Why BJP needs to lose its Hindutva rhetoric to woo the Tamil voter

The seven phase Lok Sabha elections to decide the next Prime Minister of India is underway and as the incumbent BJP government targets a second term, the national party is still struggling for an identity and it just reinforces its unpopularity in Tamil Nadu, dominated by Dravidian politics.

The sense that BJP lacks relevance in the state has just got stronger, close to the elections: While Union minister Piyush Goyal claimed that there was no question of scrapping the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), Nitin Gadkari has said the government would go ahead with the proposed eight lane highway between Chennai and Salem, for which the Madras High Court stayed land acquisition, recently.

Tamil Nadu which goes to polls on April 18 has opposed both these central government policies, vehemently.

As per the latest data released by C- Voter survey, Narendra Modi’s popularity is least in Tamil Nadu with a mere 2.2% as against 74% in Jharkhand. Kerala follows Tamil Nadu with 7.7% of the people being satisfied with Modi’s performance. The data suggests that the Prime Minister’s popularity is low in non-Hindi speaking states, including the rest of South and Punjab.


The presumed Modi wave

The year was 2014: ‘Modi wave’ had become the mainstay across the country; BJP’s electioneering was centered on the then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. While this personality driven popularity got reflected at various quarters, the southern part of India— especially Tamil Nadu, remained aloof.

The two Dravidian majors— Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) did not align with any of the national parties for the 2014 Lok Sabh polls. Late J Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK swept 37 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats in the battle that she termed, “Either Gujarat’s Modi or Tamil Nadu’s lady (Jayalalithaa)”

Consequently, after Modi took over as the PM, the Tamil Nadu alienation only got worse. While BJP began to widen its stronghold in the Hindi heartland, it worked inversely in Tamil Nadu.  Neither ‘Modi wave’ nor the subsequent poll victories of the BJP was to have any influence in Tamil Nadu for the next five years.

Rather, the state remained hostile to the saffron party. The people of Tamil Nadu, where the Dravidian majors have been dominating the political scene for more than five decades, began to show their animosity towards the BJP.

How does one make sense of this anger?

Observers say that one has to look at it historically to understand the current context. The political values of the Indian mainstream has never been significant in the state, except briefly during the national movement in the pre-independence period.

“Political values of the so called ‘Hindustan’ were never found here. Over the last century, it has been the non-Brahmin movement that has captured the political imagination of Tamil Nadu. The emergence of DMK in the 1940’s completely shattered the idea of national parties in state,” said Tamil writer and translator Aazhi Senthilnathan.

Towards the end of 2016, the demise of Jayalalithaa and the subsequent ‘surrender of the ruling AIADMK government’ to the power corridors of Delhi just aggrieved the tempers in the state that was also facing its worst drought in 140 years.

Beginning 2017, the state rocked with various agitations: pro-Jallikattu protests, demonstrations against NEET, Cauvery river water sharing dispute with neighbouring Karnataka, month long agitation by Tamil Nadu farmers at the national capital, opposition to hydrocarbon extraction and oil & gas exploration in Cauvery delta— rice bowl of the state, protests against Sterlite copper plant in Thoothukudi followed by the police firing that killed 13 people and agitations against land acquisition for Chennai- Salem highway, among various other issues.

All these demonstrations were targeted against the union as well as the state governments. Since the last one year, Tamil Nadu has raised a #GoBackModi campaign on Twitter and public demonstrations whenever Modi visited the state.

While Jayalalithaa had stressed on a permanent exemption for Tamil Nadu from the common entrance exam NEET, urged amendments to the GST bill and opposed other schemes of the BJP government like the Ujwal Discom Assurance Yojana (UDAY) and National Food Security Act (NFSA), the ruling AIADMK that was struggling with its own internal factional feud post the demise of its leader began to favour the BJP.

The supposed indifference of the Modi led government during crisis like Ockhi and Gaja cyclones as compared to six visits by Modi in the last two months to the state, just ahead of elections has done nothing to undo the perception that BJP represents a pro-Hindi and pro-brahmanical force.

More ideological than political

In a recent article on how the Hindu diaspora has become a strategic ally of Modi and BJP, Ashok Swain, professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden claimed that the diaspora is taking a keen interest in electoral politics, supporting and financing the ‘Hindutva’ candidates in elections.

Whereas, it has been the converse when it comes to the Tamil diaspora. The outpour of dissent against the BJP has found reflection among the Tamils across the globe in the recent years during the pro- Jallikattu protests, opposition to NEET, demonstrations against hydrocarbon extraction and the anti- Sterlite protests.

Terming it as an ideological issue than a political one, Ramu Manivannan who heads the politics and public administration department at the Madras University said: BJP attempts politicization of religion. And, it wouldn’t be relevant in a state like Tamil Nadu where a fundamental insult to Dravidian politics will work contrarily.

While Tamil Nadu is always deeply religious, it is closely knitted to its cultural identity; the Hindi linguistic nationalism along with Hindutva would find it difficult to counter the Tamil nationalistic framework and it is important to understand that it has always been anti- brahmanical than anti-religious politics in the state,  he added.

In the last five years, attempts to create an ideological space in Tamil Nadu has also been carried out by right wing organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), considered the ideological parent of political arm BJP.

Few incidents include the RSS’ national council meet in Tamil Nadu for the first time, route march by RSS just a month after Jayalalithaa’s death in a state where the right wing group was always denied permission for rallies, campaign called Hindu Temples Reclaim Movement for taking over the administration of the temples from the state’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department and Vishva Hindu Parishad’s ‘Ram Rajya Rath Yatra’ that entered Tamil Nadu amid widespread protests.

“The BJP and its sister organisations are trying to nurture religious extremism in Tamil Nadu. But, in the land of Periyar (Periyar EV Ramasamy, rationalist and founder of Dravida Kazhagam) and Anna (CN Annadurai, founder of DMK), they will not succeed in their attempt,” DMK president MK Stalin had said during the Rath Yatra, last year.

Unless the BJP attempts to resolve the animosity in Tamil Nadu, accepts the Tamil identity and stops thrusting the idea of Hindi-Hindutva in the state, the party will remain irrelevant in the state’s political ethos. However, this means the party may have to rewrite its ideological stance for Tamil Nadu— something that is impossible and against the dogma of BJP’s parent wing.