Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a party meeting in Tamil Nadu. Undated photo
by V Naresh Kumar

Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party returned to the lower house of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha, with an overwhelming majority in the 2019 national elections, its performance in the southern state of Tamil Nadu leaves a lot to be desired.

The ruling party, which does not hold any seats in that state’s legislature, hopes to project the Modi government’s successful pan-Indian policies to gain representation.

Tamil Nadu is about 1,550 miles south of India’s capital New Delhi and has a population of 72 million. It will hold elections for the 234 seats in the Legislative Assembly in May 2021.

“This time, we will tell the people of Tamil Nadu about policy initiatives we took,” said K. T. Raghavan, the BJP state unit’s general secretary.

Among the policies, it plans to highlight are the Jan-Dhan Yojana, a program to make affordable financial services available to those in need, and Ayushman Bharat, which aims to provide health insurance to 40 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people.

But the party, perceived to be a north Indian organization, has an uphill task at hand.

Elections to state legislatures in India are held every five years. In 2016, the BJP did not win any seats in Tamil Nadu’s legislature. Its ally, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, led by actress J. Jayalalitha, was reelected with 136 seats. Though the AIADMK lost 14 seats, it was the first party to be reelected since 1984.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party president M K Stalin at a public event in Chennai. Undated photo by V Naresh Kumar

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the principal opposition party in the state, won 89 seats. The Indian National Congress — the major opposition party at the national level — won eight, and the Indian Union Muslim League won one.

Raghavan said that getting a majority this time will be a long shot and that the proliferation of local parties poses a major challenge.

“Votes get split between all the parties,” he said.

In the 2019 national elections, the BJP won 303 seats of the 542 seats in the Lok Sabha. In Tamil Nadu, however, it failed to win even a single seat. The DMK won 24, the INC won 8, and the AIADMK won one.

But Raghavan is still hopeful.

“A lot of people are joining the BJP,” he said. “Earlier, people would go from the DMK to the AIADMK or vice versa. That’s not happening anymore. A clean administration at the national level means the BJP can attract a lot of people.”

He pointed out that former bureaucrat K. Annamalai has joined the BJP. At the same time, many others have left the party., including Arcot Srinivasan, who joined  AIADMK.

“People in Tamil Nadu do not care what’s happening in Delhi,” he said. “They (the BJP) talk in Hindi. Their campaign will not appeal to the masses of Tamil Nadu.”

While India does not have a national language, Hindi and English are used for official purposes at the national level. However, in Tamil Nadu, where Tamil is the majority language, Hindi has little purchase.

The state government recently rejected the central government’s National Education Policy, which proposes using Hindi as one of three languages for school education.

While 22 languages are recognized by the Indian Constitution, there are hundreds across the subcontinent.

Antipathy to Hindi began in Tamil Nadu in the mid-1960s. Other south Indian states — Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana — have always resisted any effort by New Delhi to advocate the use of Hindi.

“’Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ (Mother India is Great) — a slogan that the BJP loves — will not work here,” said Srinivasan. “If the BJP gets any votes in Tamil Nadu, it will be because of PM Modi’s personal charisma.”

Periyar statue in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. 4 September 2020, V Naresh Kumar

“Our party is weak, but the BJP is weaker,” said senior INC leader A. Gopanna. People in Tamil Nadu do not like the BJP’s attempts to impose Hindi and Sanskrit. They (BJP) need to realize the Brahmins comprise only 2 percent of the voters. This is the land of Periyar.”

E. V. Ramasamy — or Periyar as he is commonly known — started a popular anti-caste movement that grew into the Dravidian movement, an assertion of Tamil identity. This led to the formation of political parties such as the DMK. The AIADMK was formed by a split in the DMK in 1972.

To fight the popular perception that it is a Brahmin party, the BJP has made a Dalit — formerly “untouchable” in India’s caste system — L. Murugan the state unit’s president.

The party also plans to call out caste-based discrimination it claims other parties carry out.

“The DMK’s R. S. Bharathi has said the party has done a favor by making a Dalit a judge,” said Raghavan. “People will remember this.”

He is hopeful that the BJP will be able to replicate its performance in NortheastIndia in Tamil Nadu as well.

India’s easternmost region, the Northeast, comprising eight states, has been roiled by violent separatist movements since at least the 1960s. Until 2014 — when Modi was first elected prime minister — the BJP had barely any presence in the region. The party also faced serious roadblocks over cultural, religious, and linguistic differences from its core ideology of being Hindu and speaking Hindi.

In fact, Modi had to abandon his high-decibel anti-beef campaign in the Northeast because cow meat is an integral part of the diet. He instead promised a cheap but good quality beef supply to citizens, if elected.

Having overcome that issue, the BJP is now either the ruling party or a part of the ruling coalition in every state, including Tamil Nadu, where it is a junior partner in the coalition.

“Our focus is in getting into the Assembly in Tamil Nadu,” Raghavan said, making clear that the party’s focus isn’t wavering.

Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Judith Isacoff

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