“We have never felt it so good fighting an election in Tamil Nadu. In Ramanathapuram, we are sensing victory and are now trying to improve the margin as much as possible,” says a local BJP leader.
As soon as he was nominated as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate from the Ramanathapuram constituency in Tamil Nadu, Nainar Nagendran went to pay a visit to the place.
As Nagendran, a resident of Tirunelveli that is about 170 km from Ramanathapuram, neared his constituency in his car, there were over a thousand other cars that followed his. “All these cars came from the constituency and within seven kilometre range of Ramanathapuram” says a BJP worker.
The response to Nagendran’s arrival in Ramanathapuram left many in the BJP surprised. The BJP cadre has seldom seen this sort of a welcome to a candidate in Tamil Nadu. As his campaign progressed in the run-up to the elections on 18 April, the BJP cadres feel they have never seen such a candidate who has been so warm and affable with them.
“Wherever Nagendran goes, he is able to identify the important people in that area. When we ask them if they knew he was coming, they tell us that Nagendran had called them three days ago to inform them that he was visiting their area. This is something of a learning experience for us on how to campaign,” says Ramesh Shivaa, BJP Digital Campaign Manager.
Though Nainar Nagendran is a late entrant into the BJP - joining the party in August 2017-, he is a veteran politician. He was a minister in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government of the late J Jayalalithaa during 2011-2016.
“His AIADMK background is helping us a lot. He knows even local leaders of that party by name and it helps to immediately strike a chord with them,” says a State BJP leader, not wishing to be identified.
(BJP cadre and leaders were unwilling to go on record as they are not authorised to speak to the media.)
“We have never felt it so good fighting an election in Tamil Nadu. In Ramanathapuram, we are sensing victory and are now trying to improve the margin as much as possible,” says the BJP leader.
For the record, six candidates are in fray from the Ramanathapuram constituency. The main fight, however, is between Nagendran and Nawaz Kani of the Indian Union Muslim League. Kani has been nominated as part of the alliance led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) with Congress also being part of it.
The Ramanathapuram Lok Sabha constituency underwent delimitation in 2009 and currently comprises Paramakudi, Thiruvadanai, Ramanathapuram, Mudukulathur, Aranthangi and the newly-created Tiruchuli Assembly segments.
Till 1991, the Congress had won from the constituency six times. Once the Congress split in Tamil Nadu with an influential segment led by the late G K Moopanar walking out to form the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), it has never been able to win from here.
Since then, the AIADMK has won thrice, the DMK twice and the TMC once with the DMK support in 1996.
The 2014 elections saw both DMK and AIADMK choosing to go alone and both parties put up candidates belonging to the Muslim community. Anwhar Raajha A of the AIADMK walked away with the seat, getting 4.05 lakh votes. The DMK candidate got 2.86 lakh votes, while the BJP candidate got 1.71 lakh votes.
This time, as part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) arrangement, the BJP has got an opportunity to put up its candidate from Ramanathapuram.
Initially, the BJP cadre were not upbeat about their chances. But as soon as Nagendran landed up and began his campaign, things have changed. The mood in the BJP camp is upbeat and the cadre are going all out to ensure that no stone is left unturned for their candidate’s victory.
“We never thought we will enjoy such an advantage here initially. It is a tricky constituency with Muslims making up a good number in Ramanathapuram assembly segment. The Thevar community too is a factor in the constituency,” says the BJP leader.
But all those fears have been overcome with the way things have gone thus far for the BJP. In Nagendran, the BJP cadre now see an ideal leader for their party.
“You know how our State leadership has been all these years. He has brought in a refreshing change with his warmth and approach,” says a BJP local cadre.
Nagendran bowls over the party cadre with his first few words. “Have you had anything to eat?” is the among the first things he asks someone who meets him.
“I don’t think anyone in our State leadership has asked us that,” says the local cadre. Many in the Tamil Nadu BJP unit feel the current leadership has a thing or two to learn from Nagendran in handling and mingling with the cadre.
