Looking for a grand alliance

The BJP is using its image to push for a coalition and break the vice-like grip of the Dravidian parties.

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Ties that bind: CM Palaniswami greets Amit Shah at the opening of the Thervoy Kandigai reservoir in Chennai. Deputy CM O. Panneerselvam to the right, Nov. 21

The ruling All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the state BJP had been on a collision course in Tamil Nadu in the past few months, but poll exigencies seem to have forced a patch-up. On November 21, the two sides declared that the alliance will continue through the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly election in April-May 2021. At an official meeting in Chennai, Chief Minister E.K. Palaniswami and his deputy O. Panneerselvam also echoed Union home minister Amit Shah’s sentiments about the enduring relationship of the two parties. The ‘development versus dynasty’ rhetoric was also resuscitated as the two discussed the coming election battle with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-Congress alliance.

Having lost two consecutive elections, the DMK, steered by M.K. Stalin, is determined to pull out all the stops to seal a win for the party. If he does manage it, the 67-year-old son of the late party patriarch, M. Karunanidhi, will become chief minister for the first time. The BJP, of course, has its own plans to finally secure a firm foothold in the state in 2021 and become a major force by 2026, when the next round of elections become due. So, after persuading the AIADMK to announce an alliance, the saffron party is now aggressively positioning itself as an anti-DMK force.

But the biggest challenge for the BJP in Tamil Nadu is to shake off the perception of being a party of the upper castes, notably Brahmins. The strategy, then, is to rope in supporters from different castes and communities and work on the alliance it has built with the AIADMK after the death of its iconic leader J. Jayalalithaa.

To that end, it picked up L. Murugan, an activist from the Arunthathiyar community (the most backward group of the Scheduled Castes), earlier this year and anointed him president of the party’s state unit. However, once the initial hurrahs had died down, the party decided it was time to amp up the Hindutva volume and take on the Dravidian ideology (which derides religion and promotes agnosticism) of the state’s two mainstream parties. So it despatched Murugan on one of its tried-and-tested rathyatras. The month-long Vetri Vel Yatra was to cover the six principal shrines of Lord Murugan (a popular deity among the state’s Hindus) in Tamil Nadu. But what began at Tiruttani on November 6 fizzled out by the time it concluded in Tiruchendur (see Not So Quick, Murugan).

Sensing the yatra has not yielded the quick dividends it was hoping for, the BJP is now banking on its other big weapon, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to spruce up its presence in the state. The AIADMK, too, seems to think it’s a good idea, hoping PM Modi’s wide appeal will rub away some of the anti-incumbency grit that has built up over the past 10 years.

However, this is unlikely to be enough for the BJP to emerge as an effective player, not to forget that it has yet to get a party candidate elected to the state assembly. The BJP’s vote share in the past has hovered at 2.5-3 per cent when it has contested the assembly election alone. In the 2016 poll, the BJP vote share was 2.9 per cent, which to be fair was more than what the DMK allies, the CPI, CPI(M) and the VCK (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi), won combined. Also, noticeably in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, there was no transfer of AIADMK votes in favour of the BJP, even in common strongholds like the western and southern regions of the state. Coimbatore, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari are potential bases of the BJP where it boasts grassroots strength.

The problem is that many in the AIADMK see the BJP as an ideological and electoral liability in Tamil Nadu. The performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, when the DMK swept the state, reinforces this idea. But the AIADMK has its compulsions vis-à-vis the electoral alliance. After the 2016 election, with the difference in their vote share reduced to just a percentage point (41 per cent to 40 per cent for the DMK-led alliance), and in the absence of Jayalalithaa, the party does not want to take chances. Equally important is the general perception in the party that if you cross the BJP, then the leaders can expect some grief in the form of tax cases, raids and questioning by one or the other central investigative agency. “The BJP matters little without the AIADMK and is aware of its insignificant support base. Yet, it presents itself as a kingmaker as it can use the might of the central government agencies and foist cases on our leaders,” says an AIADMK leader who preferred to stay anonymous.

AIADMK leaders recall how the party’s image was tarnished by searches carried out at Fort St. George, the seat of the state secretariat, and at the homes of state health minister Dr C. Vijayabaskar soon after Jayalalithaa’s death. And how Shah described Tamil Nadu as one of the states “most affected by corruption” during his Chennai visit in July 2018. “The AIADMK does not possibly want negative publicity on the eve of the assembly election as this could add value to the DMK’s incessant campaign against the ruling party’s corruption,” says political commentator N. Sathiya Moorthy

While allowing the AIADMK to field candidates in the majority of the 234 constituencies, the BJP plans to persuade it to part with over 50 constituencies to build critical mass for the future. Roping in the likes of M.K. Alagiri, the estranged DMK scion, may help the alliance improve its prospects in some pockets of southern Tamil Nadu, at least in the areas around Madurai. Similarly, it has been trying to win over other small caste and community cohorts.

