodic advice and guidelines, with the bureaucracy now immersed as much in the preparations now as they were in Covid management until now.

If and when it came to that, Covid vaccination could well have the same positive effect for the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the poll-going states, just as demonetisation and ‘surgical strikes’ were in their time, through the past years.

It is, however, too early to predict the electoral outcome if the vaccination plan does not work, or the vaccine does not work as efficiently as being projected to be. Either way, a lot will depend also on the social media campaigns in local languages, which could well at times reach individual voters, at times more than PM Modi’s hypnotic voice and mesmerising packaging do.

Three options

With the vaccine on hand – rather, the vaccine-jab on the hand of individual voters, or a substantial number of them, even if it covers only the frontline medical and sanitary workers in the first phase – the BJP would have a lot to show by way of fighting the pandemic. The expected boost to PM Modi’s global image could be as much as after demonetisation and surgical strikes, or even more than that.

But then there are inherent limitations to what the BJP could ask of its allies, big and small, especially in Tamil Nadu, because of its existing inherent weaknesses. At the bottom of it should be the BJP’s worst-case scenario calculations on what if it ended up having to go it alone in the elections, if it were to arm-twist its ally AIADMK, with or without the vaccine.

The party may be able to improve its vote-percentage, with or without any ally, and may even be able to open its account in terms of assembly seats in the state, but that would have been possible in a multi-cornered contest even otherwise. The advantage of a Covid vaccine could have been lost in such a case.

It is not unlikely that some BJP strategists may be counting on the possibility of the party emerging as a replacement for one or the other of the Dravidian majors, namely, the ruling AIADMK and the forgotten DMK parent, pushing one of them to the third place. Be that as it may, even if for argument sake, if there is going to be erosion of votes from the DMK/AIADMK kitty, it could well be in terms of the non-committed voters from both sides – and not just one of them.

In a situation of equal erosion of Dravidian party votes, there could well be an accretion to the BJP votes without it actually coming second, other than in select constituencies, just as it may win one or more seats elsewhere.

Third Front under BJP?

The BJP leadership, in the state as well as national observers and visitors from Delhi like Union Minister Prakash Javdekar, have kept the state unit, the cadres and the allies guessing on its next move.

This stance was adopted ever since the AIADMK unilaterally endorsed incumbent Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) as the party’s chief ministerial candidate after an internal patch-up with Deputy CM O Panneerselvam (OPS) some weeks ago.

Union Home Minister and BJP’s No. 2, Amit Shah, was present at the government function, where OPS announced the decision. If the AIADMK had thought that Shah would endorse the choice on the spot, it did not materialise. The endorsement has not come even weeks later. Instead, the BJP has been only sending signals that have confused the AIADMK even more.

Should the BJP rope in the PMK and DMDK allies in the state NDA, purportedly under the AIADMK’s watch, then, yes, things are not going to be easy, especially for the ruling party in the state. But can that make the BJP the number two, if not one, in state politics, especially if the PMK, with its committed five per cent vote-share were to walk out of the combine at a time of its choosing, post-poll.

Though that question may remain far-fetched at the moment for the BJP to worry about, the party, with its national presence and continuing ambitions cannot afford to upset the apple-cart, even if it is way ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, which are not due before 2024.

That way, even a pro-BJP call from superstar Rajinikanth who exited the polls scene even before entering it, may not make much difference to the party’s vote-share if Covid vaccine became its poll mascot. That is because ‘swing voters’, other than a small section of his fans, who might have voted the BJP on Rajini’s call, would have anyway done so, even without him, no, thanks to the propaganda impact of Covid vaccine.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)