There are other local leaders who say that the new entrant finds time at least to exchange pleasantries.
If this is the soft side of Nagendran, there is the tougher side of him too.
At one of the BJP meetings convened to condemn Tamil film lyricist and poet Vairamuthu for his comments on Andal, who is considered as pious as Meera, Nainar came down hard on the lyricist.
“His speech bordered on violence and no one in the BJP had courage to speak like that. Surprisingly, Nagendran hails from the same community as Vairamuthu,” the BJP leader said.
The former AIADMK minister is from the Thevar community, which makes for over a third of the population in south Tamil Nadu. In some areas around Madurai, the community’s presence is almost total if not at least 75 per cent.
The Thevar community is one of the pillars on which the AIADMK banks on in any elections. In view of Jayalalithaa’s good relations with leaders of the community as well as having Sasikala Natarajan, who hails from the community, as her aide, the Thevars have always been a strong force backing the AIADMK.
For the BJP, which is dominated by the Nadar community, the lack of a strong leader from the Thevar community had always been a handicap.
Around the time elections were held to the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 2016, BJP president Amit Shah had attempted to reach out to the Thevar community to tap its votes in vain. The BJP made valiant attempts to reach out to all communities that matter in the electoral fray then. However, the party was unable to attract the kind of leaders it was looking for.
As Nagendran belongs to the Thevar community, it has neutralised any chances of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) cutting into the votes that NDA expects to win.
AMMK was launched last year by TTV Dinakaran, nephew of the late Jayalalithaa’s aide Sasikala, after he was ousted from the AIADMK. TTV Dinakaran also belongs to the Thevar community and he was expected to attract a good chunk of his community’s votes in the State this time.
The Thevars are a dominant factor in Assembly segments like Aranthangi, Paramakudi, Tiruvidanai and Mudukulathur. If Nagendran can play a major role in changing the dynamics in Ramanathapuram, there are chances that he would be able to attract a major chunk of his community votes in future if he is given some responsibility or post.
“There are 700 Thevar votes in my village. Half of them are now willing to vote for the BJP. Now, if someone like Nagendran is given a voice in the party and he goes seeking votes, it is possible he will get over 600 votes,” says a BJP cadre from Tirunelveli.
BJP party cadre list Nagendran’s compassion and affability, familiarity with State politics, his caste background and his governance experience as reasons why he should have more say in the party affairs.
“Nagendran is now learning a lot about our party but that is no excuse to deny him his due, probably some party position or even ministership if he wins from Ramanathapuram,” says the BJP leader.
One of the hard lessons that Nagendran has learnt by switching over to the BJP is the hard line that some parties tow and how the ruling party at the Centre is kept at arm’s length by these parties, especially the DMK.
“He is seeing how the BJP is being isolated by other political parties,” says the BJP leader, adding that he is picking up tips on handling such situations.
Some people in the region remember Nagendran’s family for their contribution to various causes. For example, his father was instrumental in the construction of the Pamban Swamy temple, which Nagendran doesn’t openly talk about. It was a local who recalled the family’s help towards building the temple while Nagendran was attending a meeting of BJP activists taking part in the election campaign.
A Whatsapp audio of two Muslim leaders discussing Ramanathapuram Lok Sabha elections highlights the fact that Nagendran is friendly towards all communities. “Whether you vote for him or not, he will definitely help you when you approach him,” says one of the leaders who is now seeking votes for the BJP candidate.
A BJP leader from the region says Nagendran is showing the state leadership on how elections should be contested. Referring to another senior leader contesting the Lok Sabha polls in the State, this regional leader said that the senior has no clue how to go about campaigning. “Our senior leader is not capable of contesting any election. It would be better if he doesn’t contest elections again,” the regional leader adds.
If people who don’t know how to organise themselves and the cadre to fight elections from a single constituency can be an important leader in the State, then a veteran like Nagendran, who has won many an electoral battle, should be given more space in the BJP, the cadres say uniformly across South Tamil Nadu.