There is no M Karunanidhi to work the crowd with his fiery rhetoric nor is there J Jayalalithaa, the indulgent Amma with her promise of freebies. This Lok Sabha election is the first in Tamil Nadu without a stalwart leading the two Dravidian parties that have dominated the state’s politics for 50 years.
This then should be the best chance for the Congress and the BJP to make their presence felt in Tamil Nadu as both the ruling All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) are adrift. But Fortress Tamil Nadu remains unbreached. The two national parties are struggling to be counted in the southern state, which sends 39 members to the Lok Sabha and will vote for them on April 18.
The reasons are as obvious as varied—poor ground presence, factionalism, and perhaps biggest of all, the Tamil identity. First, to the Congress, which ruled Tamil Nadu from almost two decades till 1967. Its decision to concentrate on the Lok Sabha, for which it had to ride piggyback on the AIADMK or the DMK, increased its dependence on the Dravidian parties. Over the decades, this has led to the disintegration of the organisational framework of the Congress, which was once well-entrenched in the state.
The final blow came in 1996, when GK Moopanar walked out to form the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC). He took with him whatever was left of the party network. Though a few years later, the TMC merged with the Congress, it was of no help. Factionalism, collapse of party apparatus and the erosion of votes reduced the Congress to the junior partner of the Dravidian parties. As part of a DMK-led alliance, the Congress is contesting 10 seats this time, which Dravidian party leaders still say is excessive. This is quite a comedown for a party which until 1991 would walk away with a major share of seats.
The BJP got a foothold in 1998, when Jayalalithaa joined hands with Atal Bihari Vajpayee. For the first time, there were BJP ministers from Tamil Nadu in the Union cabinet. A year later, Vajpayee was the prime minister again, but this time the partner was the atheist, anti-Aryan, anti-Hindi and largely anti-Hindu DMK. Again, BJP ministers from the state were part of Vajpayee’s ministerial team.
The BJP gained acceptance as a national player, but lost its way. It lacked the imagination and initiative to build the party in Tamil Nadu. Someone like Indira Gandhi would have expanded the party by hook or crook. Even the BJP would have done the same in any other state. But somehow, it has not been able to get it right in Tamil Nadu. The gains of 1998 and 1999 were squandered away. With no credible leadership or organisation, the BJP remains a non-player. The state of play can be gauged from the fact that the so-called Modi wave of 2014 didn’t even cause a ripple here with just one winner who promptly made it to the Cabinet. In these five years, Tamil Nadu has provided a platform for anti-Modi, anti-BJP and anti-national propaganda. The BJP, which never lets such talk go unchallenged, did not protest.
The party also missed several opportunities to make a mark. In 2014, when Jayalalithaa was forced out as the chief minister after she was jailed in a corruption case was one such wasted chance. The BJP failed to react and its local leadership was so clueless that the by-election for the Srirangam seat, left vacant after Jayalalithaa’s conviction, was a cakewalk for the AIADMK.
When Jayalalithaa was ill, there was chaos, but the BJP didn’t stir. The Centre, in fact, played ball with Sasikala & Co. Modi was inexplicably restrained when it came to Jayalalithaa. The Chennai floods were an act of criminal negligence by officials but his government praised Jayalalithaa. When she died in December 2016, one of Modi’s ministers planted himself next to her body till the funeral—an odd show of indulgence by a party that is avowedly anti-corruption and is big on good governance.
For the last many years, contestants have been blatantly using cash to win support, but the “clean” BJP has chosen to look away. The BJP’s alliance with the AIADMK has little credibility though it could be an effective poll move. A couple of AIADMK ministers have been raided with BJP leaders making accusations of corruption. Till a couple of weeks back, a BJP leader was going to town on Periyar. For all its bravado, the BJP has settled for just five seats, making the Congress look stronger, at least on paper. The demise of their charismatic leaders has left the AIADMK and the DMK weak, obvious from their decision to contests only 20 seats, leaving the rest for allies. Barring the PMK, all their other allies are weak.
The isolation of the two parties is not just political or a matter of arithmetic. They have no understanding of the unique issues that dog the Tamil psyche. The Sri Lankan Tamil issue is a case in point. People, particularly in southern Tamil Nadu, identify themselves more with Sri Lankan, Malaysian and other Tamil diaspora than with faraway Delhi. The academia and media here are strong proponents of the Tamil identity. Social media and a host of activists are using Tamil sentiment to build an anti-BJP opinion, projecting it as a Hindu and a Hindi party.
Leaders and their parties keep shifting allegiances. But the people and voters have disdain for northern netas, who make for good memes and little else. Modi invoking MGR sounds as hollow and comic as the Congress’ boast about the Kamaraj rule. Something as elementary as a greeting explains the distance between Tamil Nadu and Delhi. When two BJP or RSS workers whose mother tongue is Tamil meet, they greet each other with a “Namaste ji”. The ji sums up the issue. After all, Tamil Nadu is the land of annas.
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