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General Elections 2014

BJP’s Elusive Search in Tamil Nadu

The BJP’s strategy to raise its vote share in Tamil Nadu to 16 per cent by enlisting the support of smaller regional parties and caste-based groups was apparent at Narendra Modi’s recent rally in Vandalur. Yet, despite the apparent support, Modi’s ability to connect to India’s multi-cultural and linguistic population remains unclear.

Having elbowed my way into a packed suburban train to reach Vandalur in Chennai’s southern outskirts — where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) organised a huge rally on February 8 — one sensed it was much more than the saffron party cashing in on pre-election fever.

Despite it being an off-peak hour on a Satruday, most compartments were breathlessly crowded. Scores of young men with BJP flags and pamphlets on hand, overseen by their local netas , pushed their way into to the train’s coaches, raising patriotic slogans like Bharat Maata Ki Jai . Many other passengers jostled for space amid this babel of voices. The students were visibly excited about travelling to catch a glimpse of, and listen to, Narendra Modi, the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate.

The students, who were in their early 20s or even less, mainly drawn from Chennai’s more politically proactive colleges, including Pachaiyappa’s College, Presidency College, and the Government Arts College, will be first-time voters in the 2014 General Election to the Lok Sabha. History must be amused at its own past. For, students from these institutions once nurtured the anti-Hindi agitation led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in the mid-1960s. The success of that agitation became a game-changer in the State’s politics, having a long term bearish impact on the prospects of the national parties. And today, the saffron party appeared to appeal to the present generation of students, from these very institutions.

Curiously, a Campco chocolate bar was the conversation piece during that one hour train journey, to gauge the feelings of those students taken in by Mr. Modi’s charisma. It unwittingly came in handy not only as an instant ionizer to improve the air quality in the compartment, but also as a lesson in sharing small things.

My memory took me back to Campco (Central Arecanut and Cocoa Marketing and Processing Cooperative), a success story of a cooperative that flowered in the early 1970s. This was a unique initiative to save the crisis-hit arecanut farmers in Mangalore area of South Karnataka and the adjoining belt of North Kerala.

I quickly realised that the chocolate bar could establish bonhomie with the travelling youth. I passed on a couple of the Campco pieces to the half-famished looking students and our conversation got easier. Campco reminded me of the Anand pattern of dairy development in Gujarat, thanks to the visionary zeal of the late Varghese Kurien, decades before the BJP or Mr. Modi came on to the political scene there. Other States later went on to emulate the Anand model, I told the students. But such things seemed to hardly interest today’s youth rushing to see the ‘new iron man’ from Gujarat, as one of them put it, with the rally organisers projecting Mr. Modi as being on par with Sardar Patel and Swami Vivekananda. Huge cut-outs of the trio at the venue of the rally at Vandalur said it all.

“A family friend near my house, a Modi supporter, asked us to come along today and that’s why we are going,” said one of the boys in the group who is in his second year, studying B.Sc. (Maths) in Pachaiyappa’s College. Interestingly, his father is a “staunch Congress supporter”, he confided. “But then, why Modi,” I asked. “He will do good things,” pat came the student’s reply. Beyond that the youngsters seemed to be indifferent to other issues.

That was a partial, yet fairly strong indication of the mood of the young voters today, as the saffron brigade makes a concerted effort to break into the nationalist-minded constituency in Tamil Nadu, which had traditionally voted the Congress and its regional allies in a Lok Sabha election. The exceptions were the two successive elections in 1998 and 1999 when former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee led the BJP-headed National Democratic Alliance, when the BJP made a small dent. But the Tamil youths are still hazy, more seeming to go by a bandwagon effect as shown by a large presence of students at the Modi rally.

Looking for allies

“An estimated over one lakh people have thronged the venue from the southern districts alone, Kanniyakumari in particular, and are waiting to hear Narendra Modi since morning,” claimed Sankar, a party volunteer from Villupuram. Bus-loads of volunteers from the State’s western districts — where the backward caste Gounders are the dominant community — lend weight to claims by sources in the State Intelligence and the party that the BJP, even before firming up its poll allies in the State, are eyeing nine of the 40 Lok Sabha Seats (39 in Tamil Nadu and the lone constituency in Puducherry). Four of these constituencies are in the Coimbatore-Salem-Erode-Karur-Namakkal belt where the Goundars have a sizeable presence. One faction of the Kongu region caste grouping, the Kongu Naadu Makkal Desiya Katchi led by Easwaran, has already tied up with the BJP.

Clearly, as both the main Dravidian parties, the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), shunned any pre-poll pact with the BJP, the saffron party has begun to stitch together an alliance with the major OBC groups across the State, including the Nadars and Thevars, and more locale-specific groups like the Sourashtra community, predominantly weavers, in Madurai. Together with the support of some of the smaller regional parties like the Vaiko-led Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), BJP campaign managers claimed, “we have already raised our vote-share in Tamil Nadu from just 3 per cent to 16 per cent.”

In fact, senior BJP leader from the State, Ela. Ganesan, addressing the rally, said that though the party’s initial plan to make the Vandalur rally a joint launch campaign did not fructify they have ‘almost completed’ the alliance formation. The Indiya Jananayaka Katchi (IJK), whose leader, Pari Vendar, is also the moving spirit behind the private SRM University near Chennai, and who seeks to rope in professionals, scientists, achievers in various fields and students to politics, vowed to play a fair friend of the BJP.

