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Narendra Modi-Karunanidhi meet shows BJP recognises DMK's political heft in post-Jayalalithaa Tamil Nadu

Through most of Monday evening, BJP spokespersons tried to portray Narendra Modi's 20-minute visit to call on ailing DMK chief M Karunanidhi as nothing more than a goodwill gesture, wondering why news channels were trying to read political meanings when none existed. They then proceeded to bestow on the prime minister, glowing adjectives, to underline his statesman-like stature and his ability to not let political differences come in the way of warmth in relationships.

The reluctance to accept a political motive to the meeting was understandable because the messaging from Modi was not lost on anyone, including those in the BJP. In a matter of a few hours, Modi had put his individual stamp on his Chennai visit. Significant because the U-turn of sorts was also an admission that the BJP's Tamil Nadu policy since December 2016 when Jayalalithaa passed away, had not quite worked wonders for the party. It also means Modi has decided he will no more outsource the BJP's strategy in Tamil Nadu to an assortment of leaders and backroom operators.

Modi is a leader who knows the power of the optic. And by extending the courtesy of the handshake, Modi hit many Tamilnadu birds with one stone.

He knew that the DMK cadre, that feels emotional about Kalaignar's health, would be bowled over by his gesture. His invitation to Karunanidhi to come and take rest at the PM's residence in Delhi was more than small talk. It was the first step to make the DMK's first family feel at home in his company.

That Modi chose to visit Karunanidhi just a day before the Special CBI court is to announce the date for the verdict in the 2G case is extremely significant. Anyone else would have preferred to wait for the verdict because Karunanidhi's daughter Kanimozhi, who too was present at home when Modi came visiting, is one of the accused in the case.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with DMK chief Karunanidhi on Monday in Chennai. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with DMK chief Karunanidhi on Monday in Chennai. PTI

If she is convicted, it will make BJP's attempts to tango with DMK, difficult. But if she is acquitted, a Surf-excelled DMK would become a suitable partner to be wooed. However, do not forget, the BJP of 2017 is more a party with an indifference that accommodates the likes of Mukul Roy and Sukh Ram without batting an eyelid. Which is why the distinction between the party and the individuals in the dock that the BJP made late into the evening, lent an element of intrigue into the politics of Modi's visit.

"As far as the 2G case is concerned, it is against individuals, not against the DMK," said spokesperson Narayanan Tirupathy on CNN-News 18, a not-so-subtle attempt to divorce the party from specific leaders who are in the dock. Irony committed suicide because the BJP was at the forefront of nailing the DMK and the Congress over the 2G scam. This let the cat out of the bag on the political dividends the BJP is possibly eyeing from the visit.

Modi was also sending a message to those who were not present in Gopalpuram. The BJP has invested heavily in the ruling AIADMK, attracting the criticism that it is the regional party's new High command. Tamil Nadu ministers have not shied away from publicly admitting that Modi will take care of their interests. But the lack of cohesion and the tendency of the O Panneerselvam and Edappadi Palaniswami camps to carry their grouse against each other to the prime minister individually, has meant the BJP is more than aware that an AIADMK-BJP combo is not going to set the Cooum on fire. By playing the Karunanidhi card, Modi has read out the riot act to EPS and OPS - Get your act together or perish.

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Modi's Chennai sojourn will also make the Congress uncomfortable and suspicious about the DMK. Karunanidhi has done business in the past with the BJP during the AB Vajpayee era and it knows Stalin will be more than keen to emerge as the Tamilian who matters, both in Chennai and in New Delhi.

Finally, it is an acknowledgement of DMK's political heft in the post-Jayalalithaa period. The BJP would be keen to pick up seats in Tamil Nadu to compensate for possible losses in north India, where it would have been seen to have peaked in 2014. On Monday, Modi was trying to explore the possibility of purchasing a political insurance policy from Gopalpuram. While it was a preliminary visit, it has clearly set the tone for 2019 and beyond.

But this is not to say that the DMK will jump into bed with the BJP tomorrow. It will continue to be part of the opposition space, registering its presence at protests against demonetisation and the like. Stalin is more than aware of the pitfalls which is why any marriage of political convenience is more likely to take place post 2019, not before. The chemistry will depend on the Math of the next Lok Sabha. For now, Modi is only keeping the lab ready for a possible experiment.

But even before he had stepped into Gopalpuram, Modi had made his Tamil Nadu strategy clear. He made it a point to walk down the dais at the Thanthi 75 years event, to greet the who's who of Chennai and Tamil Nadu politics. Rajinikanth, a possible ally was present and his closeness to Karunanidhi and support during the 1996 election is well known. So were former allies like Vaiko and Ramadoss. Significantly, both leaders also called on Karunanidhi recently. By walking the extra mile, Modi has shown he is willing to reach out in search of new friends and reconnecting with old partners.

The new season in Tamil Nadu's political soap opera has begun.


Published Date: Nov 07, 2017 12:48 PM | Updated Date: Nov 07, 2017 12:47 PM

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