BJP’s appeal vs DMK’s safe bet: How will North Indians in Chennai vote?

The BJP is banking on the support of communities originally from Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand. Can the party win enough of them over?

ByRitesh Ranjan
BJP’s appeal vs DMK’s safe bet: How will North Indians in Chennai vote?
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When Ajay Nahar’s father was 31 years old, his family packed up their home in Byawar in Rajasthan’s Ajmer and moved to Chennai. The city has been home to Ajay, 44, and his extended family ever since, where they share a house in Sowcarpet.

Ajay is one of nearly 10 lakh Rajasthanis living in Tamil Nadu, around one lakh of them in and around Chennai alone. Although the families are disparate, hailing from different regions of Rajasthan, they have one thing in common, according to Ajay: they mostly support the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“We have full faith in prime minister Narendra Modi,” said Ajay. “It was Modi who made way for the Ram Mandir, who revoked Article 370 after 70 years of independence.”

So, for this community in this election, all roads lead to the BJP and its ally, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

“AIADMK and, by extension, the BJP do not support rowdyism. But the DMK does and that isn’t good for business,” said Ajay, who is a vehicle financier in Sowcarpet and a member of the Rajasthani Association.

But this vein of politics doesn’t cut across all Chennai’s migrant groups from North India. The DMK and the Congress have traditional vote banks here, as does the AIADMK. The BJP is contesting 20 seats in alliance with the AIADMK, though Tamil Nadu is one of the few states where it has failed to make much ground. The saffron party has long piggybacked on the Dravidian parties to wield any influence, but is now eyeing a section of the North Indian migrant vote as a potential support base.

Chennai and its suburbs are home to over 40,000 people originally from Bihar and Jharkhand, over 4,000 from Punjab, and nearly a lakh Sindhis – distributed across Anna Nagar, Perambur, Egmore, Velachery, Red Hills, Tambaram, and Harbour neighbourhoods. According to local North Indian associations, they account for 2.44 lakh votes in all.

What do they want from whichever party they are supporting this election?

Better train connectivity to Rajasthan, Bihar and Jharkhand; construction of Elephant Gate bridge on priority; and protection from anger against “Hindi speakers”.

‘No development in AIADMK rule’

In Tamil Nadu, politicians try every trick in the trade to woo voters. In the past month alone, candidates have washed clothes, cooked fish, prepared tea, and even broken coconuts during roadside campaigns, competing with each other to charm voters in their own way.

Last week, Chennai’s Harbour constituency saw DMK candidate PK Sekar Babu don a Rajasthani turban as he canvassed for votes among the Hindi speakers in his constituency. Babu, the sitting legislator, does not speak Hindi, but that did not stop him from pantomiming the DMK’s rising sun symbol, much to the amusement of the public.

Harbour has over 1.75 lakh voters, 30,000 of them in North Indian communities. It includes Sowcarpet, where sizeable numbers of Chennai’s Marwaris and Jains live. It’s where former chief minister M Karunanidhi contested in 1989 and 1991 – and won both times.

Babu has held the seat since 2016 and, local residents told this reporter, enjoys a fair deal of goodwill. “Sekar Babu has been with us a long time,” said Gautam Duggar, a businessman from Rajasthan who has lived in Sowcarpet for 20 years. “Whenever we Marwari people ask him to attend our functions he obliges. He’s been very active here for the last three years, and we feel attached to him.”

Gautam believes the DMK has “revived” its image in Tamil Nadu. “Talk about rowdyism is not encouraged these days,” he said. “And the anti-incumbency factor is there. In the last five years of the AIADMK rule, no development has taken place. We need strong leadership and a visionary chief minister.”

This is why, Gautam said, he will vote for the DMK, specifically its chief MK Stalin.

Gautam came to Chennai from Rajasthan in 2001, aged five. He now runs his own investment firm and speaks fluent Tamil. He said he doesn’t feel like an “outsider”, but the “fear is always there”.

“We are Hindi speakers,” he said, “and Tamilians may not be able to handle how we come and rule them when it comes to business.”

The issue of “Hindi speakers” came up several times in conversations with the voters. The imposition of Hindi in Tamil Nadu by the central government has been a hot-button topic before and after Independence. The conversation was reignited with the Centre’s introduction of the New Education Policy last year and its “three language” formula, which was roundly rejected by both Tamil Nadu’s government and its opposition parties.

