On Saturday, when Union home minister Amit Shah got down from his car to walk on the bustling GST Road outside Chennai airport and greet the crowds, one could almost imagine him humming John Lennon’s “You may say I am a dreamer/ But I am not the only one/I hope someday you’ll join us…”.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s chief strategist is not known to romanticise politics, unlike Rahul Gandhi. Shah would have all the data points regarding Tamil Nadu at his fingertips: 5.5 per cent votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha election; 3.7 per cent in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls; and, less than 3 per cent in the last assembly election in 2016. Amit Shah would be conscious of the fact that when the ‘Modi wave’ of 2014 turned into a tsunami five years later and swept India, there was not even a ripple in Tamil Nadu waters. In 2019, the BJP’s vote share in the state rather dipped by a couple of percentage points; it lost the only seat it held—Kanniyakumari.
The BJP faces massive odds in Tamil Nadu. Its USP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, doesn’t work in the Dravidian land. Relatively non-reactive population of Muslims and Christians (around 6 per cent each) limits Hindutva’s appeal. The BJP’s Vel Yatra, not permitted by the AIADMK government, was an attempt to galvanise Hindutva sentiments in the name of Lord Muruga, a popular deity, but it has failed to trigger any big political debate. Protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA in parts of Tamil Nadu did seem to open a window of opportunity but didn’t gather enough steam to propel Hindutva into another orbit. Pakistan-bashing, Article 370 and nationalism fail to resonate with Tamil voters. To make it worse, the BJP’s image as a north Indian party of Brahmins with ‘Hindi dominance sentiments’, as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) says, runs counter to the Dravidian philosophy.
So, how is it that Amit Shah is dreaming big in Tamil Nadu? A few weeks after J. Jayalalithaa’s death in December 2016, I had asked a top BJP functionary in an informal interaction: “You have been focusing so much on Kerala. Is Tamil Nadu the next stop?” “Abhi nahin… Tamil Nadu abhi taiyyar nahin hai (Not now… Tamil Nadu is not ready for the BJP yet),” he had responded. Much water has flown ashore the Marina Beach since then.
Turning the game around
The BJP may not have a significant electoral base in Tamil Nadu yet, but the party’s clout has gone up significantly. It was for all to see at the Chennai airport where chief minister E.K. Palaniswami and deputy CM O. Panneerselvam so eagerly and gratefully waited for Shah’s arrival. Hours later, the deputy CM announced in Shah’s presence that the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)-BJP alliance would continue in the 2021 assembly polls.
So, what explains the BJP’s clout vis-à-vis the AIADMK leadership? When the Dravidian party went with the BJP in the Lok Sabha election, it had a disastrous run, with the DMK-led opposition alliance winning 38 of the 39 seats. But in the assembly bypolls that the AIADMK contested alone, it won nine of the 22 seats and managed to retain power. Given this background, the AIADMK looked better off going it alone in the assembly election in April-May.
Not that CM Palaniswami must clutch at straws due to Jayalalithaa’s absence. If at all, the chief minister has surprised many with his efficient governance. Unlike Jayalalithaa who was too distant for the people, Palaniswami has sought to reach out to them. Like late M. Karunanidhi of the DMK, who would often travel by trains and meet people at the party headquarters regularly, Palaniswami makes efforts to be seen closer to the people. If he is travelling by car, he stops to interact with farmers in the fields. The residents of Chennai would tell you how they now have to wait for barely a couple of minutes to let the CM’s cavalcade pass; they used to be stranded for 20-30 minutes if Jayalalithaa had to pass by. The Palaniswami government, which focused on completing most of the stalled projects such as roads and flyovers, has also surprised many with its efficient Covid pandemic management. Until a year back, the AIADMK government seemed to be counting its days. It has come from behind to make itself count and the DMK may no longer be breathing easy.
