The Bharatiya Janata Party seems determined to make a mark in Tamil Nadu, one of the last big states to have resisted its political charm so far. And leading the overtures, as it happens with the BJP these days, is Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Since September, Modi has launched a charm offensive to woo the voters of Tamil Nadu. He quoted renowned Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar at the United Nations General Assembly. He then hosted China’s President
Xi Jinping at Mahabalipuram. On that occasion, he wore a veshti and even spoke in Tamil. When Germany came calling to India, he invited Angela Merkel to invest not in Gujarat (from where he hails), but Tamil Nadu. No state has found as many mentions in Modi’s political statements since the May general election results as Tamil Nadu has.
It is not hard to see why. Modi returned to power with a thumping majority in May. The BJP’s nation-wide vote share increased 37.7 percent from 31.3 percent in 2014. But in Tamil Nadu, it was a different story. The BJP’s vote share in the state actually dropped 3.7 percent in 2019 from 5.5 percent in 2014. The drop worryingly happened even after the BJP stitched together a grand alliance with the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and a slew of local parties.
Why has Tamil Nadu proved to be a tough nut to crack for BJP? After all, the party is now truly national after its rich electoral haul even in the North East.
A senior journalist who has been covering Tamil Nadu politics for nearly two decades offered an insight. “National issues like Ram Mandir, Article 370 or the anti-Pakistan rhetoric might click in other states but it won’t work in Tamil Nadu,” the journalist said, asking not to be be named. “It’s difficult for a non-Tamil party to impress voters here.”
Is that why the BJP is changing tack and adopting a different approach to coax the Tamil voter? At the dinner table during Xi’s visit, several vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes were cooked in traditional south-Indian style. The PM also went cleaning the beach in Mahabalipuram in the morning.
Vanathi Srinivasan, general secretary of the BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit said there was no political motive behind Modi’s fondness for Tamil Nadu. According to her,
Modi has always given the state its due importance.
“Inviting the Chinese president to Chennai was one of the BJP’s manifesto promises that all Indian cities will be given importance in hosting big events. Besides, Chennai has a historic connection with China in the areas of trade and literature,” she added.
Srinivasan is confident BJP will make huge inroads in the coming assembly elections. “The people of Tamil Nadu are looking for an alternative. They are realising that DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] and AIADMK have been using Tamil language for their political gains. They propagate Tamil but send their children to non-Tamil schools. People are looking at PM Modi as an answer to their problems. BJP will surely secure double digits [seats] in 2021 polls, whether in alliance with AIADMK or alone,” said the Tamil Nadu BJP leader.
How should one absorb Srinivasan’s claims?
Rajan Kurai, senior political analyst and anthropologist, said, “BJP can’t play its Hindutva card here. And therefore, PM Modi is trying different ways to please the voters.”
Kurai belives people will be unmoved by such overtures. According to him, there are a raft of politically important issues in the state that the BJP has not found any answers so far. “The entire state is enraged about NEET [National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test] exams, Cauveri water, Sterlite factory. Wearing traditional attire or speaking in Tamil is not going to compensate the hurt BJP’s actions have caused to the people of Tamil Nadu. But, if he promises something like dismantling the Tuticorin Sterlite plant, then that might be an interesting area to watch.''
Indeed, Tamil Nadu has proved to be a difficult state to crack for non-Dravidian parties. The state has a history of several anti-Hindi movements during both pre and post-independence. These agitations gained momentum in 1960s and led to the ouster of the Congress party from the state in 1967 when DMK under its founder CN Annadurai won the elections. No non-Dravidian parties — including the Congress — has been able to recover from this blow which was landed more than five decades ago.
That said, Tamil Nadu’s political landscape is not the same anymore. The deaths of Jayalalithaa, fondly known as Amma, the face of AIADMK, and DMK leader M Karunanidhi have left a huge vacuum in leadership. The current crop of leaders do not boast the same charisma as these two politicians.
There is no shortage of effort though. Actors such as Rajnikanth and Kamal Hassan are hoping to occupy this vacuum.
Stacked against these realities, will Tamilians accept an outsider or a non-Dravidian face as their leader?
Senior journalist and former editor of Puthiya Thalaimurai Kalvi magazine Pon Dhanasekaran said Modi’s attempts to consolidate Tamil sentiments might improve his image in the state but it is doubtful if that will translate to votes. “BJP can’t play the Hindutva card here. Local issues play a big role in assembly polls.”The difficulty of the BJP’s task can be gauged by the #GoBackModi hashtag that was trending all day on Twitter when the prime minister arrived in Chennai to receive the Chinese president. It remains to be seen if invoking the Tamil pride often will work as an electoral tactic.