Deepak Chabariya, 59, told this reporter he was born and brought up in Tamil Nadu, though his family was originally from Mumbai. His father moved to the city in 1947. A member of the Sindhi Chamber of Commerce in Chennai, Deepak said he does experience some “differentiation” because Hindi is his mother tongue, but his fluency in Tamil gets him by.

BJP’s star power to ‘woo’ voters

Ashok G Lodha’s great-great-grandfather arrived in Madhurantakam from Jodhpur in 1960. In the 1970s, during the Emergency, the family moved to Guduvancheri on Chennai’s outskirts. By 1989, Ashok and his father had moved to Sowcarpet and set up a financing firm.

Ashok, now 50, said he has over 250 relatives spread across Tamil Nadu. A former national vice president of the SS Jain Conference, he said the BJP is building a “significant” presence in the state, partly by wooing North Indian voters in Chennai.

For instance, on April 1, PP Chaudhary, a current MP from Rajasthan’s Pali and a former state minister, visited the Rajasthani families in Chennai, requesting they vote for the BJP. His visit helped because the AIADMK-BJP candidate in Sowcarpet is relatively unknown: Vinoj Selvam, president of the BJP’s state youth wing. Most voters know very little about him apart from his connection to the BJP.

This is also why union textile minister Smriti Irani campaigned in Sowcarpet last month, addressing voters in Hindi and urging them to “choose the lotus”.

The DMK has won nine out of 10 times in Harbour in the past. In March, Sekar Babu told the New Indian Express: “The people strongly believe in religious unity put forth by our secular alliance and we are getting a good reception among the north Indian communities as well. The BJP will not get the full north Indian votes.”

But for some residents, this needs to translate into infrastructural change in their neighbourhoods. “I am all for giving DMK another chance but we need better roads and facilities,” said a resident of Sowcarpet on the condition of anonymity. “The BJP aligns with what I feel about major issues. We are used to the Dravidian parties taking turns to form government in the state, so maybe that needs to happen this time too.”

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This story is part of the NL Sena project which over 300 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Vedant Kanade, Madhukar R, Shreyansh Jain, Navas, Ayan Dutta, Mathivanan, Padmani, Arjun Goutham, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Ravi Pandey, Rajesh Shenoy, Sahit Koganti, Sarthak, Uma Rajagopalan, Somok Gupta Roy, Sam Sadguru, Tulasi Pemmasani, Praveen Surendra, Kamesh Goud, Ankur Mishra, Sharique Damda, Himanshu Singh, Akshaydeep Singh, Saurabh Bhatia, Chitrak Gupta, Mayukh Roy, Suhesh Lodh, Sumit Dhiman, Farzana Hasan, BK, Sandeep Sharma, Yuvraj Arora, Ranjith PS, Inderdeep Singh, Joseph M Raj, Gregory Cooper, Sayani Dasgupta, Soumit Ghosh, Daman, Raunak Dutta, Mhetre, Puneet Dravid, Md Rafat S Siddiqui, Shayan Sarkar, Aliasgar Khokhawala, Rinku Goel, Vijesh Chandera, Rohit Duggal, Qaim Alvi, Shubham Bangar, Sainath Naidu, Prabhat Lakra, Daksh, Bibhas Adhikari, Anima Dey, Sujith Nambudiri, Rahul Chauhan, Murali K, Aikya Chatterjee, Harshal Geet, Aditya Deuskar, Anindita Brahma, Abdeali Jivaji, Kamran Hambali, Pranav Prabhakaran, Ankur Mehrotra, Ston, Phani Sista, Kartik Rao, Sourav Banerjee, Ravinder Dasila, Rohit Jain, Gaurav Kumar, Anishkumar Madhavan, Abhijeet Kumar, Akash Chandra, Ridhima Walia, Priyanshu, Deepanker Mishra, Rishi R Mehta, Vaishali Miranda, Mithun Singh, Roger, Sandeep Roy, Bindhulakshmi, Jashan Ghuman, Subhadeep Banerjee, Suhas Gurav, Nahas, Apoorv, Reid Alexander Dsouza, Abhishek Chakraborty, Varun Arora, Oindrilla Mukherjee, Shageer, Arnab Chatterjee, Sahil Ali, Roushan Jha, Shamik Das, Srinivas Iyer, Simranjeet Singh Kahlon, Imran Shariff, Souvik Deb, Tamnjum, Rajeev Kumar, Nabil Shaikh, Sushmit Roy, and other NL Sena members.

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