Will the AIADMK alliance provide BJP southern comfort?

Will the AIADMK alliance provide BJP southern comfort?

 Tamil Nadu Chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami and Prime minister Naredra Modi . PTI file photo

In its endeavour to retain power in Raisina Hill, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has shifted its entire focus to Tamil Nadu – a state where the party is seen as an outsider and the Prime Minister faces maximum protests both on the streets and in cyberspace, whenever he steps on its soil.

Narendra Modi himself, in an interaction with booth agents of the party from across the country last week, said the BJP would score a“historic victory” in Tamil Nadu. But even if one were to put down the PM’s statement to poll time bravado, it is still worth asking where the BJP gets its new found confidence from and whether it will stand up to scrutiny.

A rainbow alliance takes shape

As it happens, Tamil Nadu is the only major state where the BJP is entirely dependent on an ally – the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). The BJP, which could not even surpass NOTA in the Dr RK Nagar by-polls in December 2017, now hopes to clinch all 40 seats at stake, including the lone Puducherry Lok Sabha constituency.

With the BJP’s performance in the North expected to take a beating due to various factors, the Saffron party has zeroed in on the largest state in South India – it sends 39 members to Lok Sabha – to make up its losses. Except Karnataka, the party does not wield influence in other states nor has any room for stitching together an electoral alliance.

So far, the biggest stumbling block for the BJP in Tamil Nadu was the former AIADMK chief, J Jayalalithaa. Though Modi enjoyed an excellent personal rapport with her, the charismatic leader always saw herself as a contender for the prime ministerial berth, were such a situation to arise. In fact, even in the run-up to the 2014 Parliamentary polls, she was seen as a prime challenger to Modi in the state. With that block fading away, the BJP worked every line to ensure that it stitches together a rainbow alliance featuring the heavyweight AIADMK.

Will this alliance work on the ground? It has some things going for it. The alliance has constituents like the Patali Makkal Katchi (PMK), which wields considerable influence among the dominant Vanniyars. The alliance was also stitched with an eye on all regions – the PMK for North, All India Moovendar Munnani Kazhagam of Dr N Sethuraman, Puthiya Tamizhagam of Dr M Krishnaswamy and John Pandian’s Tamizhaga Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam for the South and a few parties for the Kongu region.

The rainbow alliance has ensured, albeit for now, that it will not be a cakewalk for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-Congress combine in the Lok Sabha polls due in May. The alliance is arithmetically strong and might to do well in the Northern and Western parts of the state if the “double anti-incumbency” against the BJP and AIADMK governments and the visible ‘anti-Modi’ sentiments do not play havoc. Coming together of all these parties have made the DMK a little jittery – the Opposition party was keen on not rubbing any of its own alliance partners the wrong way and, in fact, ceded half of the 40 seats to them, keeping only the remaining 20 for itself.

In 2016 Assembly elections under Jayalalithaa, AIADMK had scored more than 41% votes and even if 10 to 15 % of votes go away from the AIADMK, owing to various factors including rebellion by VK Sasikala’s nephew TTV Dhinakaran, the BJP hopes the state’s ruling party would still command a solid vote share of 25%.

Also, the Kongu region, which constitutes for eight Lok Sabha seats, stood solidly behind the AIADMK in last elections – another factor that the BJP thinks would go in the alliance’s favour. It is a fact that the Gounders, the dominant community in the Kongu region, are quite proud that one of their own – Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami – is at the helm. That has given them yet another handle to display their political prowess and the BJP just hopes the community will vote overwhelmingly in favour of the alliance.

Internal trouble

While all this could go in BJP-AIADMK’s favour, there is deep resentment among the AIADMK cadre against the alliance with BJP -- the party struggled to muster a show of strength at the public meeting addressed by Modi on the outskirts of Chennai on Wednesday. Moreover, the AIADMK cadre feels the BJP has taken them for a ride and is running the Tamil Nadu government.

There is also a Dhinakaran factor. DMK would stand to gain directly if a considerable number of AIADMK votes goes to the rebel faction headed by him. Dhinakaran is certainly a man to watch out for in the coming years as he has also taken up the cudgels against the BJP besides targeting the AIADMK leadership.

Economic policies like GST and demonetisation have wrecked MSMEs, which have a strong presence in the state, and the visible anger against the AIADMK government could also affect the alliance’s prospects – the dispensation faced thousands of protests in the past two years against its policies and projects it wanted to implement.

Palaniswami and his deputy Panneerselvam have set their eyes on over-turning the anti-incumbency in their favour by announcing Rs 2,000 cash dole to 60 lakh families under the BPL category as one-time assistance, free food for construction workers in Amma canteen and several other measures just before the polls. Besides populist measures, the AIADMK hopes Jayalalithaa’s image, the magical ‘two leaves’ symbol and the BJP’s “monumental developmental projects” would placate the pangs of anti-incumbency.

A Hindi party in Tamil land

But for the BJP – and for the alliance – the biggest problem is its image as a ‘Hindi party’ which is fixated with prefixing ‘ji’ after every name instead of the quintessential ‘Thiru’. BJP’s muscular nationalism, which sells in the North, does not find any supporters and its obsession with Hindi only alienates it further.

Realising that their ‘Hindism’ does not cut much ice, the BJP is taking every step to get closer to the Tamil audience – Modi has begun delivering his political speeches in English a language that is more amenable than Hindi and visiting the state four times in just about two months.

The BJP’s imposition of Hindi and Sanskrit, “step-motherly” treatment of Tamil Nadu on Cauvery and other issues, ignoring Cyclone Gaja devastation and remote-controlling the AIADMK government are some of the factors that have escalated people’s anger against the BJP. Also, the BJP comes across as weak since it attempts to appropriate the legacy of late Congress stalwarts K Kamaraj and C Rajagopalachari, having no leader of its own from that era.

The party is also confused on what issues need to be raised in Modi’s speech – they can’t accuse the other alliance of “being corrupt” since the AIADMK is beset with similar allegations. The BJP is also changing its script every now and then -- on March 1, Modi was combative in his speech by devoting most of his time to talk about his “muscular policy” on nationalism but had to ditch the topic and settle for “regional aspirations” in his speech delivered exactly five days later.

BJP is betting big on the AIADMK for its second shot at power in New Delhi, but the influence of the party is untested after the death of its charismatic leader J Jayalalithaa. If the BJP is seen as an outsider, and the post-Jayalaithaa AIADMK flounders, the alliance will not just lose but would win the state for the Opposition combine.