By B Chandrashekar:
Following the political developments relating to the former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s jail and bail episode, there are reports that the BJP is trying to strengthen its base in the state. The unprecedented victory in Haryana where it formed government on its own from the mere 4 seats in the previous assembly election, and exceptional performance in Maharashtra without an alliance, has given the cadres the much needed boost. Can BJP really become a thing in the southern state of Tamil Nadu? Will it emerge as a major player in the 2016 assembly elections?
To paint a little background, Tamil Nadu has always been a state dominated by ‘Dravidian’ politics. From 1967, no national party has ever been in power in the state and it has always been either DMK or AIADMK that ruled the state. Without alliance with these regional powers, neither Congress nor BJP has managed to win a decent number of seats in any assembly or general elections.
Before we delve into the future course for BJP in TN, we need to understand the foundation behind the rise of BJP. In the 1980s and the 1990s, BJP rose as a principal opposition party to the Congress. With the disintegration of Janata Party and the void in the opposition belt, BJP did well to transpire as an alternative to Congress. Ayodhya movement led to the party’s exponential growth in that stage.
It is very important to note that the BJP’s anti-Congress rhetoric was its main armour. This was the major reason behind the party’s robust base in the states where there was hardly any regional party to clash with the Congress. Even now, when we look at the BJP strong hold states where it is in power, be it Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan or Chhattisgarh, it is basically a Congress vs. BJP state.
In other states like Odisha or Andhra Pradesh, where the main opposition party to the Congress is a regional party (BJD, Telugu Desam etc.)- BJP had to forge alliance with them to grow in those states.
Now comes the curious case of states like Kerala and West Bengal. The opposition party to the Congress being the Left parties, BJP found it difficult to mark its presence in these states. They could not align, since BJP and Left would make strange bed fellows, nor could they grow on their own. Only now, it has been able to reach a position in Bengal where it can win a seat or two on its own, and is yet to prove its strength in Kerala.
The case of Tamil Nadu, even though it might appear to be somewhat closer to the case of Odisha or Andhra Pradesh, is actually far from it. When the BJP was a growing party, Congress was a distant third in terms of vote share. Its anti-Congress stand did not find many takers here. Also, Tamil Nadu was one of the few states which were untouched by the Ayodhya movement. The Hindutva ideology did not sell well in TN which was known for rationalist movements like E.V.Ramasamy Naicker’s Dravidar Kazhagam. It’s not that the Tamils are all atheists or non-religious; it’s just that the Ram Mandir issue or Hindutva did not become an election issue at any point of time.
It was only through alliance with AIADMK or DMK in the past, that the party has managed to secure at least a name in the state. There were also instances where the party was left out of alliances because the Dravidian parties feared that it might cost them Muslim votes. In 2014, with Narendra Modi’s mounting popularity, it somehow managed to form alliance with smaller regional parties.
Given this scenario, it would be really difficult for BJP to carve a space out for its own in the Dravidian parties dominated land. It cannot play its development card as well; TN is comparatively better developed than many of the Indian states. The party doesn’t have a charismatic regional leader. True that it is not absolutely necessary to have an enigmatic face in the state to win election (Haryana is a proof). But Narendra Modi’s name was enough to pull voters to the BJP in Haryana and the case of Tamil Nadu is entirely different. Apparently, BJP’s attempts to persuade actor Rajnikanth to enter politics have proved futile.
In 2014 BJP was the third largest party in TN with 5.5% vote share, thanks to the ‘Modi wave’ and a rainbow alliance that included various smaller parties. Before this, the third place was closely fought for between Congress and DMDK. But now, the NDA alliance in TN itself is in shatters. Vijayakanth’s DMDK would never accept BJP as the elder brother of the alliance and PMK, known for switching political camps often, is a risky partner.
In addition to that, in an assembly state election, local issues matter much more than the general elections. Putting all these in perspective, 2016 may not be the path breaking year for BJP in the state. At best, it can hope to retain its position as the third largest party. It will take more time than BJP would like, for it to become a force to reckon with in Tamil Nadu.