Why BJP in Tamil Nadu could draw a blank

The saffron party is bereft of allies and grassroots reach

PTI02_27_2024_000248B The big push: Prime Minister Modi with state BJP president K. Annamalai at a rally in Tirupur on February 27 | PTI

ON FEBRUARY 26, a day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tiruppur, the state’s political circles were abuzz. “Wait and watch,” state BJP president K. Annamalai had said earlier. “Many big shots from dravida parties will jump ship and join the BJP.”

The statement set off speculation about who the leaders were and why they were switching sides. Names of many former and incumbent AIADMK MLAs and MPs from western Tamil Nadu went around. The BJP even made arrangements for a grand induction ceremony in Coimbatore at 6pm on February 26.

Annamalai did not arrive for the event even an hour after the scheduled time. Instead, Union Minister of State L. Murugan and the BJP’s Coimbatore South MLA Vanathi Srinivasan walked in. Party leader K.P. Ramalingam soon announced, “The event is postponed. The date will be announced later.” Murugan, who had to field questions from the media, was so embarrassed at one point that he walked out.

The following day, Modi arrived in Tiruppur and said the BJP would win 400-plus seats in the Lok Sabha polls. But for the party, Tamil Nadu remains a real challenge―the best the party could hope for in the state is to forge an alliance and increase its vote share. The BJP has never won an election in Tamil Nadu on its own, and its vote share has not touched the double-digit mark.

“Why would anyone from our party join the BJP? Why would they want to quit a party with a strong vote bank and move to a party with a single-digit vote [share]? We have clearly said that we will not align with the BJP and no one from our party will defect to the BJP,” former minister and AIADMK spokesperson D. Jayakumar told THE WEEK.

INDIA-POLITICS-MODI Rooting for lotus: A BJP supporter during Modi’s rally in Chennai on March 4 | AFP

The BJP’s vote share fell from 5.5 per cent in 2014 to 3.66 per cent in 2019. The party won the Kanniyakumari seat, but lost in the other five constituencies it had contested.

But Annamalai says the BJP has become the “critical opposition” to the DMK government. Observers say his grassroots campaign, his interactions with people, and his vociferous opposition to the DMK have helped the BJP grow. A survey conducted by a Tamil TV channel predicted that the BJP will overtake the AIADMK to reach the second position with a vote share of 18 per cent.

But unlike dravidian parties, the BJP does not have a statewide vote bank. Nor does it have pockets of influence like the CPI(M), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi do. But the BJP has managed to attract eyeballs under Annamalai’s leadership. His popularity has surged in the past two years, though he has been criticised for being loose with facts. Popularity alone might not help him win the polls. Winning a Lok Sabha or assembly seat in the state requires at least 35 per cent votes.

BJP sources said a survey that Annamalai’s team carried out in Lok Sabha constituencies in western Tamil Nadu suggested that he could pull 14 per cent votes in Pollachi and 18 per cent in Coimbatore. But in the absence of a poll alliance, Annamalai does not want to contest elections. But sources said that he would choose Coimbatore if the party’s national leadership asks him. In the 2021 assembly polls, Vanathi Srinivasan of the BJP had won from Coimbatore South. But she had the backing of AIADMK strongman and former minister S.P. Velumani. Also, if the DMK fields actor Kamal Haasan, Annamalai would be in a tough, three-cornered contest.

The AIADMK would also field a strong candidate in Coimbatore if Annamalai is in the fray. Sources said DMK leaders from the region have asked party leader and chief minister M.K. Stalin to not declare a candidate till the BJP announces its choice. According to the source, Annamalai is faking disinterest only to ensure that both the dravidian parties allot the seat to weak candidates.

Incidentally, the DMK is yet to allot the seat to the CPI(M), its ally that had won from Coimbatore in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. “We have been allotted two seats,” said the CPI(M)’s state secretary K. Balakrishnan. “We don’t know if we can retain Coimbatore, as it is said Kamal Haasan will contest. The DMK is yet to confirm it.”

There are rumblings in the BJP that Annamalai’s focus has only been on boosting his image rather than the party infrastructure across the state. Many partymen blame Annamalai’s abrasive behaviour as the reason behind the AIADMK’s decision to break its alliance with the BJP. He had described former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa as “corrupt”, and declared that “the BJP doesn’t need an alliance”.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah recently said “the BJP is keeping its doors open for alliance partners in Tamil Nadu”. But none except Tamil Manila Congress leader G.K. Vasan was present on the dais when Modi addressed a rally at Tirunelveli on February 27.

AIADMK general secretary Edappadi K. Palaniswami has ruled out joining hands with the BJP. Efforts to persuade parties such as the PMK, the DMDK and the Puthiya Thamilagam, and the AIADMK factions headed by O. Panneerselvam and T.T.V. Dhinakaran have not yet yielded results. The BJP apparently wanted candidates of the AIADMK factions to contest on its lotus symbol. Sources said the two leaders turned down the offer realising that it would be political suicide. PMK and Puthiya Thamilagam reportedly want assurances from the BJP on a Rajya Sabha seat and a cabinet berth.

“I wouldn’t say that the BJP is growing in Tamil Nadu,” said Ramu Manivannan, professor and head of the department of politics and public administration, University of Madras. “It is fattening [to the point of] obesity. This is not actual growth. Only because Annamalai is opposing the DMK every day that it seems that the BJP is growing. We will know their actual strength after the elections.”