As political parties prepared themselves for the 2016 elections, the general view was that it could perhaps be the last one that could see the Dravidian parties as primary contenders. The BJP, in particular, was more concerned about 2021 than 2016 in Tamil Nadu. Its objective was to be ready to make headway in Tamil Nadu politics. Many political pundits agreed on these views. The reasons were: With the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) supremo J Jayalalithaa ailing, most didn’t think she would be active in 2021. (Unfortunately, she didn’t survive to see off 2016.) The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) influence was seen waning by 2021 but still it would be one of the principal contenders then. Thus, the view was that some party will have to spring up to tap the anti-DMK votes that will be up for grabs.
Prospects of parties like the Marumalarchi DMK (MDMK), Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam (DMDK), the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and communists (CPI and CPI-M) were also discussed. Of these, the MDMK has lost its direction and become irrelevant. The PMK, despite impressive campaigning by its youth leader Anbumani Ramdoss, was seen as one that could not have a pan-Tamil Nadu appeal. The DMDK of Tamil film star Vijayakanth was seen as one that lost its moorings after 2011 elections and its continuous tussle with the AIADMK as well as DMK. The Congress has never been seen a serious contender after it missed a great opening in 1996, while the communist parties influence has always been limited. That left the BJP with the best chance of looking forward to 2021 to take on the DMK.
The entire scenario turned topsy-turvy when Jayalalithaa fell ill and subsequently passed away on 5 December 2016. This presented the BJP with a great opportunity to make some headway in Tamil Nadu, but things haven’t been as it would have wanted to be. In fact, its script ran awry now and then, but then the party set a short-term objective. The BJP had its option open in September 2016 when Jayalalithaa was hospitalised. But once she passed away, it chalked out its strategy.
Those advising the BJP leaders on the party’s strategy had this to say: Support one faction of the AIADMK which can hold on to power for some time. The BJP, initially, thought that O Panneerselvam (OPS) who took over as chief minister after Jayalalithaa’s demise was its best bet. Subsequent events in January-February of 2017 dented its hopes. OPS resigned on 5 February when Jayalalithaa’s close aide Sasikala was bitten by the power bug and the party prostrated to her demand to become the chief minister. A couple of days later, OPS went public saying he was pressured to resign by Sasikala and her relatives. Tamil media like Vikatan said OPS was caught by his collar by one of Sasikala’s relative and asked to put in his papers when he sought time to take a decision. OPS complained to the then acting governor C Vidyasagar Rao that he was forced to quit. The governor took his time to decide on Tamil Nadu government’s fate, which saw over 120 assembly legislators of AIADMK kept at a resort at Koovathur in the outskirts of Chennai.
On 15 February, Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS), who was seen a trusted lieutenant of the Sasikala family, was sworn in as the Chief Minister replacing OPS, after Sasikala was imprisoned in the disproportionate assets case. Then, the BJP’s script was seen as having gone wrong. The BJP or anyone else for that matter could do little to ensure OPS’s continuity since he didn’t do anything proactive to save his government. BJP leaders fumed in private:
OPS wanted BJP to handhold him and lead him to the Chief Minister’s chair. He didn’t even give a list of his supporters to the Governor!
After taking over, EPS began to assert himself and his locking horns with T T V Dinakaran, Sasikala’s nephew, and rest of Sasikala’s family only served the BJP’s interests. In keeping a weak AIADMK in power for a short period of time, the BJP was meeting another of its objective: Weaken the DMK by keeping it out of power as long as possible.
Over a year has passed since the death of Jayalalithaa, the DMK hasn’t grown strong despite Stalin taking over as the working president of the party after his father and party chief M Karunanidhi fell ill. The problem in DMK is that it has been unable to take advantage of the internal problems of the AIADMK. A section the party feels that the leadership has complicated the issues. The party had a good opportunity during March-May 2017 when Tamil Nadu faced problems due to drought. DMK took up too many issues and ended up landing nowhere. The party has not been able to garner its own cadre for various programmes and it seemed to have totally gone wrong in trying to isolate the BJP. Not many senior leaders in the DMK are in agreement with the tactics to isolate the BJP. This is because they fear that once the Narendra Modi government begins cracking down on various complaints of irregularities on the DMK and AIADMK governments, they could face the music.
The results in the R K Nagar by-elections, where the DMK candidate lost his deposit, have come as the latest blow for the party. Even during May 2016 elections, the cadre lamented that the party leadership did not loosen its purse strings as desired that it affected the final results. In R K Nagar, two senior leaders of the party were asked to spend for the by-elections. Those in the party say that while the top leadership is not loosening its purse strings, the leaders down the rung are being forced to spend. “I was asked to spend on decorations on a stage. I have been in this party for so long. Every time, we are asked to spend. Why isn’t the party or the family not spending? What have we gained for being in the party for such a long period?” wondered a middle-level leader of the party from North Madras. Even in R K Nagar by-elections, Marudhu Ganesh, who was nominated the candidate, wasn’t the popular choice. Cadres say they had at least two other better choices which the leadership turned down. All these have served the BJP’s objective to see a weakened DMK, whose cadre is getting restless every passing day.
The other objective of the BJP was to get a popular face to get it the people’s support. It was trying hard to convince Tamil film superstar Rajinikanth to join the party. When the actor was reluctant to join the BJP, he was given the suggestion to launch his own party. The objective was the party he launches would give the DMK and AIADMK a tough time and perhaps the BJP could go in for a tie-up with Rajinikanth’s and a few other like-minded parties. Rajinikanth’s announcement on Sunday (31 December) was silent on what he would do for the Lok Sabha polls due in 2019. Obviously, there will be some understanding with the BJP. The reaction from some of the leaders, owing allegiance to the Dravidian movement, is a clear indication that they fear his entry into politics and entry of the saffron brigade. The weakened position of the DMK and AIADMK now gives the BJP some leeway to manoeuvre in Tamil Nadu politics and plan ahead for the long-term.
Problems For The BJP
BJP’s problems in Tamil Nadu are that it still hasn’t got a leader who can rise above the factionalism within. It is yet to find a leader who can command popular support across the state. Nirmala Sitharaman was seen as one who could be chosen to lead Tamil Nadu but BJP leaders in the state regret that she has not really focused or taken interest in the party affairs of the state. Modi isn’t popular in Tamil Nadu as in other parts of the country, mainly because of the negative campaign against him by the Dravidian leaders and Tamil separatist elements funded from abroad. Efforts of Modi’s detractors in Tamil Nadu have so far been to run him down at every available opportunity, starting from the jallikattu protest through the Neduvasal protest and farmers agitation in New Delhi. The BJP has a long way to go to make an impact in Tamil Nadu politics.
Given these situations, the weakening of the Dravidian parties and Rajinikanth’s announcement of launching a new party have met the BJP’s short-term objectives. That puts the BJP ahead of the curve in the run up to 2019 Parliament elections.
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