Tamil Nadu Elections: Decoding BJP Strategy to Make a Saffron Mark on Dravidian Turf

R Bhagwan Singh
·7-min read

The Tamil Nadu election in 2021 is being keenly watched not only because it is the first such state-level exercise after the demise of J Jayalalithaa of the ruling AIADMK and M Karunanidhi of the opposition DMK, but also because it puts to test the BJP’s ambition to gain political space on the hitherto-hostile Dravidian turf, where the deaths of the two iconic leaders have created a vacuum.

In a way, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sought to sow the seeds of its ambitions in Tamil Nadu as far back as August 2015, when Amit Shah — he was then the party president — addressed a massive rally of the Devendra Kula Vellalars (DKV) in Madurai, where the farming community reiterated its demand that it be delinked from the Dalit tag.

The community, strong in numbers in the southern districts, wanted its seven subsects listed under the SC (Scheduled Castes) category classified separately as Devendra Kula Vellalar so that its members could “live with pride and dignity”. According to it, the Dalit tag drew humiliation and discrimination by upper castes.

A bill sanctioning this classification was passed in the Lok Sabha last Friday (March 19), fulfilling a promise made by Shah at the Madurai rally, and by Prime Minister Narendra Modi later. Only last month, Modi told a delegation from the community during his Chennai visit that Parliament was set to clear the bill in the current session. “Devendra rhymes with my name Narendra,” he said, striking a chord with the visitors.

The smiles among the DKV voters would help the alliance between the BJP and the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in this election, particularly in the southern districts where the AIADMK feared backlash from the Thevar community, angered by the “humiliation” of their leader VK Sasikala. Besides, it could be a good beginning to the BJP’s efforts to portray itself as a friend of the SC and shake off the perception that it works only for the upper crest.

Last heard, scores of DKV youngsters are going around the southern constituencies, asking from their own people votes for the BJP-AIADMK alliance because PM Modi “gave us dignity”.

Apart from the DKV issue, the BJP has made yet another strategically significant move in choosing a Dalit as its state president earlier this year. Lawyer L Murugan was nowhere on the canvas when the names were being discussed in the media and amid saffron circles for the hot seat during election time. Incumbent Tamilisai Sounderarajan had moved to Hyderabad as Telangana governor. In came Murugran. With this master stroke, the party managed to deflect the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) ammunition that it is a pro-Brahmin outfit.

As part of its social engineering, the BJP has sought to woo the backward classes as well by “adopting” their favourite deity, Lord Murugan, when it led a month-long “Vetrivel Yatra” towards the end of last year. The yatra, however, hit a roadblock with the “friendly” AIADMK government banning it amid allegations by DMK-led rivals that it sought to divide the community and disrupt public harmony; the ruling party feared it would get further alienated from the Muslim and Christian electorates.

After taking charge, Murugan exuded confidence that his party would win “at least 50 seats” in the 234-member state assembly. But it turned out that the coalition leader, AIADMK, allotted just 20 seats to the BJP. Chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami convinced the ally’s central leadership that more seats for the BJP only meant more seats in the DMK kitty.

The absence of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, who had a firm grip over their parties, has emboldened the BJP, which tried to poach some of members of the Dravidian parties — a familiar political strategy successfully used in some other states.

Ex-MLA Dr P Saravanan crossed over from the DMK, which denied him ticket from his preferred Tirupparankundram seat (Madurai district). The same evening the BJP gave him his desired ticket. “We must get as many party members as possible into the state assembly, at least a dozen of them,” said a BJP senior, brushing aside reports of a mini-revolt by the party’s local workers angered by a “migrant” being rewarded with the Madurai (North) ticket. It is said DMK chief MK Stalin has instructed his local satraps to ensure Saravanan’s defeat “to show the BJP cannot insult us”. He has fielded his district secretary Ko. Thalapathi against the “traitor”.

For a party in power at the Centre, the BJP has negligible political base in Tamil Nadu. The last time a saffron voice was heard in the state legislature was during 2001-2006, when it had four MLAs and was a part of the DMK alliance. Seen as a Hindutva party dominated by Hindi-speaking people alien to the Dravidian land, the BJP could manage a vote share of just about 3% in Tamil Nadu in 2001. It dropped further to 2% in 2006, and then rose marginally to 2.2% in 2011.

The Modi wave that swept India pushed its vote share to 5.5% in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, but the party bagged just 3.66% of the votes in 2019, when it drew blank despite aligning with the AIADMK. The alliance had just one winner from the state’s 40 seats: Raveendranath Kumar, the wealthy son of deputy CM O Panneerselvam.

Jayalalithaa had fared badly in saffron company in 2004. She had even grabbed national headlines, thundering in the 2014 poll campaign that “this Tamil Nadu lady is better than Gujarat’s Modi in delivering good administration”. The ruling party cozied up to the BJP after her death in December 2016.

Thanks to the pro-Modi wave in 2014, BJP got a few allies in Tamil Nadu and won the Kanyakumari Lok Sabha seat for Pon Radhakrishnan, who became a minister of state for finance and shipping. Now, he has been fielded in a by-poll to the same seat, which fell vacant following the demise of Congress’s H Vasanth Kumar, who won the constituency in 2019, due to Covid-19. The BJP campaign promises the electorate that “Ponnaar” will surely make it to the Modi cabinet if he wins.

After being a near-untouchable, politically, all these years on the Dravidian turf, the BJP now has all the ears of the AIADMK rulers. And to demonstrate its new muscle, it has brought in a few celebrities such as yesteryear Kollywood stars Kushbu and Gautami, some ex-bureaucrats and former Karnataka-cadre Indian Police Service officer K Annamalai, who is being projected as the party’s CM candidate in 2026. Also, the saffron party has thrown open the doors of its state headquarters, “Kamalalayam” in Chennai’s T’Nagar, to accept migrants from other parties so as to create its “mass base” and boost its manpower at poll booths. Never mind if some of them have questionable past; which party does not have a load of them anyway?

“We will show a significant performance in this election, (and) even become a partner in the emerging coalition government, or an influencing power if there is hung assembly. But be sure: we will capture power in 2026,” said the BJP senior quoted earlier. He insisted on anonymity as he did not want to ruffle feathers in the AIADMK.

The Dravidian majors in Tamil Nadu are going through their most difficult phase after the demise of their iconic leaders, and a defeat in this election could bring doom to the loser. The BJP could enjoy a hearty meal out of the remnants of the loser, to gain political weight and wait for 2026. As for the winner, it will have to coordinate with the central government led by the BJP. On the other side, some pollsters are predicting disaster for saffron candidates in the April 6 outing and a decisive win for Stalin’s DMK.

“Never mind those inspired forecasts; even if Stalin comes to power, he has to play ball with us as our party will be in power for a few more terms (at the Centre) and he cannot afford to antagonise the Centre,” said another state BJP functionary, insisting that the DMK was already “talking to us, just in case”. “Only Edappadi (CM) and his ministers should worry if Stalin comes to power,” this leader said.

Such confidence among the BJP men and women in Tamil Nadu may not be misplaced.

The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal