BJP can be an electoral liability in Tamil Nadu. Why is AIADMK toeing its line?

The party is banking on Narendra Modi’s appeal to swing the contest its way.

ByR Rangaraj
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BJP can be an electoral liability in Tamil Nadu. Why is AIADMK toeing its line?
Kartik Kakar
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The BJP juggernaut has hit a roadblock in the southern tip of the country, Tamil Nadu. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the AIADMK-BJP alliance won only one of the state’s 39 seats. Campaigners of the rival DMK-led front then reported from the field that the voters were more against the BJP than its ally, the AIADMK. Two years on, as the state prepares to vote in the Assembly election, has the situation changed?

The DMK has carved out a roadmap which indicates the wind is blowing against the BJP. That the opposition camp is talking far more about the BJP’s alleged misdeeds and its policies on economy, language, culture, and education than about the AIADMK suggests the Hindutva party is seen to be on the backfoot.

While the AIADMK can count on Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and several central ministers and chief ministers to campaign for and praise the EK Palaniswami government, it seems worried about the fallout of the anti-BJP rhetoric in Tamil Nadu. It’s not just the loss of minority votes and the consolidation of the secular votes in favour of the DMK-Congress-Left combine, the AIADMK feels that the young, first-time voters are alienated from the BJP.

The DMK has been railing against the Modi government’s education policies, from NEET to the excessive use of Hindi even when it sends responses to the state’s MPs. The picture painted by the DMK and its allies is that Tamil Nadu is being treated in a stepmotherly manner by the central government, and that the state must fight to protect its Dravidian identity, culture and language from the onslaught of Aryan forces.

It’s in this vein that the DMK alliance is accusing the AIADMK of having surrendered itself and the state to the BJP because their leaders have skeletons in their cupboards and fear being raided by central agencies. The DMK is alluding to what had happened in 2017 when the AIADMK leadership opposed the BJP’s proposal to oust J Jayalalithaa’s aide VK Sasikala and her relatives from the party.

So, the AIADMK is in a spot. The BJP could bring 3-4 percent of the vote to the AIADMK, going by past voting trends, but on the other hand cost about 10 percent of the minority vote. Why then should the AIADMK settle for an alliance with the BJP when the saffron party could be a liability?

One reason is that the AIADMK is left with few allies. Second, the party hopes that campaigning by Modi will swing the election in its favour.

Modi and the BJP have been working overtime to try and connect with the Tamil diaspora. To this end, in the past few months, Modi has worn the dhoti, quoted Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar and poet Subramania Bharati, talked up Nirmala Sitharaman and S Jaishankar, and praised Tamil as the world’s oldest language. But has this outreach cut much ice with Tamil Nadu’s electorate?

The AIADMK has already found that keeping the BJP away is a profitable electoral strategy. It didn’t get top BJP leaders to campaign for the 2019 byelections, and carried the day. Now, a section of the AIADMK is asking whether the party should sever electoral ties with the BJP. There’s a complication though: in 2019, the party relied on money and muscle power, which can yield dividends in a byelection but not in a regular election.

After the AIADMK-BJP alliance drew a blank in Tamil Nadu in the 2004 parliamentary election, Jayalalithaa refused to have an electoral truck with the Hindutva party. Her successors have embraced the BJP in the hope that Modi would prove to be the miracle they are looking for. Also, the party’s ministers need respite from inquiries by central investigative agencies and so they cannot afford to antagonise the BJP.

For Modi and the BJP, on the other hand, Tamil Nadu looks to be a bridge too far. There are not many states, after all, where allying with the BJP is seen as a liability. The AIADMK had better tread carefully.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the AIADMK-BJP alliance drew a blank in the 2014 election. That happened in 2004. We regret the error.

R Rangaraj is a journalist in Chennai.

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