Why the key to salvaging BJP in Tamil Nadu is complete restructuring of the state unit.
There is now a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Karnataka, and there are indications that the state will produce excellent results for the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. However, to ensure a strong performance, the party needs to score high in other states in the south and east, since repeating its 2014 performance in north and west looks difficult. It is here that Tamil Nadu becomes critical to the 2019 plans of party president Amit Shah. But as of now, his party in the state is anything but organised.
In the run up to the 2016 assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, the BJP was upbeat. Not that it would win the elections then, but it was eyeing an opportunity for itself to be a leading player in 2021. The views of BJP leaders were that 2016 would be the last election when the contest would primarily be between the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). This was because they saw poor health taking a toll on DMK chief and former chief Minister M Karunanidhi and the AIADMK chief and the then chief minister J Jayalalithaa, whose health was on the decline before her eventual death in December 2016.
It was one of the reasons why BJP chose to go alone despite failing to set up its own alliance with the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), and Desiya Murpoku Dravidar Kazhagam (DMDK), of Tamil actor Vijayakanth, refused to join it. PMK thought its youth leader Dr Anbumani Ramadoss had a great chance of winning over the people with a new approach, while Vijayakanth thought he was a kingmaker. The results left all of them, including the BJP, totally marginalised.
Two years later, BJP leaders’ predictions were right, but unfortunately, the national party is nowhere in the picture to take advantage of the split in the AIADMK, and disappointment among the DMK cadre over its leadership being unable to take advantage of the current political situation in the state. Quite a few developments have taken place, including the launch of two parties – one by T T V Dinakaran, who was expelled from AIADMK after Sasikala was jailed for earning assets not matching her income, and second by actor Kamal Haasan.
Another leading Tamil actor Rajnikanth is set to launch his own party, which could derail BJP’s plans in Tamil Nadu. But enough damage has already been done to the BJP in the state. The party leadership in the state seems to be suffering from the ‘foot-in-the-mouth’ disease, inviting needless controversies. At the same time, the party has been shying away from tackling important issues or taking head-on allegations and charges that are aimed at weakening it.
Two instances are enough to point out how the party in Tamil Nadu is getting involved in needless controversies. First was the protest over Tamil film, Mersal, that reportedly had uncharitable references to demonetisation and goods and services tax (GST). The film was heading for a disaster at the box office, when BJP leaders in the state raised a hue and cry over its content. The leadership, particularly state BJP president Tamilisai Soundararajan, one thought, went overboard with her criticism.
The BJP’s reaction bought unsolicited publicity to the film, which eventually ended up earning Rs 100 crore. The incident also showed the BJP in a poor light and with GST facing teething problems, the Narendra Modi government’s image took a beating. Another senior leader, H Raja, who was very vocal about the issue, probably made an error by his confession that he saw a part of the movie on internet. That resulted in the media raising the issue of video piracy and the BJP leaders encouraging it.
The second is the party leaders’ needless comments on Cauvery water issue. During the run-up to the Karnataka assembly elections, Soundararajan said that Tamil Nadu will get the Cauvery river water once the BJP comes to power in Karnataka.
காவிரி விவகாரத்தில் கர்நாடக தேர்தலுக்காக கால அவகாசம் கேட்டோம், இத்தகைய அரசியலை அனைத்துக் கட்சிகளும் செய்கின்றன - #TamilisaiSoundararajan— Thanthi TV (@ThanthiTV) May 11, 2018
* கர்நாடகாவில் பாஜக ஆட்சிக்கு வந்தவுடன், காவிரியில் இருந்து தமிழகத்திற்கு தண்ணீர் திறக்கப்படும் - தமிழிசை#CauveryIssue #KarnatakaElection pic.twitter.com/gCE8kd3HQP
Even her party’s own cadre were unhappy with this statement. Should the leadership make such a comment that sometimes could have had an adverse impact on the election outcome across the border? The leadership should have adopted a more sane approach to questions that Tamil Nadu media was raising on the Cauvery issue.
