Decoding Tamil Nadu's 'anti-Modi' sentiment

Last Updated : 16 April 2019, 02:20 IST

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On a sweltering summer afternoon outside the vegetable market in Kovilpatti, the Southern Tamil Nadu town famed for its ‘kadalai mittai’ (peanut bars), 40-year-old Ganesan was selling garlic sitting under an umbrella.

Ganesan said he was a diligent citizen and had always exercised his right to vote from the time he became eligible. When the discussion veered around to Narendra Modi, Ganesan admitted he nursed a grudge against the Prime Minister for a single reason.

“No, it is not GST or demonetisation,” Ganesan insisted. “I don’t transact in thousands in a month. So, why would I pay GST or how would demonetisation have affected me?”

“He (Modi) never bothered about our farmers. Our people were in Delhi for three months, but as PM he did not even have the courtesy to meet them for a minute. Moreover, we read Modi was busy attending marriage receptions of film stars when Cyclone Gaja left a trail of devastation in our own Cauvery delta,” Ganesan said bitterly.

He added that the PM came to Tamil Nadu six times in just four months to seek votes. “You need our votes, but you will never come here and stand with us shoulder-to-shoulder in times of our need. This has made everyone feel that Tamils are being punished for no fault of theirs.”

This small-time garlic seller’s emotion captures well what is happening in the rest of Tamil Nadu. Wherever you travel in this state, that sends 39 MPs to the Lok Sabha, the Prime Minister is an unpopular man.

Connect matters, not just charisma

Which brings us to how things began going downhill for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and more specifically the PM, in the state.

The anti-Modi sentiment did not take shape overnight. It is the manifestation of anger that built-up in ordinary Tamils for over three years at least. If the Jallikattu agitation was the beginning, then the BJP’s refusal to acknowledge the 100 farmers from Tamil Nadu with skulls in their hands, camping at the Jantar Mantar for close to 100 days, made things worse. Then there was the party’s volte face on exemption for NEET; the suicide of a young medical aspirant S Anitha and the party’s perceived ‘insensitivity’ on the Cauvery issue.

There was also anger over the implementation of economic policies such as GST and demonetisation and “dangerous” projects like extraction of Methane and hydrocarbon and killing of 13 innocent civilians during the anti-Sterlite protests in Thoothukudi on May 22, 2018.

However, what may have actually gone against the Central government is a feeling that those in Delhi just did not care enough about the issues of the Tamil people such as Cyclone Gaja and the plight of its farmers.

"Tamils are basically emotional people and the least that they expect from others is respect. When a Tamil does not see that coming and feels that he is being treated differently from others, he gets into agitation mode,” filmmaker Karu Palaniappan, one of Modi’s vocal critics in Tamil Nadu, explained.

“To be etched in the hearts of Tamils, you need to reach out to them. Charisma is not alone enough to capture the hearts of Tamils. It is a very inclusive land where only the connect with people matters. If you lose touch on the ground, how big or how charismatic you are doesn’t matter,” P Ramajayam, Assistant Professor, Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Bharathidasan University, Tiruchirapalli, told DH.

He added: “Every village in Tamil Nadu will have a history – Periyar, MGR or Karunanidhi would have visited their hamlets and even stayed there for a night. In many villages, people still show you houses where these leaders have stayed – most recently people say Jayalalithaa had driven past their village. This connect is what matters here.”

However, according to senior journalist Kolahala Srenivaas, the existence of “anti-Modi sentiments” was being over-hyped by the media and the Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). He said both national parties – Congress and BJP – had never been able to win the confidence of the Tamils. “I certainly agree that people still feel bad about Modi not visiting Tamil Nadu after Cyclone Gaja, but I don’t think that would be the single biggest factor to reflect in elections (against the BJP),” he told DH.


Although the BJP would argue otherwise, PM has faced maximum protests in Tamil Nadu, both in cyberspace and on the ground, whenever he has stepped onto Tamil Nadu’s soil.

It all began after the charismatic J Jayalalithaa passed away and M Karunanidhi was confined to his home in the winter of 2016. Tamil Nadu felt a huge vacuum of political leadership. These emotions broke out in the form of protests when the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) expressed its helplessness in getting a ban on Jallikattu, the traditional bull-taming sport, lifted.

Lakhs of people gathered at the historic Marina Beach to protest for their rights on the Jallikattu issue. But their protest was directed at a deeper concern as well – would Jayalalithaa’s death and Karunanidhi’s absence be utilised by the BJP to enter the state?

Protesters fired one salvo after the other at Modi and the BJP government for targeting states that had distinct (read non-North Indian) cultures. Though the ban on Jallikattu was revoked through a state-specific amendment after massive protests, the youth believed agitation was the only way to assert their rights.

