‘Project Tamil Nadu’ remains on top of Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) political agenda. This was evident from the whirlwind four-hour Chennai visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday (February 14).
The fact that the saffron party has decided to field its top gun to woo the electorate, though the assembly election is two months away, explains the importance it lends to the state. But the BJP is in no hurry, its strategy seems long term but it has begun to work towards its ultimate goal of winning over Tamilians, one step at a time. To begin with, Modi has begun the task of erasing the perception that BJP is a north Indian party with poor understanding of the southern state.
On Sunday, he ticked all the right boxes. He praised Tamil language and culture, its people for their “energy and positivity”, their achievements and desire for development. Praising the manufacturing prowess of the state he said from being an automobile hub, the state was fast on its way to become a hub for manufacturing defence equipments.
He tried to ingratiate himself with the Tamilians while discussing Sri Lanka. He said, “I am the first prime minister who visited Jaffna.”
He took up the fishermen issue and said the attacks on Indian fishermen by Sri Lankan coastal forces have substantially come down during his regime. He reiterated his commitment in securing the safety of the fisherfolk. He switched on an extended line of city metro rail network and self-patted on other development works he has brought to the state.
He quoted the verses of legendary poets Awayyar and Bharathiyar to drive home his praise and understanding of Tamil culture.
The charm offensive included an aerial shot of the Chepauk cricket stadium, where the second Test match between India and England was underway.
It was for the first time since the pandemic that the state had opened the stadium for fans to witness the match in person.
But a bigger photo-op that caught the attention of the political class was the one in which the prime minister was clasping and rising high the hands of both the chief minister Edapaddy Palanisamy and his deputy O Paneerselvam. What seemed as a sign of solidarity was a clear message to the cadres that the party should stay united and fight the forthcoming elections as one team.
The message would not have been lost on the chief minister and his deputy who have been openly squabbling. While the CM has been eliminating the picture of his deputy in official advertisements that eulogises the achievements of his four year rule, the supporters of his deputy OPS have been bringing out full page private advertisements in newspapers that alludes him to be someone who is the rightful owner of the high chair by equating him with Bharat who ruled Ayodhya using his brother Ram’s footwear (Khadavu) in epic Ramayana.
Amidst his official engagements, the prime minister had a 15-minute one-to-one chat with the chief minister. While AIADMK spokespersons dismissed it as official talk between the prime minister and the chief minister, it was clearly a political dialogue.
In fact the whole visit of the prime minister is being seen as political, aimed at improving the image of the BJP in the eyes of the electorate. The fact that the BJP has firmly decided to go with an alliance with the AIADMK was evident when the prime minister chose to garland the pictures of former chief ministers and party icons M G Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa kept on the dais of a function, which was supposed to be official.
The AIADMK has been claiming that the alliance made during the 2019 parliamentary elections and subsequent assembly by-elections stands. The alliance partners — PMK, DMDK and TMC were invited to the meeting. While GK Vasan, the TMC chief, was present, others chose to send their representatives. All these parties are driving a hard bargain with the AIADMK for seats.
The prime minister also announced the decision of the Centre to approve a proposal bringing seven sub-sections of Scheduled Castes in the southern parts of the state under one umbrella called “Devendra Kula Velalars.” It has been a long-pending demand of this section of people to bring them under one identity. While the DMK and the AIADMK have been ignoring the demands, the BJP has been working on it for a while, a la Uttar Pradesh.
In the 2019 parliamentary elections in UP, the BJP managed to unite various sub-sections of schedule castes (Rajbhar, Pasi, Khatik and Dhobi) into one grouping and present them as a potent electoral force against Jatavs who are largely with the BSP. Similarly, they could dent the base of Yadav (OBC)-dominated Samajwadi Party by grouping extreme backward communities.
The situation in Tamil Nadu, however, is different. The ‘Devendra Kula Velalars’, who are largely present in southern districts, are land-owning agriculturists and are well off. They resent being called Scheduled Castes and instead would like to be termed as Backward in line with other politically and economically dominating communities such as ‘Tevars’ and ‘Kongus’.
While the new proposal and the bill moved in Lok Sabha spoke of giving a new identity to the seven sub-sects it remained silent about moving them from the Scheduled list to the Backward list. The BJP is eying their support as it is believed they could influence the outcome in at least 20 assembly seats.
But the real elephant in the room, which the PM would have discussed with the CM, is the relationship with Sasikala, the ‘soul sister’ of Jayalalithaa, who after spending four years in prison, returned to Chennai to a rapturous welcome last week. To avoid a division in the AIADMK vote share, the BJP is keen that the Sasikala group (represented by the AMMK) too has an understanding with the AIADMK. So far, Edappady has spurned any such moves.
It is crucial for the BJP to keep the anti-DMK forces united under one coalition umbrella because even in the 2016 assembly elections, despite the presence of Jayalalithaa, the AIADMK could only scrape through the elections with a mere 1.03 per cent difference in vote share with the DMK-led alliance.
The BJP, which has drawn a blank so far in the Tamil Nadu assembly, is looking for a breakthrough even if it means a minor one. Its eyes would be set on the 2026 assembly elections as a long-term strategy but what is significant is that the party has begun to make its moves with Modi as its icon.