Having said that, the BJP leadership in Tamil Nadu needlessly commented on the Cauvery river water issue during elections to Karnataka. One should also point out how it failed to counter the opposition onslaught, particularly the DMK, on the Centre’s delay in responding to the setting up of a Cauvery Water Management Board. The DMK, in particular, whipped up passions on the issue and called for a black-flag protest against Modi when he visited Chennai on 12 April to inaugurate a defence exhibition after the Centre sought more time to file a draft scheme. The BJP leadership had no response to the all-out attack when it could have simply pointed out at the history and shown how the DMK itself had compromised Tamil Nadu’s interest in the Cauvery dispute. It could have also pointed out at how Indira Gandhi had in December 1970 told Karunanidhi that she wouldn’t set up a Cauvery water tribunal until elections got over to Parliament in March 1971.
The party’s state leadership was also found wanting on the controversy over the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for medical colleges, triggered mainly by the media. (A controversy arose after some students in the state had to take NEET outside the state. While opposition parties flayed Central Board of Secondary Education and central government for the problem, the media painted it as one affecting almost everyone writing the entrance test). Even as the media ran amok with allegations of students in Tamil Nadu being punished by the Centre for the state’s stand on NEET, the BJP in Tamil Nadu had no concrete response. Yes, some in the BJP were tweeting, but those were just a drop in the ocean of the issue being raked up and played up.
The state leadership was also seen in poor light when Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visited the Virudhunagar and Ramanathapuram districts to review their performance under the Centre’s scheme to uplift backward areas in the country. Both these districts have made tremendous progress under the scheme but the official twitter handle of Tamil Nadu BJP was mute on the issue. Probably, the BJP leadership in Tamil Nadu fears that Nirmala Sitharaman could be asked to lead them, with strong rumours doing round last year that she would be asked to take over as the state president. BJP cadre in Tamil Nadu point out that the state IT wing or the official Twitter handle did nothing to tell the people on Sitharaman’s visit. Soundarajan, however, tweeted a comment by Sitharaman, saying other districts would become fully developed by 2020-2022. Ironically, when DMK cadre threw stones and slippers at the minister’s convoy, there was not even a whisper against it.
BJP cadres don’t deny the fact that the state leadership is caught in a caste wrangle. If it was a forward community that dominated the state unit until a few years ago, it is now another influential community that holds sway. Casteism prevails in all parties in Tamil Nadu, but in BJP, it hinders the functioning of the party.
However, things now have come to such a pass that some decisions are taken ad hoc. Earlier, leaders of the state party would discuss with a select few on how to approach the most talked-about issue on a given day. The leaders would discuss how the party should tackle or approach the issue and take a stand on what statement to make in the media. In case of more pressing issue or controversy, the state leadership would call the core committee to discuss it, ways to tackle it, how to take on the opposition and respond to media queries. Unfortunately, the core committee of BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit was never summoned to discuss the controversies over Cauvery waters or NEET.
Overall, the feeling is that the BJP in Tamil Nadu is losing its foothold. Its aspirations for 2021 were triggered by the party getting nearly 15 per cent of the vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But in 2016, it slipped below three per cent. In the current context, where opposition parties like DMK or Marumalarchi DMK or PMK are criticising it day in and day out, its image among the public has taken a huge beating. Issues like protests to remove a ban on jallikattu, NEET, Cauvery and demand to close Sterlite are all being used to the hilt to show the BJP government at the Centre in poor light. Response to these attacks has been poor with no efforts being made to counter them with proper facts and statistics.
All this mean that new blood needs to be infused in Tamil Nadu BJP. Whether the BJP will go for an outsider as in Andhra Pradesh or for a young person, who can take the entire cadre along is its choice, but the sooner the better for Amit Shah and his advisers to change Tamil Nadu leadership lock, stock and barrel. The key to salvaging whatever is left of BJP in Tamil Nadu is restructuring.