BJP’s Electoral Strategy for Tamil Nadu in 2021 is the De-Dravidisation of State Politics

With the Hindutva wave seemingly at its peak across India, the BJP has staged a few theatrics to cement its hold in the state.

As Tamil Nadu heads towards assembly elections this year, the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre and the AIADMK-led government in the state can sense the ascendance of the DMK and seem determined to base their strategy on issues such as OBC reservation and religion-related controversies.

Realising the political dynamics of caste in Tamil Nadu, the BJP was the first political party to appoint a Nadar woman (Sudra caste) Tamilisai Soundararajan as the governor of Telangana and appointed two Dalit workers, L. Murugan and V.P. Duraisamy, as president and vice-president of BJP’s state unit, respectively.

Tamil Nadu is a land of extremes. In the 1970s, one would find a temple and a rationalist forum on every street in the state in the 1970s. One group would worship Ram while another group would mock this worship. One group would sanctify the Manusmriti while the other would burn copies of the text.

L. Murugan, president of the BJP in Tamil Nadu, being felicitated by party workers. Photo: BJP Tamil Nadu Facebook page

To give a concrete example of how caste politics works in Tamil Nadu, E.V. Ramasamy Naicker – popularly known as Periyar, a learned and respectable person – had openly pledged his support and campaigned successfully in the 1962 Madras legislative assembly elections for the incumbent Kamaraj-led Congress government. Periyar’s support for Kamaraj was based solely on the fact that he belonged to the Sudra caste who was challenging Rajagopalachari (of the Brahmin caste).

Also read: Tamil Nadu: Does a Leadership Position in the BJP Really Help the Dalits?

It was the first major display of open caste conflict between a brahmin and a non-brahmin. Though Kamaraj’s victory marked the arrival of the first non-brahmin political leader as chief minister in Tamil Nadu in post-independence India, it was the Dravidian movement, that had started way back in 1925, which paved the way for a political space where non-brahmins could occupy the space they had dreamt of for ages.

Ever since Kamaraj, there has been no turning back for OBC politicians and their politics. From C.N. Annadurai to Edapadi Palanisamy (with the exception of J. Jayalalitha), there have always been OBC-led political alliances in Tamil Nadu. Needless to say, OBC politics is interestingly juxtaposed alongside linguistic issues, which remain burning questions till date.

Given the OBC-dominated political landscape of Tamil Nadu and its own vulnerability on the linguistic front, the BJP’s electoral strategy is one based on religious issues. Why? Because the Hindi-chauvinist BJP will not win a single assembly seat if it seeks votes by vowing to impose Hindi in school curricula, let alone other administrative affairs.

By appointing Dalits to the top two administrative positions in the BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit, the party is projecting them as pucca Hindus. It also reshuffled its leadership and appointed non-brahmin candidates, namely, Vanathi Srinivasan and Nainar Nagenthran as vice presidents, Karu Nagarajan and R. Srinivasan as general secretaries. It is crystal clear that the BJP is all out to woo OBCs (read non-brahmins) in the upcoming assembly elections with one of its three vice presidents making a strong pitch for the party to lead a victorious alliance in Tamil Nadu.

Is the De-dravidianisation of 95-year old Dravidian politics possible?

Of course, undoing the Dravidian tradition in politics would be a daunting task for the BJP. Most of Tamil speakers have not understood many of the sangh parivar’s Hindi terms and terminologies such as its most significant socio-ideological term ‘Hindutva’ and slogans like sab ka saath sab ka vikas,   acche din anne wala hai, phir ek baar Modi sarkar.

Also read: Will BJP’s UP Model of Mobilising Scheduled Castes Work in Tamil Nadu?

However, with the Hindutva wave seemingly at its peak across India, I am of the opinion that the BJP and other Hindutva groups have propitiously and triumphantly staged a few theatrics namely (a) banning Perumal Murugan’s Mathorupagan (one part woman in English and Arthanareeswarar in Sanskrit) and giving death threats to him and his family; (b) forcing Vairamuthu to apologise for his controversial remarks on Andal (a goddess who is believed to have prayed to beget Krishna as her husband), (c)  arresting Nellai Kannan for his “finish off” remark against PM Modi and Amit Shah; (d) planting a secret policing mechanism, to target all those who are involved or suspected to be involved in anti-Hindu activities across Tamil Nadu, “Friends of Police” (this Community Policing Initiative was barred over its alleged role in the Santhankulam custodial deaths); and (e) arresting Karuppar Koottam’s founder Surendran Natarajan and three of his associates for their videos on Kanda Sashti Kavasam, followed by the removal of over 500 videos from their YouTube channel.

