BJP in Tamil Nadu: How the party has become a major player in state politics despite just 2.8% voteshare

Did O Panneerselvam's team inadvertently let the cat out of the bag regarding the character of his faction's relationship with the BJP, in just 140 characters? It would seem so as his twitter handle @OfficeOfOPS said, "We will take a decision on alliance with BJP once local body elections are announced."

The update came following Panneerselvam's meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on Friday, and it was obvious that much was read into it.

Realising the BJP's back seat driving was meant to be a secret, nevermind if it was the worst kept secret this side of the Vindhyas, the tweet was deleted in double quick time. A clarification was issued that the decision on a poll partner will be taken only after the local body elections are announced.

 BJP in Tamil Nadu: How the party has become a major player in state politics despite just 2.8% voteshare

O Panneerselvam with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting in January. PTI file image

With Jayalalithaa at the helm, AIADMK was seen as a party forever in the "En vazhi, thanee vazhi" (my path is my own) mode. Not any more. Their leader's demise, the split in the party, the Income Tax raids have all reduced the once powerful regional outfit to a nervous wreck.

In fact, before 5 December, 2016, when Jayalalithaa passed away, it would have been a near impossibility to consider the BJP as an important player in Tamil Nadu politics. But now, without having a single MLA in the state Assembly and only one MP — Union minister of state Pon Radhakrishnan — and a miniscule 2.8 percent of the voteshare in the 2016 Assembly elections, BJP has still become one of the main political players in Chennai.

It suggests that in the post-Jayalalithaa era, Chennai has surrendered to the might of New Delhi.

It is not usual for Union ministers to review central schemes at a state secretariat, but that is precisely what Venkaiah Naidu did at the Tamil Nadu secretariat after inaugurating a new stretch of the Chennai Metro Rail on 14 May. With merger talks between the two factions not going anywhere, the meeting provided the optics of a new relationship being possibly worked out, with sources affirming that the BJP is not shutting the door on the Edappadi Palaniswami faction completely.

In the past few weeks, prominent leaders and non-politicians from western Tamil Nadu have tried to build bridges between the EPS camp and the BJP. Palaniswami hails from the Kongu belt, and he seems to have tapped his connections in and around Coimbatore to reach out to Delhi. Though BJP leaders dismiss Naidu's secretariat rendezvous as a one-off, sources say the back channel talks have borne fruit.

The powers-that-be in Delhi had calculated that a combined AIADMK in alliance with the BJP will be a potent force to take on DMK-Congress. But it had not factored in the bad blood between leaders of the two camps, and conditions imposed by the OPS camp is not making matters easy.

It also has got to do with what each faction perceives itself to be. While the OPS camp talks of "dharma yudh" and about how the cadre is with it, the EPS camp has the real numbers to stay in government. Which is why Palaniswami, unwilling to give up the chief minister's chair that OPS reportedly wants, has repeatedly asked those "who lost their path and strayed" to come back.

The underlying message is it is Panneerselvam who left and should return, and that the bigger legislature party cannot be expected to merge with the smaller one.

Also, with both VK Sasikala and TTV Dinakaran out of the picture, having been lodged in jails in Bengaluru and New Delhi respectively, the EPS camp argues there is no reason why the Panneerselvam camp should be seen as the cleaner one anymore.

Into the mix has stepped in Rajinikanth, another possible politician in the making, with whom the BJP would like to do business. An ideal front, those in the know say, is AIADMK + BJP + Rajinikanth, with the actor projected as the face of the alliance. But this is easier said than done, given that professional politicians who have been in the business for long, are highly unlikely to make way for a political novice. Unless Rajinikanth does a Pawan Kalyan, who only campaigned for the BJP + TDP front in Andhra Pradesh in 2014 without contesting himself.

Also, Rajini's comments while addressing his fans have not gone down too well with the AIADMK. Municipal administration minister SP Velumani asked the actor to first be a man of his word before venturing on a fault-finding mission.

Rajinikanth came in for criticism for not standing up for Sathyaraj when his Baahubali got into trouble in Karnataka, because the actor who played Kattappa in the magnum opus had made anti-Karnataka comments over Cauvery nine years ago.

Tamil Nadu politics continues to be tied up in knots, but the immediate priority for the BJP is to ensure that the entire set of AIADMK votes come into the NDA kitty in the presidential and vice-presidential elections. There is unlikely to be any move to clear the mess before the next occupant of Raisina Hill is decided.

Updated Date: May 21, 2017 11:30:20 IST