“The BJP has both short term and long term objecti-ves. So it needs to gain a presence in the state in the near future, and then seek a larger space and political presence that would ultimately result in acquiring state power. So it wants to contest 50 seats now and build a vote bank although it is actually looking at the 2026 assembly election,” says Ramu Manivannan, head, department of politics and public administration, Madras University. “In caste mobilisation, the BJP has made considerable inroads into the Nadar community, and has polarised the Dalit vote to secure the support of the Arunthathiyars. The Vanniyar votes will come through the alliance with the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), and the Kongu Gounders through the AIADMK.”

In addition to the BJP, the AIADMK-led Grand Alliance will most likely have the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) of actor Vijayakanth, the Tamil Maanila Congress (Moopanar), the Dalit party Puthiya Tamilagam (PT) and the PMK. With the Congress and the Left aligned with the DMK under the banner of the Secular Progressive Alliance, the AIADMK needs all the electoral partners it can get under its umbrella. The Jayalalithaa strategy of leveraging a three-way split in votes may no longer be possible.

The BJP is also striving to bring on board Rajinikanth, even if it is only to endorse the party-steered alliance with a cryptic comment (the superstar is still hesitant about going all out in the political arena with his Rajini Makkal Mandrams). If the BJP does get him to back the ruling alliance, it would be a bonus for the AIADMK and could offset some of the anti-incumbency.

The BJP believes its success in several states like Bihar and even far-flung Tripura, where it was not a major force, can be replicated in Tamil Nadu. The strategy is to be part of a coalition, or get sections of an established party to break away and merge with the BJP and rule the state. To begin with, though, the focus is on Shah’s well-worn tactic of strengthening the party organisation and booth committees. “Wherever Amit Shahji has gone, the BJP has done better, which is why we are confident of doing well in the 2021 election,” says Tamil Nadu BJP spokesperson Thirupathy Narayanan.

For the moment, though, it remains an AIADMK alliance, and not a BJP-led alliance. “Any image to the contrary could upset the AIADMK cadre, though allies like the PMK and the DMDK have in the past tried to play the two parties against each other. On such occasions, these allies had claimed to talk to the BJP while ultimately leaving it to the AIADMK to take a call on seats,” recalls Moorthy. But with the AIADMK now on weaker ground, the three parties (the BJP, PMK and DMDK) may gang up to demand a bigger cut when the seat-sharing talks begin. This will also be to prevent the AIADMK riding roughshod over them post-poll should the alliance win this time.

On its part, the AIADMK will strive to concede not more more than 50 seats collectively to all the allies, or it could face internal rumblings. The party is hoping its ‘governance record’ in the past four years under chief minister E.K. Palaniswami will carry it through. He has already been declared the chief ministerial candidate to better the prospects of the alliance. However, seat sharing will be a vexatious issue, with negotiations set to start post-Pongal in January.

However, there could be one disrupter in this mix: V.K. Sasikala. The imminent release of Jayalalithaa’s crafty ex-aide, after serving four years in jail, could complicate matters for the AIADMK when it comes to alliance-building and seat-sharing. The Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), a breakaway faction led by her nephew T.T.V. Dhinakaran, had a five per cent vote share in the Lok Sabha election. It will be a force to reckon with in areas dominated by the Thevar community in the southern parts of the state.

Not So Quick, Murugan

Spearhead BJP state chief L. Murugan during the Vel yatra

Ever since his appointment as the state BJP chief in March, L. Murugan has been pushing hard to expand the party to areas where it has little or no support in Tamil Nadu. Consequently, BJP flags are aflutter in a state where the two Dravidian party flags dominate in the villages. But, in a dramatic move on October 26, Murugan, 43, declared that he will not contest the 2021 assembly election. “I will work to send my brothers and sisters in the BJP to the assembly,” he announced.

He also said that he was setting out on a Vetri Vel Yatra (Victorious Spear March) “which will be a turning point for the party and will ensure that BJP candidates enter the Tamil Nadu assembly and that the National Democratic Alliance comes to power in the 2021 assembly election”. The yatra’s purpose, the BJP declared, was to teach a lesson to the “anti-national” Dravidian groups that were promoting an “anti-Hindu” narrative and “minority appeasement” in the state. The genesis of this was the perceived slight to Lord Murugan in a YouTube video uploaded by rationalist group Karuppar Koottam (Black Group) in July.

But what was touted as a major political roadshow was scuttled by the state government, in the wake of apprehensions of a second wave of the Covid pandemic. “Lord Murugan is the atma (soul) of Tamil Nadu, and any insult to our deity will not be tolerated,” said C.T. Ravi, the BJP national general secretary in charge of the state. After the BJP challenged the decision in the Madras High Court, the government allowed Murugan to go on his six-shrine odyssey with a small entourage.

But the state needn’t have both--ered, for the rally failed to gain traction. The AIADMK, though, was furious with the BJP for using images of its founder M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) in the yatra’s promo videos.