Regional pride, alliances, secularism: Has DMK found a formula to counter BJP?

The outcome of the election could provide an indication.

ByR Rangaraj
Regional pride, alliances, secularism: Has DMK found a formula to counter BJP?
Kartik Kakar
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Could the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s template of bringing together myriad opposition parties and creating a grassroots mechanism to constantly organise demonstrations against the Narendra Modi government’s policies be a solution to break the BJP’s political and electoral dominance?

The outcome of the election in Tamil Nadu could provide an indication.

After the 2014 general election, when it contested in alliance with a few small parties and drew a blank, the DMK started working hard on uniting several parties around a common agenda of secularism and opposing the BJP’s social, economic, industrial, and language policies, as also its communalism. In 2016, it brought onboard the Congress and a few minor parties, but lost the assembly election narrowly by just 1.1 per cent of the votes. Picking up from where it had left before the election the DMK continued the process of creating a broad front, and succeeded in bringing around the Left parties, MDMK, and the Viduthalai Siruthaigal Katchi.

The front swept the 2019 Lok Sabha election in Tamil Nadu, winning 38 of the 39 seats. The key factor behind the success was the way it used common issues for mass mobilisation, especially economic and social issues. This strengthened the bond among the alliance partners, not just at the state level but in the districts as well. In the two years since, the DMK has consolidated the front further.

The glue of anti-BJPism binding the alliance isn’t merely its secular plank, but also the cultural and ideological confrontation between the Dravidian parties and the BJP.

The DMK does not position itself as being against the upper castes, who are the BJP’s core supporters, but projects the Hindutva party as a vehicle of the forward community’s cultural and linguistic domination. The idea is to effect a sociopolitical consolidation of Backward Classes, Scheduled Caste, minority, and working class communities rooted in Tamil identity against the Aryan, forward community-dominated capitalist identity of the BJP-AIADMK alliance.

In this projection, the BJP is an outsider seeking to subdue the Tamil identity with a form of muscular nationalism that runs counter to the regional culture and aspirations. Muscular nationalism is opposed not politically but at a cultural level, with the BJP shown as seeking to subjugate local culture and identity. The attempt of the BJP to establish single party domination across states is also projected as hitting at the root of federalism and state autonomy.

Attempts by the BJP, driven by Modi, Amit Shah and a battery of union ministers, and backed by the governing AIADMK, have not been able to disturb this regional narrative. Instead, there has evolved a sub-regional cultural identity built on pride for local language, culture and social ethos which is sought to be subjugated by the BJP’s muscular nationalism. This is something the BJP hasn’t been able to tackle with much success.

All the perceived strengths of the BJP nationally – the one nation one card, one tax, one poll, one language rhetoric, say – end up as weaknesses in Tamil Nadu. To the Hindutva party’s discomfort, this araying of local pride, language, and culture against the BJP’s “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” agenda could be deployed in other states as well.

In fact, Mamata Banerjee has already tried this in Bengal by going more local, more micro. The BJP can’t match this, consumed as it’s with the single pan-Indian cultural identity.

If the Shiv Sena-NCP alliance could pit Maratha pride against the domination of “North Indian BJP”, if Amarinder Singh could play on the Sikh identity against “anti-Punjab BJP”, if the TRS could build on Telangana pride, the YSR Congress on Andhra pride, or Naveen Patnaik on Oriya pride, they might be able to stop the BJP. It would be very hard for the BJP to deflect such an onslaught from regional and sub-regional forces.

Projection of a wrong leader by the opposition alliance, though, could be disastrous, as the SP-BSP alliance’s promotion of Mayawati as the prime ministerial candidate in 2019 showed. The opposition needs to project a leader at the national level as well as leaders in the states to counter the BJP’s presidential-style campaigning. In 2019, Stalin projected Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate of the opposition alliance to blunt the BJP’s strategy, even as at the state level the DMK led the alliance. This two-pronged strategy paid dividends by tying national issues with local sentiments and cultural issues. In other words, it helps to have the PM candidate from one party and the CM candidate from another. This provides a balance in the relationship among major parties in the opposition alliance.

In Tamil Nadu, this is the matrix MK Stalin provides for the anti-BJP platform. All it needs for opposition parties to do is have a practical assessment of their strengths and weaknesses and not go by their own larger-than-life images and projections, be prepared to play the second fiddle in multi-star alliances, and reap the benefits. This is easier said than done as many parties in states have outsized impressions of their strengths and popularity, and believe their allies should play second fiddle to them. The Tamil Nadu model of national parties accepting secondary positions and fewer seats in assembly elections as compared to the Lok Sabha elections is one of the key factors that the opposition needs to build into their plans. In that sense, the Stalin template has much to offer non-BJP parties in the state, and nationally.

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