Elections are over, a campaign is set to begin

By whipping up sentimental feelings of pro-Hindu pride, the BJP is gearing itself to make inroads into Tamil Nadu. Illustration: Prathap Ravishankar

Despite the rout of the BJP in Tamil Nadu, the last holdout for the party in the country, BJP leaders feel there is a space for the party in the state. Quoting nationalism and Indian pride, the BJP decimated CPM in Tripura and  put Mamata’s TMC on the backfoot in West Bengal. The party might repeat and implement similar political strategies for Tamil Nadu. Multi-pronged strategies to ensure that the BJP occupies centrestage in Tamil Nadu politics are underway, with Amit Shah’s first focus on the Tamil Nadu Assembly polls scheduled for 2021.

After the results of the Lok Sabha election, while supporters of the DMK and Dravidianists spoke about how the BJP’s ideas and Modi have no appeal in the state, BJP supporters criticized voters for having missed an opportunity and for having been duped by anti-national forces in allowing an anti-Modi narrative to sustain.

The day results came out several leaders of the BJP brought up Tamil Nadu. Hemanta Biswa Sarma, the leader from Assam, talked about how the BJP would aim to spread its wings in the State. Biswa Sarma is among the changemakers in Assam, an outlier state in the northeast that has come into the BJP’s fold.

Union minister Nitin Gadkari who won from Nagpur said a water grid would be formed and rivers would be linked, so Godavari would go to Krishna and eventually to Cauvery so Tamil Nadu would get water. Gadkari, known to be close to the RSS and as a mover-shaker, was speaking to a pressing concern among TN voters.

River interlinking

Gadkari’s assurance on water was swift and immediate, eliciting a sentimental response from Tamil Nadu BJP chief Tamilisai Soundararajan.

In a state where water is a politically charged issue, the timing of Gadkari’s tweet could not be more appropriate. In 2018, the Union minister, at an event in Tamil Nadu, had said the state would get water through the Godavari-Cauvery river interlinking project.

The Godavari-Cauvery project is split into two phases. The first phase will link the Mahanadi River and the Godavari. Phase two of the project would divert water from the Godavari to the Cauvery through the Krishna and Pennar rivers.

The two phases of the Godavari-Cauvery project

Gadkari said through the interlinking project, the Cauvery would get at least 800-900 tmcft water. In the run-up to the elections, the minister said work on river interlinking was yet to begin, but the project would be expedited.

Though the promise of water seems heady, it seems like the project is still a long way from fruition. The Godavari-Cauvery project involves four states, and is fraught with political tensions. “The Telugu Ganga drinking water project was supposed to provide at least 9 to 11 tmcft water to Tamil Nadu every year, but the state gets only 1 tmcft. The small project has a lot of issues that have not been resolved yet. A mega project like interlinking of the Godavari and Cauvery will involve a lot of technical and political issues apart from problems of displacement,” says Janakarajan S, professor & officiating director at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.

The Rajinikanth factor

Almost on cue, actor Rajinikanth tweeted that he would be contesting the Assembly elections and said he would support whoever stood for river linking. The actor has been known as a distinctly pro-BJP figure and tweeted his congratulations to Modi on his victory enthusiastically.

On December 31, 2017, Rajinikanth said Tamil Nadu needed “spiritual politics” devoid of caste and religion. Aanmiga arasiyal (spiritual politics) might supplement the efforts of the BJP to make inroads into the state.

Will the party piggyback on Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan? Political officer in the United Nations and an observer of Tamil Nadu politics, R Kannan, says, “Not exactly. But I will advise Rajini to not join hands with them. If he contests alone, he could get a whopping response as Vijayakanth did in the first election he contested. Kamal will not join with them and vice-versa.”

Targeting migrant population

The BJP has a standard set of operational procedures to set up camp in a hostile state. In Tripura and in West Bengal, the party set five to six top-secret strategies in motion. With efficient organisers, especially drawn from the RSS, it conducted a quiet campaign that was neither pro-right nor pro-Centre.

In Tamil Nadu, the party may try to create a beachhead through the state’s Hindi-speaking population. Tamil Nadu has over a million (10.67 lakh) migrant workers, according to Tamil Nadu Migration Survey 2015. Chennai, Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram are among the top three districts in terms of the absolute number of in-migrants.

