Surely, this is one of the most improbable places for the BJP’s lotus to bloom. Tamil Nadu is the birthplace of an atheist Dravidian movement with a history of agitating against Hindi. And the BJP has always been seen as a Hindu party dominated by Hindi-speaking northerners.
The historic context is undeniable, but something is changing on the ground. There are three reasons: The charisma of Narendra Modi, the formation of a ragtag but clever BJP alliance, and disaster for the Congress, which, in addition to its other sins, is seen, fatally, as unsympathetic to the Tamil cause.
Modi has addressed at least seven meetings in Tamil Nadu in this campaign, speaking at rallies in Hindi with a translator. He has talked of development and getting the youth what it wants; of late, he has even taken pot shots at popular CM J Jayalalithaa.
“Even people who told us that they would vote for the DMK and the AIADMK said that they wanted Modi as PM,” says Cho Ramaswamy, the 79-year-old editor of Thuglak magazine, whose staff ran an informal survey of 5,000 people across Tamil Nadu.
Cho says that Modi’s inability to connect with crowds directly in Hindi won’t matter, pointing to the example of former Congress president Kamaraj addressing Bihari audiences in Tamil in the 1960s and drawing applause after every sentence. “It’s all because they had faith in the man,” he says.
L Ganesan is the BJP’s candidate in Chennai South, a sprawling constituency of 17 lakh voters that spans six assembly segments and includes an IT corridor and industrial parks. A former RSS man, Ganesan says, “Tamil Nadu is changing. There is no antiHindi mood, people send their children to central schools…. we will no longer be an also-ran.”
Chennai South, along with Coimbatore and Kanyakumari, is seen as a seat where the BJP has a fighting chance. Its best showing in Tamil Nadu has been four seats in 1999 as junior partner to the DMK; now, for the first time, it is the steering partner in a coalition that excludes both major Dravidian parties. A tally for the alliance of six to eight is conceivable.
The grouping, which includes Vijaykanth’s DMDK, Vaiko’s MDMK, the Vanniyar party PMK and two smaller parties, is fighting all 39 seats. In the 2011 assembly polls, parties in the group won more than 16% of votes.
“These parties have come together and given outreach to the BJP. The BJP brought in Modi and took a leap in profile,” says Ramu Manivannan, head of the department of political science at Madras University.
He adds that Modi has become a mascot for the small parties, whose regional agendas cannot hope to compete with a national one.
Jayalalithaa pounces on charges of corruption under the Congress-led UPA 2, which, handily, also feature her archrival the DMK.
The AIADMK chief sees the BJP as enough of a threat to devote a sizeable chunk of a 30-minute rally speech to how her government is better than Modi’s in Gujarat.
She spends less time on M Karunanidhi, the nonagenarian leader of the DMK, which has been devastated by a bitter family war. Experts still see the DMK holding some 10 seats, but it’s a diminishing party.
Jaya’s attacks on Modi could be a tactical ploy to keep Muslim votes. If she wins 25 seats, she could offer him support in exchange for key portfolios and financial packages, and the implementation of water deals with Karnataka and Kerala.
But even if the BJP gets to 272 without her help, the party is unlikely to turn its back on Tamil Nadu. “The BJP wants to grow here, as a party with credibility that will fare well in the assembly elections,” says Cho.
Amid a sea of black and red flags at Jaya’s rally at MGR Nagar in Chennai South, a lone BJP flag flutters on a pole, possibly the remnant of an earlier meeting. Clearly, an idea has been planted in Tamil Nadu that could be taking root this time.