In Tamil Nadu, religion has seldom been a poll issue. Caste-based issues, regional and linguistic hegemony (the anti-Hindi agitations), the Lankan Tamil issue, water-sharing disputes (be it the Cauvery River problem with Karnataka or the Mullaiperiyar Dam row with Kerala), have dominated the Tamil Nadu political-scape for decades now. Another reason is the dominance of Dravidian parties, which in principle aim for social reforms through ending religious beliefs.
However, in this election things have changed with the BJP forming a five-party alliance in the state. Though in the past the BJP has contested from various seats in Tamil Nadu, it is for the first time that the national party has headed an alliance in the state. The NDA along with the Congress and AAP — both the parties are fighting the election alone in the state — has made the contest multi-cornered in many of the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu.
The telling presence of the BJP in the state has made religion an important poll issue. The NDA has given the BJP a presence in the state like never before. There is a palpable ‘Modi Wave’ in the state. It is not clear if this ‘wave’ will help the BJP win a number of seats but it is likely to adversely affect the AIADMK in mainly two ways. First, traditionally, the upper caste Hindu votes have gone to the AIADMK. With the BJP in the poll scene, these votes are likely to split.
Second, it is likely that many of the voters apprehensive of the BJP and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi have voted against the AIADMK, fearing that the party will support the BJP at the Centre in a post-poll alliance.
A BJP campaign, led by Modi, has brought into focus the Muslim community. There are about 4.5 million Muslims in the state or 6% of the state population. In an election where the margins are slender, 6% cannot be ignored. This has seen many regional parties wooing the community.
However, the disillusionment among the Muslims, especially the youth, with many regional parties is an important issue. “The bulk of Muslims have been with the DMK since the 1960s. But, the younger lot of Muslims are increasingly moving towards the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazagham and Tamil Nadu Tauheed Jamaat,” says S Anwar, a film-maker who has documented the history of ‘Muslims of Madras from 1600 to 2000 CE’ for the Madras Gazetteer Project. The inability to win the confidence of this section will prove crucial for the parties.
The Muslims are unlikely to turn towards the Congress because of an anti-incumbency wave and it does not have a commanding presence in the state. AAP would like to believe its stand against corruption and the fact that a sizeable number of its 434 candidates all over India are Muslims may act in its favour. But AAP has failed to create a buzz in Tamil Nadu.
In such a scenario, it is the DMK, AIADMK’s arch-rival, which will benefit. The corruption charges against some of its leaders and the Alagiri-Stalin sibling rivalry is not likely to have an impact. Also, its vote base remains largely intact.
Though the AIADMK was leading in opinion polls initially, towards the final days before polling, the DMK witnessed a surge in its favour. A similar pattern was witnessed in 2009 — the AIADMK was expected to win a large number of seats but the DMK alliance surprised pollsters by winning 27 seats. In 16 days it will be clear how much of an impact the BJP-led alliance has made in Tamil Nadu. It will be clear how the Muslims has responded to the ‘Modi Wave’, and, most importantly, how these developments have affected J Jayalalithaa’s ambitions of playing a crucial role in government formation at the Centre.