The OBC-Vanniyars dominated Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) led by S. Ramadoss — a factor to reckon with numerically in north and north-west Tamil Nadu — is also expected to join the BJP-led alliance in the State. The 16 per cent vote-share that the BJP’s campaign managers are now touting includes the individual vote-shares of all these smaller parties and caste-based outfits.

A few BJP functionaries from the western districts, requesting anonymity, conceded, “Sure, the BJP candidates will this time poll more votes in Tamil Nadu due to the Modi factor, but that is not enough. The major vote-banks are with the two main Dravidian parties, the DMK and AIADMK; and this is our problem now as to win seats we need a proper alliance.”

Going by Mr. Ganesan’s remark at the rally, the BJP by now seems to have given up its efforts to woo the actor-turned-politician Vijayakant-led Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), which pulled off an impressive anti-corruption rally near Villupuram recently but has not announced any decision on the alliance issue.

The DMDK often says that it has about 10 per cent vote-share in the State now, but any party could find the DMDK leader’s style of functioning annoyingly tiresome. “Vijayakant keeps his potential allies in a tantalizing wait till the last minute and may even go it alone,” says the veteran politician Panruti S. Ramachandran, who recently quit the DMDK “for good”. He now plans to campaign for the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK, which has just inked a poll alliance with the two main Left parties, the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). [At the time of writing, the DMDK and the Congress are exploring the possibility of an alliance that could later get bigger with the DMK.]

However, showcasing its new alliance arithmetic has been just one facet of the BJP’s poll strategy in Tamil Nadu so far. It is at best to reinforce its big picture of a wider national acceptability that Mr. Modi has seemingly gained in recent months, mainly on the planks of development, fighting corruption and repositioning India as the focus of regional security, politically and economically.

State-specific issues like federalism, repeated attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lanka Navy, inter-linking of rivers or the demand to reintroduce prohibition in the State — which Mr. Modi has successfully introduced in Gujarat — are dovetailed into this larger architecture, based on a grandiose image of Mr. Modi as an achiever.

At Vandalur, the stage was feverishly set in a regional setting for a ‘clean chit Modi’ — an appellation that has been in currency since the report of the Special Investigation Team probe into the 2002 post-Godhra communal violence cases in Gujarat — by the earlier party speakers who showered glowing encomiums on him to preface his growing acceptability.

From likening Mr. Modi’s political rise as someone from a most backward community to the social justice agenda of the social reformer Periyar, and to the political legend M.G. Ramachandran, who rose from the ranks as the true friend of the poor and the downtrodden — the chai waala not excluded — State BJP leaders including Dr. Tamizhisai Sounderrajan vied with one another with apt metaphors to endear Mr. Modi to the Tamil Nadu voters.

Thus, when Mr. Modi arrived to speak, it was his virulent attack on the Congress-led UPA Government on all fronts including the price rise and the plummeting Indian Rupee that completed the picture. Tactically, he did not even mention the AIADMK or Ms. Jayalalithaa in his 65-minute speech, though he took pot-shots at the Congress and the DMK’s role in the 2G spectrum scam.

Tactical blunder

Nonetheless, for all his masterly generalities, Mr. Modi missed out on two crucial aspects at the rally. First, his jibes at the “Recounting Minister in Delhi from Tamil Nadu” (an apparent reference to the case challenging the election of the Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram, from Sivaganga constituency in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls), for all the economic misery the country faced, met with a prompt rejoinder from Mr. Chidambaram on how Mr. Modi got his basic facts, both on the poll petition and on the economy, wrong.

Even if this were to be brushed aside as Mr. Modi’s rhetorical flourish on Tamil Nadu soil, the second one was a tactical blunder. The BJP’s Prime Ministerial aspirant chose to be politically correct by beginning his speech with some catchy poetic lines in Tamil, but quickly switched over to his robust Hindi in a State where language continues to be an emotive issue even if no longer a defining one.

In fact, the moment Mr. Modi began speaking in Hindi, people started leaving the venue in droves. All the rapport that his supporters had till that point assiduously built with the crowd seemed to melt away in minutes. But an oblivious Gujarat Chief Minister happily continued in that vein until he launched his diatribe against Mr. Chidambaram in English.

Though Mr. Modi could have easily alternated between English and Hindi to keep his audience in good humour, which is what political leaders from the north usually do when they come down south for campaigning, his Vandalur rally eventually ended up as a classic case of missing the wood for the trees.

It was here that his more experienced and sagacious counterpart, M. Venkiah Naidu, former BJP national president, unwittingly scored over Mr. Modi’s rhetoric. An alliteratively witty speaker as always, without losing his political traction, Mr. Naidu made the right noises for the BJP, substantially in English and rounded off his speech in Telugu, an acknowledgement of the fact that Greater Chennai has a substantial Telugu-speaking population.

This is one strand of political accommodation, the spirit of give-and-take, which Mr. Modi may have to learn if he is eyeing the political top job in a vast, multi-linguistic, multi-cultural nation. Perhaps, that is for another rally.

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