Cashing in on the public sentiment, the Opposition DMK led by MK Stalin succeeded in branding Modi as “anti-Tamil” and “anti-Tamil Nadu.” Journalist Srenivaas, however, felt that DMK’s anti-Modi campaign was just an extension of its legacy which was always anti-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and anti-BJP, till it shook hands with the Saffron party in 1999.

“To be fair, the stand of both BJP and Congress on several issues like Cauvery, release of seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination are the same. But the difference is that there are reasons or failures to cite as far as the BJP goes. However, the same media doesn’t highlight the failures of the Congress,” he said.

The BJP does seems be behaving like the Congress when it comes to handling the sensitive issue of linguistic sensibilities. The party has not learn from the Congress, which is yet to recover from the jolt that it received 52 years back, when it attempted to force Hindi on the rest of the country as India's national language. The BJP, like the Congress of yore, is seen as backer of Hindi to Tamil’s detriment.

#GoBackModi – a hashtag that is quite popular in Tamil Nadu now – was first trended by Tamils on April 12, 2018 when Modi visited the state to inaugurate the Defence Expo in Chennai. Since his government was “silent” on constitution of Cauvery Management Board then, people let out giant black balloons into the air when Modi’s managers altered his itinerary so that he could avoid travelling by road.

“All that the Prime Minister needed to do on April 12, 2018 was to break his golden silence and mollify the Tamils. He could have just said that the issue has come to his notice and he will work for a resolution since both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are part of India. Instead, he avoided the people and took the air route, which angered the people further and made them feel insulted,” Palaniappan told DH.

From then to the recent election trips this correspondent made across the state, he could sense that anti-Modi sentiments had deepened – in some places people gave no reason for their dislike.

Bruised Tamil pride

Also, many ordinary Tamils have felt that the state’s self-respect has plunged to a new low. Pictures of AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) leaders bowing before Modi and BJP bigwigs in New Delhi were beamed live immediately after the turmoil began in the party in the first half of 2017. Tamils had always taken pride in leaders from the North flying down to Chennai to meet politicians, be it J Jayalalithaa or M Karunanidhi.

“Tamil Nadu is a state which gives importance to self-respect and culture. When the administrators fail to articulate their voices, they feel angry and cheated. I have no qualms in saying that the AIADMK government has allowed itself to be used as a foot mat of the BJP,” Ramu Manivannan, Head of Department, Politics and Public Administration, University of Madras, told DH.

That the AIADMK stays in power courtesy its “good relations” with BJP – now transformed into a “mega alliance” for the 2019 polls – is an “open secret”. People felt insecure about the BJP trying to utilise the political vacuum to make inroads into Tamil Nadu, where it hardly had any base earlier, political analysts said.

Moreover, when people protest, the least that they expect from the government is a patient hearing. “The AIADMK government not just operated without keeping the sensibilities of people in mind but was also unmindful of the public opinion about its dispensation. This angered the people and it was directed against (Modi),” Manivannan added.

Srenivaas says while anti-Modi sentiments get maximum attention on air waves, a consolidation of Hindu votes in favour of the BJP is also beginning to take place, especially in the Southern districts. “There is definitely Hindu consolidation happening – very slowly it has started in Tamil Nadu. These votes will come to the BJP if all anti-Modi votes go to the DMK,” he said.

However, all of BJP’s ‘master plans’ for Tamil Nadu not just fell flat, but back-fired at every stage – the rise of rebel TTV Dhinakaran is a stellar example of this failure. Palaniappan believes BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit was solely responsible for Modi’s unpopularity. “H Raja was the first to label anyone raising questions against the BJP or Modi as ‘anti-national’. Journalists had to wear the ‘anti-national’ tag first and slowly he started labelling every Tamil who questioned his leadership as ‘anti-Indian’,” he said.

Rebellious Tamil youth began to question if they had lost their democratic right to criticise the government of the day and its leader. Palaniappan added that Raja’s cryptic comment, that Tamils don’t possess the right to question Modi since they didn’t vote for him, instilled in them a sense that states that vote for BJP and those that don’t are being treated differently.

“Isn’t Mr Modi my Prime Minister too? Why do we scream from the rooftop that we are a democracy when the elected can’t follow it in letter and spirit? People inferred that only those who voted for Modi can question him and this aggravated the anger manifold,” he said.

How this anti-Modi will play out on voting day is still not clear, but one thing is certain: If there were to be an anti-Modi wave in the future, Tamil Nadu is where it would have all begun.

Published 15 April 2019, 12:28 IST

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