Why the AIADMK needs BJP
So, why is the Palaniswami-Panneerselvam duo so eager to be seen on the right side of the BJP when they are under constant fire from the opposition DMK on many contentious issues, including the three-language formula proposed in the National Education Policy (NEP) and mandatory National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), among others? If you were to ask opposition leaders what makes the BJP indispensable to the AIADMK, they would attribute it to the groundwork done in the past four years by central agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the income tax department. Their raids against who’s who of state politics and bureaucracy—including health minister C. Vijayabaskar, then sitting chief secretary and director general of police, and a sand mining baron, to name a few—have got the AIADMK leadership in jitters. But such allegations from the opposition camp have a familiar ring to it.
The AIADMK has many other reasons to keep Amit Shah in good humour. For one, it’s always good for a state government to be on the right side of the ruling party at the Centre. Second, the DMK is seen as a favourite in the next assembly polls and the AIADMK has its back to the wall without Jayalalithaa. Palaniswami would do whatever it takes to get all hands on deck. If the AIADMK were to break the alliance with the BJP, the latter would try to forge a third front with smaller parties such as Tamil Maanila Congress, Pattali Makkal Katchi, and the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK). Palanisami can’t risk that. Added to that are the prospects of DMK leader and Stalin’s brother M.K. Alagiri launching a political party and becoming an ally of the BJP. If the BJP were to rope in film star Rajinikanth, a self-proclaimed fan of PM Narendra Modi who has gone back on his plan to launch a political outfit, it would be like icing on the cake for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Tamil Nadu. Only that Rajinikanth had taken a public stand against Jayalalithaa in the past and shares a warm relationship with the DMK, too.
Third, although PM Modi doesn’t wield the kind of influence in Tamil Nadu that he does in other states, he does have a certain appeal among a section of the urban youth who are looking to move beyond Dravidian parties. They are getting weary of the old politics and are starting to have doubts about the relevance of Dravidian nationalism in a rapidly globalising world. They still make a very small section and hold little hope for national parties, which have never led a government there since 1967.
Fourth, with anti-Brahminism having been a core component of the Dravidian movement, Brahmins who are estimated to constitute about 2.5 to 3 per cent of the population are veering towards the BJP. Jayalalithaa was a Brahmin and the AIADMK may hope to keep the community engaged through an alliance with the BJP. The saffron party has also tried to woo Dalits who constitute around one-fifth of the population, appointing a Dalit, L. Murugan, as its state unit president.
Fifth, Jayalalithaa’s alter ego Sasikala Natarajan is likely to be out of jail in January. After Jayalalithaa’s demise, the AIADMK had witnessed a major churning with different leaders and factions staking a claim to her political legacy. Palaniswami and Panneerselvam finally joined hands to get rid of Sasikala and her nephew T.T.V. Dinakaran. It helped that she was in jail. Although Palaniswami and Panneerselvam have buried the hatchet now, Sasikala’s return could queer the pitch. They may be well-entrenched today but they must dread her return. She still had the power and wealth to shake up the AIADMK.
Besides, she, like Panneerselvam, belongs to the influential Thevar community, a key vote bank of the party, apart from Gounders (the community the CM belongs to). Palaniswami-Panneerselvam would like to buy peace with Sasikala and her nephew without disturbing the existing power equations in the party and the government. She may have different plans though. That’s where friendship with the BJP becomes so important for the CM and his deputy. Sasikala may be out of jail in the disproportionate assets case but she is still under the scanner of central agencies in many other cases. Palaniswami will depend heavily on the BJP to ride over the impending storm after Sasikala’s return.
A five-year plan
Addressing BJP workers Saturday evening, Shah said that their hard work could enable the party to rule Tamil Nadu in five years.
As it is, the BJP is looking to play the role of a kingmaker for the AIADMK in this election. To become a king in five years is a very ambitious target.
But those who have seen Amit Shah transforming politics in the northeast know better than dismiss him as a mere dreamer in Tamil Nadu.
Views are personal.