Perumal Murugan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Sreejithkoiloth CC BY-SA 4.0

Let us now unveil the BJP’s grand designs that we had just enumerated one by one, starting with  the attack on Perumal Murugan’s novel on Arthanareeswarar. I am using the Sanskrit word for Mathorupagan for two reasons : (1) Arthanareeswarar is the name of the temple and it is also a well-known name, almost a household name, in Tamil and in Tamil Nadu and (2) the BJP’s main political agenda being the undoing of all that is Dravidianist – one such attempt is de-Tamilifying Mathorupagan. 

The BJP and its affiliates went to the extent of compelling Perumal Murugan to give up writing after he came under sustained attacks from certain local, caste-based groups especially Gounders (a dominant caste group in the Tiruchengode area). The drama ended with his brilliant political statement – “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself”.

Well-established poet, writer and lyricist Vairamuthu’s controversial speech where he said Andal was herself a devadasi who lived and died in the Srirangam temple landed him in big trouble. He had to make a public statement after coming under attack not just from the BJP but also from AIADMK members for his remarks on Andal, one of the Vaishnavite minstrels. Vairamuthu said he had not intended to hurt anyone and had only quoted from a book published by Indiana University Press.

Vairamuthu is well acclaimed in literary circles and, above all, he is a known public intellectual. Attacking such a personality by scuttling his freedom to expression is not to be construed as an attack on Vairamuthu. It should be understood as a symbolic attack on anyone who dares to point fingers at the Sangh’s version of Hinduism.

Also read: Why Tamil Nadu Voted the Way It Did

Tamil orator and a longtime Congressman Nellai Kannan’s arrest was another technique that was well crafted and manoeuvred by Tamil Nadu’s BJP members. What was his crime? At a public meeting, organised in Muslim-dominated Melapalayam by the Social Democratic Party of India, Kannan made certain remarks which were seen to incite Muslims to “finish off” Amit Shah, whom he dubbed “the brain behind the Prime Minister”. The whole suspenseful story  concluded with Nellai Kannan’s hospitalisation. Here too, the BJP strategy is to disseminate a strong message: do not meddle with the BJP, especially its leaders.

Nellai Kannan. Photo: Facebook/thamizhkadalnellaikannan

The FoP (Friends of Police) is a movement and a joint venture as well with the help of the government of Tamil Nadu. The FoP helps to promote crime awareness among the people and enables the prevention of crimes. Political analysts like Manushyaputhiran allege that it is the handiwork of the Sangh Parivar to initiate non-governmental or voluntary associations like the FoP in order to penetrate and spread its wings in the administrative affairs of the state, including the ones that maintain law and order like the police department.

Last but not least is the Karuppar Koottam squabble. This issue has turned out to resemble a brawl that one gets to see on the roadside between two drunkards in Tamil Nadu.  It all started with the obscene interpretation of a devotional song.

“All Dravidian parties such as DK, DMK, MDMK, AIADMK, etc condemned the obscenity vehemently. One group, however, stood out from the rest of the crowd in its denunciation. While every other group decried the video as offensive to Tamil religious sentiments, the Bharatiya Janata Party denounced it as offensive to Hindus,” reported the Tamil Guardian on August 20, 2020.

This is a crucial distinction. Semantically speaking, the BJP has made its stand clear that its manner (the modus operandi) is to announce (read: warn) that anyone found guilty of hurting Hindus and Hinduism will be severely dealt with. Politically as well, the BJP has made its position absolutely clear – that it would stand up only for the party’s major project, the Hindutva ideology.

Also read: Why Tamil Nadu Says #GoBackModi Every Time He Visits

With strong support from the ruling party in Tamil Nadu, the BJP especially after the untimely demise of J. Jayalalithaa, AIADMK’s supremo, has implemented GST and demonetisation, introduced and imposed NEET exams which were outrightly opposed by Amma (Jayalalithaa). AIADMK’s two-headed Janus claims that the present government is run as per Amma’s wishes and guidance whereas, in reality, little did the Janus realise that it was BJP’s ploy to get rid of all that was in place in the political landscape of Dravida Nadu. Hence, it is left to anyone’s guess what the BJP is all out to do in Tamil Nadu.

Ajith Kanna is a Professor at the Centre for French and Francophone Studies, School of Language, Literature & Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.