According to Census of India 2011 report, the proportion of Hindi speakers nearly doubled from 2001 to 2011 in Tamil Nadu. The absolute numbers, however, was quite small as only 3.9 lakh people, or 0.5 per cent of the Tamil Nadu population, in 2011 spoke in Hindi. In comparison, over 82 per cent of people (or 6.3 crore) in Tamil Nadu spoke in Tamil. Telugu was reported as the second most spoken language in the state with 5 per cent (42 lakh) of the 7.7 crore population in Tamil Nadu using this language to communicate.

The BJP, might design a campaign that will initially speak to the 3.9 lakh Hindi speakers in the state, and help it spread its politics of nationalism.

Change in leadership

Sources say Amit Shah wants to change the BJP leadership in Tamil Nadu by August or September. He has already asked for a detailed report from the state party leadership since all the five BJP Lok Sabha candidates were trounced with massive losing margins.

When contacted, state BJP sources were unable to provide any details. However, state secretary KT Raghavan said they were expecting major changes in office bearers. “Until now, we haven’t convened a state meeting of office bearers. Since the terms of most of the office bearers are coming to an end, we can expect some major changes in the party,” he said.

The weakness of the state leadership could also have been a reason why the BJP has failed to find a foothold. “Despite losing the elections in the state in 2014 and 2016, the party hasn’t changed its state leadership. Also, the leaders like Pon Radhakrishnan and Tamilisai Soundararajan are chosen from a particular community and that caused a dissatisfaction among its cadres” says N Sathiya Murthy, political analyst, Observer Research Foundation (ORF).

Admitting their own mistakes and miscalculations will be the first step for the BJP to gain a hold in the state, he says.

Idealogical hold

The Sangh Parivar has been working to change the narrative regarding Hindutva in Tamil Nadu for decades. The Ram temple campaign had few takers, however. Ram is not a very popular deity in the state where Shaivism dominates.

A Parivar outfit has been organizing Ganapati festivals for nearly three decades with increasing participation but achieving little political capital. More recently, Parivar outfits organized Pushkaram festivals for two rivers – Cauvery and Tamirabarani. The festivals were an occasion to promote religious feeling and also draw in all the various Hindu sects under one umbrella.

By whipping up sentimental feelings of pro-Hindu pride, the BJP is gearing itself to make inroads into Tamil Nadu

Can the BJP gain a hold in Tamil Nadu ideologically, in the near future? “No,” says, Kannan who has written well received biographies of CN Annadurai, the founder of the DMK, and MG Ramachandran, former chief minister. “They should follow a different strategy here. They should try to win the people over by following the paths of the Dravidian movement and parties,” he says.

Speaking to The Federal, he pointed out that the BJP must shun using Hindi here in addressing the people. “Besides language, they should take up issues which the DMK has its eyes on. For instance, in its election manifesto, the DMK has said that they will announce Thanjavur as an agricultural zone, waiving educational loans and promised to do away with NEET exams,” he adds.

Sathiya Murthy says Hindutva will not sell in Tamil Nadu. “Hindus in the state have voted for the Dravidian parties irrespective of anti-Brahminism, anti-temples, and atheism. They did it on the basis of social justice, which has been espoused by the Dravidian parties” he adds.

More importantly, the BJP will have to counter the Dravidian party’s campaign against Modi. The BJP will have to make the DMK realise that at best the party can stall Lok Sabha debates, but nothing beyond it.

When asked if the anti-Muslim polarisation will work here, Kannan says it is difficult. “They cannot taste victory until they take up Tamil cultural nationalism in their hands. They should look at how Tamil nationalist politician Seeman tackles these issues,” he added.

“The BJP is being perceived as a national party. They must act like a regional or state party,” says Kannan.

Pro-Hindu pride

By whipping up sentimental feelings of pro-Hindu pride, the BJP is gearing itself to make inroads into Tamil Nadu. Soon after the results of the Lok Sabha election broke, WhatsApp groups that had BJP supporters were seeing identical messages floating around. One in English lamented how TN voters had failed to recognise a party whose leaders were selfless. Another in Tamil language was longer and was a bit accusatory in tone. It talked about how Tamils have gone wrong once again. It starts innocently enough about Rajiv Gandhi being assassinated in Tamil Nadu, moves on to protests against the neutrino project and then talks about the BJP’s defeat.

Such messages are an integral part of the BJP’s social media campaign. They are typically written by a volunteer with some thought and diligence going into it and then circulated around. So does this mean it won’t be long before Tamil Nadu is in the BJP’s crosshairs?

(With inputs from Vinoth Kumar, R Rajagopal and Maya Nandhini)