The multiple political layers to Modi’s one-day visit to Tamil Nadu

The PM hit cautious notes — focus on infra, bonhomie with Stalin, and balancing act with AIADMK factions

Modi, TN visit, M K Stalin
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin on April 8, 2023.

Ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha election, the BJP, which has been trying to project itself as a bankable alternative to the DMK in Tamil Nadu, made a strong pitch during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s high-profile visit on Saturday (April 8).

Even as Tamil Nadu has traditionally put up a stiff resistance against what are seen as the BJP’s attempts to “impose Hindi and the Hindutva agenda”, Modi steered clear of anything controversial. The narrative in his speeches in Chennai veered towards infrastructure, invoking Tamil poets and hailing the state as “one of India’s growth engines”.

Modi also spoke about his abiding love for “Tamil language, Tamil culture and the vibe of Chennai”.

Focus on infrastructure

On the infrastructure front, he inaugurated projects worth more than ₹5,200 crore, which included a new terminal in Chennai airport and the first Vande Bharat express connecting two cities in Tamil Nadu — the state capital and Coimbatore.

In his speech, Modi, in an all-encompassing way, pointed out that “Tamil Nadu’s development is of a priority to us”. He drove home the point that these infrastructure projects will give a boost to the state by creating jobs, increase in incomes and create growth in Tamil Nadu.

“And when Tamil Nadu grows, India grows,” he said. He also seemed to suggest that Tamil Nadu got special treatment, saying it was allocated an all-time high budget of over ₹6,000 crore for railway infrastructure.

Also, the PM did not miss the opportunity to take a dig at the UPA government, pointing out that earlier infrastructure projects meant delay but now they mean delivery. “This journey from delay to delivery has happened because of work culture. We feel accountable for every rupee that our taxpayers pay. We work with a specific deadline and finish work even before time,” he asserted.

Also, pushing for how BJP focuses on building infrastructure, he gave examples of how during its tenure 2,000km of national highways had been added in Tamil Nadu, while just 800 km was added in the state between 2004 and 2014. In 2014-15, the PM said, investment in the development and maintenance of national highways in Tamil Nadu “was ₹1,200 crore which increased six-fold to ₹8,200 crore in 2022-23”.

Also read: PM Modi goes on jungle safari at Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka

And, though Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin has been at the forefront demanding that all like-minded parties should unite to fight against the BJP, there was a lot of camaraderie on display between him and Modi yesterday. The bonhomie they shared was visible as they were spotted exchanging smiles and holding hands.

Stalin did, in his speech, bring up the issue that states need the support and cooperation of the Union government to meet their financial needs. He further urged the PM to release funds for several ongoing important road projects. “I request the PM to increase funds for railway projects in Tamil Nadu and for other pending projects in the state,” said the CM, also referring to the metro rail project.

Commenting on Modi’s visit, C Laksmanan, professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), told The Federal that the BJP works with a clear-cut mobilisation strategy and this is reflected always in its activities and ventures. “BJP will always throw its weight behind strongly pushing its ideology, in each one of its efforts,” he said.

Modi’s balancing act with ally AIADMK

Modi also struck a fine balance with the BJP’s ally in the state, AIADMK, by meeting the leaders of the two rival factions. He met general secretary Edappadi Palaniswami and ousted AIADMK leader O Panneerselvam briefly at the airport. OPS was given time to meet him at the last minute. But, the BJP’s state president K Annamalai was conspicuous by his absence.

The BJP said Annamalai was busy with the Karnataka Assembly polls as a co-incharge and hence was unable to participate in Modi’s visit. But political analyst and former leader of Lok Satta party, Jagadheeswaran D, pointed out that Annamalai does not have a prominent role in deciding who will contest in Karnataka.

“So, it wasn’t impossible for Annamalai to fly down to Chennai to receive his party’s supreme leader,” he said. According to Jagadheeswaran, Annamalai is opposed to the BJP’s alliance with the AIADMK and has even told Amit Shah that he would rather work as a karyakartha if the party chooses to continue its partnership with AIADMK.

Political observers said that BJP top leadership is ready to drop Annamalai and push for a united AIADMK, as the party stands to gain from a strong alliance partner in TN.

Also read: New airport terminal, Vande Bharat train on Modi’s Chennai agenda on April 8

Even though Palaniswami has got a stronger hold over his party, the Thevar vote bank still eludes him, as Panneerselvam is considered a tall figure from the community. Palaniswami’s attempts at propping up another leader from the community, RB Udayakumar, to replace Panneerselvam hasn’t yielded the desired results to date.

“The BJP are eyeing both these caste vote banks,” said Lakshmanan. “That’s why the BJP is doing the balancing act between the two rival leaders of AIADMK. Palaniswami represents the Gounder votes, while Panneerselvam has the Thevar votes,” he added.

The consensus in political circles is that Annamalai’s absence during Modi’s visit indicates that there will be a change in the leadership of the Tamil Nadu BJP unit.

Tribal outreach

Modi also visited the Theppakadu elephant camp in Nilgiris in the last leg of his Tamil Nadu tour. He met Bomman and Bellie, the tribal couple depicted in the Oscar award-winning documentary The Elephant Whisperers.

Modi’s meeting with the tribal mahouts of Theppakadu assumes significance in the backdrop of a lot of discontent brewing in the community living in that area. The tribals in the Nilgiris constituency constitute 4.6 per cent of the population.

Due to the emergence of settlements for the labourers of the coffee and tea plantations in the area and the rise of tourism, they have become a minority in the reserved constituency. The tribals have been demanding better roads, education, healthcare and electricity connectivity for a long time. But much of their demands are yet to be met.

When Bomman and Bellie met Modi, they raised demands for better roads and schools. Interestingly, it is from this constituency that DMK’s A Raja was elected to the Rajya Sabha. Modi’s presence among the tribes of Nilgiris, who have felt let down by successive politicians and the governments, too had political undertones, as A Raja is at the forefront attacking BJP’s Hindutva politics.