In Karaikudi, where BJP’s national secretary H Raja is contesting as the AIADMK alliance candidate, an auto stand sports a saffron flag with the BJP lotus on it. In Tamil Nadu, where auto unions are typically affiliated to the CPM’s CITU, DMK’s LPF or even the AIADMK, a RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Janata Mazdoor Mahasangh (BJMM) auto stand is certainly an oddity. And it reflects the BJP’s efforts to establish an all-round presence in the state.
- BJP’s footprint in Tamil Nadu’s trade unions
- For long, the Tamil Nadu-based trade union, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) was the only trade union in the state that supported the BJP. In 2009, the BMS joined hands with the Left, who lead a majority of the trade unions in the southern states. This, however, was short-lived.
- After 2014, the BMS started distancing itself from any government workers’ strikes. The move, as P Sukumar of CITU recalls, upset the members of the union. While many members left the union, only those who conformed to the BJP’s ideologies chose to stay, he says. Thus, the union emerged as a workers association in Tamil Nadu that supports the BJP. In addition, the Bharatiya Janata Mazdoor Mahasangh, another union, has been helping the saffron party gain ground in the state.
K Balamurugan, an auto driver there, says the Karaikudi auto union that started with 10 drivers has grown to 200 in the district. Balamurugan, who is the BJMM state secretary in-charge of Sivagangai, Ramanathapuram and Pudukottai districts claims that some of his fellow auto drivers left the CITU and migrated to the BJMM.
For the BJP, auto drivers are useful foot soldiers. Mobile as they are and often serving poorer sections of society, they scout for beneficiaries for central welfare schemes and, thereby, attempt to take the party and Narendra Modi to them. Through the BJMM, the Sangh Parivar has sought expand its influence among the poorest sections, in-part through unions serving them.
While Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the labour wing of the RSS, is active in state-run bodies such as Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation (TANGEDCO), the BJMM has been functioning in the grassroots in the state since 2013, a year before the BJP — steered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi — returned to power at the Centre.
“With no strength in the beginning, BJMM campaigned for the welfare of the unorganised sector. It has now grown to have 2 lakh registered members. Our Tamil Nadu wing was the first among the other branches to be registered in the country. It comprises 17 associations exclusively for various segments of labourers such as construction workers, auto drivers and call taxi drivers to help enrol them in the 17 welfare boards functioning under the aegis of the state government and get them the benefits,” says the BJMM state president Pandithurai.
Tamil Nadu, with a rich history in the Dravidian movement, is at a crossroads. The state, which has resisted Hindutva ideas and the BJP and continues to be so, promises to provide fertile ground for the BJP’s expansion. In the absence of tall leaders like Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, and with the BJP-led government at the Centre, the BJP and its sister organizations aims to move away from the fringes on to the mainstream.
BJMM serves BJP’s political agenda
Balamurugan in Karaikudi is clear about his union’s mission. “Our focus is on improving workers’ livelihood and taking the government schemes to them. We helped some 20 persons, including vegetable vendors and petty shop owners, get loans under Mudra scheme and spoke to bank managers and arranged for loans to buy new auto rickshaws for 10 auto drivers. This way, we garner votes for the BJP,” Balamurugan, who actively worked for H Raja this Lok Sabha polls, said.
He admits that though the objective of the Mahasangh is to create awareness about government welfare schemes and act as a facilitator to make them members and, therefore, beneficiaries, it is a potent body to grow the BJP’s vote bank at the grassroots in Tamil Nadu.
“With help and cooperation from the state government welfare board officers, we conducted camps to get the workers identity cards. One such camp we held was for Ayushman Bharat or the National Health Protection Scheme, popularly called ‘Modicare’, wherein we distributed health insurance cards to below poverty line families. When we volunteer to help them get government benefits, it is natural that they will vote for the BJP if we do the canvassing properly,” Pandithurai says, adding that the BJMM plans to launch an enrolment drive for the unorganised workers under Prime Minister’s monthly pension scheme (Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Maandhan Yojana) post elections.
CITU pooh-poohs BJMM claims
But CITU, the CPI (M)-affiliated trade union, makes light of BJMM’s operations. “They were functioning district-wise in the past, but now have been brought under one umbrella at the national level. They are trying to use their power and government machinery to intensify their activities in the state, but that has failed to materialise,” says CITU state secretary G Sugumaran.
Dubbing the Modi pension scheme as a gimmick, he claims the workers are aware that it is of no use. “Under the TN government’s pension scheme that provides for ₹1,000 as pension to unorganised workers at the age of 60, the beneficiary need not pay even a penny. But to avail the central scheme, they need to remit a monthly amount of ₹55 from the age of 18 till 60 to get ₹3,000 as monthly pension after 60 years. If they enrol at the age of 40, they ought to pay ₹200 a month for 20 years to reap the benefits. Moreover, those who have crossed 40 years are not eligible for enrolment. A scheme with all these inadequacies has cut no ice with the workers,” Sugumaran explains.
He alleges that the BJMM has purchased independent and apolitical labour bodies and admits that CITU members are not exceptions in falling prey to their wooing strategy. “A few members might have jumped ship, yet we, as an organisation, have not suffered erosion. In a changed economic scenario, we need to strain to pep up our strength and we have been taking steps in this direction. Our call taxi employees’ union started three months ago is an example,” he says, revealing the union’s efforts to bring the food delivery boys under the organisation.
Unfazed by the opposition unions and the indifference shown by the labourers to join them, the BJMM is working in a coordinated manner. PR Kannan, who left the Tamil Nadu State Construction Workers’ Federation to become the Karaikudi town president of BJMM’s mason’s wing, says, “We have managed to enrol 20 members in the last eight months. We approach the workers who do not owe allegiance to any union and make them understand that we work for their welfare. We also tell those who are reluctant that they need not attend our party meets.”
Of the 32 BJMM branches in the state, Namakkal, a hub for the lorry body building industry, has the highest membership of 5,000, Pandithurai claims, and says that worker-members in the motor vehicle sector are publicity carriers for their government. “Our auto drivers’ unions play a crucial role in reaching out to the public,” he adds.
Service without a charge
While BJMM auto unions were unheard of in the past, they have started sprouting in the past five years. Coimbatore has a considerable number of BJMM auto drivers, while districts like Madurai have started falling in line slowly. P Selvakumar, a dalit, says Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) cadres in his locality (Karumbalai) used to ridicule him, but on seeing him get government help for the needy, they have fallen silent. “We distributed Modicare cards to almost 70 per cent of the families in our area recently,” he says.
M Lakshminarayanan, BJMM Madurai urban district president, endorses his claim. He says two camps have been conducted in the past six months and welfare board membership cards have been distributed to 168 new members. According to him, the BJMM is at an advantage because “the services are entirely free, while the CITU collects ₹250 from the workers to help with the enrolment in government welfare boards.”
Sugumaran admits that a fee is charged for the services, but says they are not flush with funds like the BJP union. “Unlike CITU and CPI-affiliated AITUC, the DMK’s Labour Progressive Front and AIADMK’s Anna Thozhir Sangam do not concentrate on unorganised workers, but BJMM has not penetrated into the sector either,” says EM Joseph, a senior functionary of CPI(M).