How the BJP lost its plot in Tamil Nadu

N Ramakrishnan Chennai | Updated on January 20, 2018


Shah-Modi duo has been unable to replicate its success formula in the State, pitted against well-established Dravidian parties

For a brief period — from the fourth quarter of 2014 to the first four months of 2015 — there was a lot of political excitement in Tamil Nadu.

AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa had to resign as Chief Minister following her conviction by a special court in Bengaluru on corruption charges.

The DMK was down and out after a humiliating defeat in the Lok Sabha elections, when the party and its allies drew a blank. This followed an even more ignominious performance in the 2011 Assembly elections, when the DMK got just 23 seats and was third in the 234-member House, after the AIADMK and Vijayakant’s DMDK.

The Congress was no longer the force it once was and had managed just five seats in the Assembly of the more than 60 it contested.

High on victory

The BJP was on an overdrive. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah were taking great interest in the southern State. The party’s membership drive claimed to have signed up nearly 50 lakh members in Tamil Nadu, where it had always had only a marginal presence.

There was widespread expectation that if the party played its cards right, it might even be able to form a credible opposition in the 2016 elections.

An industrialist told this correspondent that the BJP’s efforts were akin to a game of carom. You pocket one coin, then the next and the next… and before you know it, the game is over. After all, the State badly needed an alternative to the two Dravidian parties.

Winning hand

This was following the heady days of early 2014 when Modi and Shah could do nothing wrong — the BJP had just won a huge majority in the Lok Sabha elections — and the duo had set their sights on Tamil Nadu.

In 2016, however, all these expectations have been belied. The BJP is now fighting the elections on its own, having lost the three major allies it had for the 2014 Parliamentary elections – Vaiko’s MDMK, Vijayakant’s DMDK and the PMK.

Till recently, the BJP was banking on being able to convince Vijayakant to ally with it for the elections, even when the DMK was wooing the actor-turned-politician. However, that was not to be.

‘North Indian party’

The BJP has never had much of a presence in Tamil Nadu, even though the RSS and Hindu Munnani have been quite active in certain pockets of the State for a long time. That was mainly because it was perceived to be a North Indian party with hardly any interest in the South, and also because of the domineering presence of the two Dravidian parties — DMK and AIADMK. What went wrong for the party then? For one, it had to rely on the Central leadership for directions and hence did not know whether it should criticise Jayalalithaa or take a neutral stand.

The BJP leadership had bigger battles to fight — Delhi, Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Assam — and Uttar Pradesh and Punjab in 2017, and Tamil Nadu hardly figured in its scheme of things.

It was only last week, when party president Amit Shah lashed out at the Jayalalithaa government, that the BJP’s stand vis-à-vis the AIADMK was articulated.

The confusion regarding Jayalalithaa was starkly reinforced when two Union Ministers — Piyush Goyal and Prakash Javadekar — criticised the CM for being inaccessible. They were contradicted by their colleague, Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu, who said he had never had a problem in reaching out to her.

It was the MDMK that first broke out of the NDA in the State to form a People’s Welfare Front. The NDA still had PMK and the DMDK. But both Anbumani Ramadoss and Vijayakant wanted their respective names to be announced as the CM candidate.

The BJP could ill-afford to announce either of them as the CM candidate, as announcing one would antagonise the other and it needed both. Its position was that the CM could be elected after the elections, which did not cut ice with either of them.

Published on April 17, 2016

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