BJP, India's ruling party, makes a play for the southern state of Tamil Nadu

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi (above), is trying to make its presence felt in the southern state amid troubles in its two regional parties.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi (above), is trying to make its presence felt in the southern state amid troubles in its two regional parties. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - Regional parties have long kept a stranglehold on power in Tamil Nadu, but things might be changing.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is trying to make its presence felt in the southern state amid troubles in its two regional parties.

The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) have been so dominant that they have taken turns to rule Tamil Nadu for more than five decades.

National parties like Mr Modi's BJP have hardly made a dent in recent elections in the southern state, which is generally seen as stable and prosperous.

But the BJP raised eyebrows recently when Mr Modi reached out to the DMK even though it has traditionally supported the AIADMK, currently in power in Tamil Nadu.

Last week, Mr Modi visited Mr M Karunanidhi, the DMK's ailing 93-year -old leader, setting off speculation that the BJP is keeping all its political options open.

The party has also made efforts to raise its profile in the Tamil state, a car manufacturing hub often favoured by foreign investors.

"There is definitely a vacuum in Tamil Nadu politics. But there is nothing wrong with the BJP trying to capitalise. We have been strengthening our cadre base throughout Tamil Nadu,'' said Tamil Nadu BJP spokesman Narayanan Thirupathy.

The BJP has been wooing Tamil superstar Rajnikanth, who wields a lot of influence in Tamil Nadu, to get him to join the party.

Besides promoting Mr Modi as a popular leader, it has also been highlighting popular federal government initiatives, such as the move to slash premiums for a federal crop insurance scheme from a high of 40 per cent to as little as 1.5 per cent.

Such moves come as the state's two regional parties run into trouble over the past year.

The ruling AIADMK, whose charismatic leader, actress-turned politician Jayalalithaa, died last December, has been riven with infighting.

Her successor, Ms V.K. Sasikala, got into trouble soon after taking over the party. She is now in jail after being convicted of graft by the Supreme Court in Feb.

Though Ms Sasikala and her family members have been sidelined, they are still trying to exert influence over the party. There have also been reports in the Indian media of possible friction between chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami of the AIADMK and Mr O. Panneerselvam, a former chief minister who quit and rejoined the party.

The DMK has its own share of problems. Mr Karunanidhi's son Stalin - named after the Russia strongman - has taken over but is not as popular as his father.

Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political scientist and Pro Vice Chancellor of the Jain University, said of Tamil Nadu: "It is a state in deep flux."

Even actors Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan are trying to carve out their own political space, he noted.

"The BJP is keen on making inroads..But I think much would depend on what happens to the AIADMK," he said.

Other analysts note that it would not be easy for the BJP, which champions Hindu nationalism, to win much support in a state where politics is rooted in Tamil nationalism and centred around opposition to upper caste Brahmin dominance and the Hindi language.

And the BJP is seen as a North Indian party and most popular among the upper castes in a state which takes pride in its Tamil culture and language.

The BJP has already run into controversy in Tamil Nadu.

Its recent failed attempt to block Tamil film Mersal for its criticism of the Goods and Services Tax, generated much criticism. The movie went on to do well in Tamil Nadu.

"It doesn't have prominent leaders in the state nor do people identify with the BJP in a big way,''said Dr. R. Manivannan, a professor at the University of Madras, adding that its attempt to reach out to the DMK underlines the BJP's uncertainty.