BJP makes a play for Tamil Nadu

But analysts say it won't be easy despite troubles in the state's two regional parties

A BJP supporter holding a face mask of PM Narendra Modi at a rally earlier this month. The party raised eyebrows recently when Mr Modi reached out to DMK even though BJP has traditionally supported AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.
A BJP supporter holding a face mask of PM Narendra Modi at a rally earlier this month. The party raised eyebrows recently when Mr Modi reached out to DMK even though BJP has traditionally supported AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Regional parties have long kept a stranglehold on power in the state of Tamil Nadu, but things might be changing.

The national Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is trying to make its presence felt in the 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 the 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 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 on it. We have been strengthening our cadre base throughout Tamil Nadu,'' said Tamil Nadu BJP spokesman Narayanan Thirupathy.

  • Southern state's two powerhouses

  • For half a century, two regional parties have taken turns to rule Tamil Nadu, a state at the southern tip of India.

    The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which are confined to the southern state, have seized on their home-ground advantage to thrash the national parties at the polls.

    In the state's assembly elections last year, for instance, India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did not win a single seat.

    The other big national party, Congress, got just eight seats. The two local parties won the lion's share of the votes.

    The two regional "kingpins" are part of the Dravidian movement, with Dravidian referring to the four key ethnolinguistic groups in South India. Founded in 1925 by E.V. Ramasamy, a social activist and reformer, the movement challenged the dominance of Brahmins in the caste system and Hindi, which is considered a north Indian language.

    The DMK was founded in 1949, while the AIADMK was set up in the 1970s by movie actor-turned-politician M.G. Ramachandran as a breakaway faction of the DMK.

    The DMK's red flags and the black ones of the AIADMK can be commonly seen on poles or painted on the side of houses in towns and villages, underlining their local influence.

    The two parties have also been important players in federal politics. They have been courted by the national parties to become members of ruling coalitions.

    Nirmala Ganapathy

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 slashing 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 amid the two regional parties' troubles over the past year. The ruling AIADMK - whose charismatic leader, actress-turned-politician J. Jayalalithaa, died last December - has been riven by infighting.

Her successor, V.K. Sasikala, soon got into trouble. She is now in jail after being convicted of graft by the Supreme Court in February. Though Sasikala and her family members have been sidelined, they are still trying to exert influence over the party. There have also been reports of possible friction between Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami 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 Russian 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," said Dr Shastri.

Other analysts noted 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 on opposition to upper caste Brahmin dominance and the Hindi language. It is also seen as a North Indian party and most popular among the upper castes.

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 of the University of Madras, adding that its attempt to reach out to the DMK underlines its uncertainty.

He said: "The party is also not too intrinsic to the political culture of Tamil Nadu and that is the biggest challenge the BJP faces."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2017, with the headline 'BJP makes a play for Tamil Nadu'. Subscribe