If Amit Shah wrote a book on how his BJP must conquer the south, the chapter on Tamil Nadu would have this headline: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Or, in case the BJP president didn’t care for clichés, he might have taken the title from the Scottish proverb: “Better bend than break.”
Bend the BJP did — bend backwards actually — as it courted the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu for a long while, especially after 2009. But this story of courting, largely a one-way affair, has been taking the kind of turns and twists that even the most inane of romance comedy writers would desist from.
Take for instance what happened on 27 September 2014.
On that day, a trial court in Bengaluru convicted AIADMK’s leader Jayalalithaa in the “disproportionate assets” case. Instead of mourning the verdict against a leader whom they had been assiduously wooing, singing her praise when the occasion demanded, the BJP leaders were overjoyed. They changed the tune of their song.
After her conviction, resignation and appointment of her trusted man O Panneerselvam (OPS) as the chief minister, the BJP leaders saw a gaping political void in Tamil Nadu which they wanted to fill in a hurry. They made a sudden discovery of her corruption and began to find faults with her government, though some of its central leaders made conciliatory noises, trying not to antagonise her in the long run.
But when, on 11 May 2015, the Karnataka High Court overturned the trial court’s verdict and acquitted her, the BJP changed the tune of its song again. On 23 May, 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the first to congratulate her after she returned as the chief minister.
PM @narendramodi congratulates Jayalalithaa ji on taking oath as CM of Tamil Nadu and conveys his best wishes to her & her team.
— PMO India (@PMOIndia) May 23, 2015
Not lagging behind, state BJP president Tamilisai Soundararajan said the same day: “Whatever may be Jayalaithaa’s past record, the court has given a big relief to makkal mudalvar (the people’s Chief Minister).”
Once again, the party was back to pursuing Jayalalithaa in a big way.
Jayalalithaa allied with the BJP in 1998 only to dramatically withdraw her support, leading to the Vajpayee government’s fall, then joined forces with the Congress and others in 1999, with the BJP again in 2004 and with the Third Front in 2009. She went solo in 2014.
BJP’s performance in Lok Sabha polls in Tamil Nadu (Total seats: 39)
Though the RSS has been spreading its wings significantly in Tamil Nadu, especially after the 1998 Coimbatore blasts and LK Advani’s march there, the BJP hasn’t met with matching electoral successes in the state. Jayalalithaa’s sweep of the Lok Sabha seats in 2014 was too much for the BJP to take. She held out the pan-India Modi wave and notched up a remarkable 37 of the 39 seats, conceding only one seat to BJP and another one to NDA ally PMK.
Why BJP is after AIADMK
The BJP’s election managers were and still are painfully aware that Jayalalithaa’s recipe for success in 2014 was the same as that of Modi in the rest of the country: The Hindu vote plus the development plank.
Despite being the czarina of a Dravidian party supposedly rooted in rationalism, Jayalalithaa never made a secret of her deep belief in God and Hinduism and even in superstition. This, according to analysts, earned her the right wing Hindu votes from several castes including the powerful Gounders and Thevars, dominant in the western and southern parts of the state respectively.
That Jayalalithaa had nearly the same winning formula as Modi didn’t dawn on the BJP leaders overnight in 2014. What they had only suspected for some time was confirmed. Not surprisingly, Modi had been extending his hand of friendship to her personally even earlier. Never forget that he flew from Ahmedabad to Chennai to attend her swearing-in ceremony in 2011.
After 2014, the BJP found to its dismay that it had no choice other than to partner with Jayalalithaa. The wooing intensified after Modi became the prime minister, but Jayalalithaa was averse to ally with the BJP for fear that it would slice into her own vote banks. Yet, an undeterred BJP was bent upon adding Jayalalithaa’s two leaves to its lotus.
Not only did her death on 5 December 2016 make no difference but it also made the wooing game even more desperate, even as RSS continued its effort to increase its footprint. It held a mammoth meeting of its Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha in Coimbatore last month.
The party first cosied up to Jayalalithaa’s friend V Sasikala who seemed like the most natural inheritor of her legacy. On 6 December, Modi flew to Chennai and consoled Sasikala.
The split in the AIADMK, following a revolt by Pannerselvam and Sasikala’s appointment of Edappadi Palaniswami (EPS) as the chief minister, was an obvious cause of worry for the BJP. You can’t have the party you want to partner with in fragments. The photo of Modi patting his hand on Sasikala’s head told a story that a million TV bytes couldn’t.
But it didn’t take long for the BJP to change its perception of Sasikala from a natural heiress of Jayalalithaa to an obvious liability. It became pretty clear during the run-up to the RK Nagar by-election that Sasikala, who is now in a Bengaluru jail in the same “disproportionate assets” case that involved Jayalalithaa, was popular in the party but not among people. The I-T raids on a minister close to Sasikala’s nephew TTV Dinakaran and the Delhi police case against him for allegedly attempting to bribe Election Commission officials to get the frozen two-leaves symbol for his faction pushed the party deeper into an abyss.
Why BJP backs OPS but not EPS
The exit of Sasikala, Dinkaran and their family from the AIADMK — well, almost — now leaves the OPS and EPS factions bickering over merger and power-sharing. OPS and EPS are not in any hurry to unite. The BJP is. From the BJP’s point of view, a united AIADMK without the Sasikala family would be an ideal ally. Besides getting the much-needed votes in the upcoming presidential elections, the BJP would look forward to contesting upwards of ten seats as part of seat-sharing in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and winning most of them and improving its 2014 tally of just one seat.
And in the ongoing OPS vs EPS tussle, the BJP bets on the former because the party sees him — it believes that even people see him that way — as the natural successor to Jayalalithaa, who had trusted him twice with the chief minister’s post.
The party is also confident that OPS would be more amenable to accommodating the saffron brigade in the state.
In BJP’s calculations, people see EPS as an impostor thrust on the party by another imposter (Sasikala) who tried to hijack Jayalalithaa’s legacy and that the Chief Minister ditched the Sasikala family only after seeing which way the wind blew.
The BJP may be sure of its perceptions of EPS and OPS. But it can’t be so sure of the future of an alliance with an OPS-led AIADMK in a state notorious for its byzantine politics, made complicated by myriad castes and small parties. But OPS is the BJP’s best bet for now.
Author tweets @sprasadindia
Updated Date: Apr 22, 2017 12:48 PM