Can the BJP win seats in Tamil Nadu?

The party is mounting its fiercest offensive ever in the state

PTI02_27_2024_000118B Saffron surge: BJP supporters welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an event in Tiruppur | PTI

On April 15, four days before the polling date in Tamil Nadu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the state for the eighth time in the three and a half months. Two days before Modi’s visit to south Tamil Nadu, Union Home Minister Amit Shah held a road show in Madurai. At the same time, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was campaigning in Nilgiris and Coimbatore. BJP president J.P. Nadda has held two roadshows in Tamil Nadu and one in Puducherry. And, Union Ministers Rajnath Singh, Smriti Irani and Anurag Thakur have campaigned in Chennai.

Certain pockets in Tamil Nadu have always voted for the BJP or the candidate associated with the sangh parivar.

Nainar Nagendran, the BJP’s legislative party leader and candidate from Tirunelveli, claimed there was growing acceptance for the BJP in the state. “People in my constituency like Modi,” he told THE WEEK. “Everyone here knows about the schemes brought by the Central government. They are aware of the housing scheme, the free LPG scheme and the medical insurance scheme.”

Certain pockets in the state, like the Kanniyakumari-Nagercoil-Tirunelveli belt, a few wards in Ramanathapuram and a few assembly segments like Coimbatore South have always voted for the BJP or the candidate associated with the sangh parivar. This and its alliances with the Dravidian parties (AIADMK in 1998 and DMK in 1999) had allowed the BJP to win three Lok Sabha seats in 1998 and four in 1999. It also won one seat―Kanniyakumari―in 2014, notably without an ally.

The party’s renewed outreach in Tamil Nadu began soon after it came to power at the Centre. In 2015, Shah, then party president, attended a meeting organised by the Devendra Charitable Trust. The trust claims to represent the Pallar community. The community had passed a resolution calling upon the government to declare seven SC subcastes in the state as Devendrakula Vellalars. At the meeting, Shah spoke about unifying the seven subcastes. When Modi visited a few months later, he touched upon the subject and quipped about how Devendra and Narendra rhyme. The demand was met in 2021.

Over the years, the BJP has come a long way in fine-tuning its communication with regards to the caste equations in the state, in an attempt to capture votes from the two Dravidian parties, of late the AIADMK in particular. The saffron party’s main aim in the past decade was to shake off the image of being a Brahmin-dominated, Hindi heartland party and woo the backward castes. However, this strategy has not been effective. In fact, in 2019, it lost its one Lok Sabha seat in Kanniyakumari to the Congress.

Its most recent alliance-turned-rivalry with the AIADMK has its genesis in the aftermath of the death of former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa in 2016. The BJP felt that the cracks in the AIADMK could benefit it. But, the alliance ended with the AIADMK walking out of the NDA in September 2023.

Perhaps, the BJP has lacked a clearly defined long-term plan in the state. It has had three state presidents in the last decade. The first, Tamilisai Soundararajan, worked to strengthen the party at the ground level and increase its membership. Her successor, L. Murugan, attempted to use religion to connect with voters. The incumbent, K. Annamalai, has tried to place the BJP as the primary opposition to the DMK. He had a big role in the AIADMK exiting the alliance.

Under Annamalai, the BJP is going for a more comprehensive approach, while retaining the essence of its decade-long strategy. The result is a rainbow alliance, bringing together various caste outfits, O. Panneerselvam’s AIADMK rebel group, former AIADMK treasurer T.T.V. Dhinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnettra Kazagam and the Pattali Makkal Katchi, which has five seats in the current assembly. The PMK has strong backing from the Vanniyar community, which has close to 15 per cent of the votes in Tamil Nadu.

The party is also focusing on the Thevar community in the southern districts. Nagendran, who was formerly with the AIADMK and then with the AMMK, is likely to bring in more votes from the south. Panneerselvam and Dhinakaran contesting from Ramanathapuram and Theni, respectively, are also expected to bring in the Thevar votes, which traditionally go to the AIADMK. Dhinakaran asserted to THE WEEK that contrary to the common perception, the BJP has ground support in many constituencies.

Annamalai has set an ambitious target of 25 per cent vote share for the BJP―it has never got more than five per cent in the state. The state president is contesting from Coimbatore. His popularity and the backing of his community, the Gounders, are positives. But, unlike the DMK and the AIADMK, the party does not have a solid infrastructure to work on the ground. However, the BJP has gone all out to support Annamalai, supplying both strategy teams and volunteers. His war room has created at least a dozen sub groups and each of these groups has a target of roping in 1,000 youngsters to amplify the BJP’s message. Indeed, the AIADMK, which has a dozen MLAs in the Coimbatore-Pollachi-Tiruppur belt, is finding the going tough because of the BJP’s money and new-found manpower.

An outsider to the constituency, Annamalai has tried to establish a connect by saying that he graduated from the PSG College of Technology in Coimbatore. And, there is a growing acceptance for him. The youth and women in Coimbatore like him because he is frank in stating his mind. “I like him,” said Sangeetha Selvaraj, a 21-year-old engineering student in Coimbatore. “He is an IPS officer who came to work for the people. He has an inspiring story. There is nothing wrong in voting for him.” Sangeetha waited hours on the street to watch Annamalai’s campaign and used her phone to click photos of him atop his campaign vehicle. “My opinion about Modi has changed after I saw Annamalai,” she said. She is among the many young and first-time voters who prefer Modi because of Annamalai.

The state president, meanwhile, has stressed that the contest in the state was between the BJP and the DMK and that the AIADMK would not exist after the elections. “Modi has to win a third term,” he said, “and Tamil Nadu will contribute to the BJP’s numbers in Delhi.”