Lok Sabha elections 2019: In Tamil Nadu, BJP’s strategy is up against farm anger
If in the past, the party was up against voter indifference to its brand of politics and a relatively weak organization in the state, in 2019, despite an alliance with the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the BJP faces outright anger.Updated: Apr 16, 2019 07:12 IST
Tamil Nadu is one of the few large states where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) barely makes it to among the top five parties in terms of vote share. In 2014, at the crest of the Narendra Modi-wave, it won the solitary Kanyakumari seat, polling 5.5% votes statewide. In the 2016 assembly elections, its vote share halved.
If in the past, the party was up against voter indifference to its brand of politics and a relatively weak organization in the state, in 2019, despite an alliance with the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the BJP faces outright anger. The Cauvery delta region in eastern Tamil Nadu is the epicentre of anti-Narendra Modi sentiment.
In a region that has prided itself as the granary of Tamil lands for at least 2,000 years, agriculture remains central to the economy. But farmers claim their condition hasn’t been worse in living memory. They hold Prime Minister Narendra Modi responsible. The reasons for their anger are many. They believe the central government took Karnataka’s side in the century-long Cauvery river dispute. “Several years of poor rainfall and thin supply of water from the Mettur dam (on the Cauvery) have decimated our lives. The cost of inputs such as diesel and fertiliser have skyrocketed, but the price for our produce has plummeted. Today, a paddy farmer makes a profit of ~6,000 per acre over a three-month crop cycle. That’s a monthly income of ~2,000. Tell me if we can lead a life of dignity. Don’t we have children who need to go to school? And the PM talks about doubling our income,” says Asai Thambi, a farmer in his late forties who also runs a seeds and pesticides business in Thanjavur.
Farmer associations have thrown their lot with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led United Progressive Alliance this election. In fact, farmers from the Cauvery delta have been the most vocal during the many protests in Delhi over the past few years. “To attract the PM’s attention to our problems, the farmers marched wearing loincloth, they shaved off half their hair, many even clenched rats between their teeth. But nothing moved Modi enough to even come and talk to them. When Cyclone Gaja devastated the delta last year, Modi couldn’t visit us, forget offering compensation that was remotely commensurate to our losses,” says K Sukumar, a farmer leader in Orathanadu, a small town 25 km from Thanjavur. Not letting up their protests against Modi, more than 100 Cauvery delta farmers plan to contest the Lok Sabha election against him in Varanasi just to make a point. The importance of Cauvery for Tamil Nadu, not just the farmers in its delta, cannot be overstated. Nearly 35% of the state’s geographical area is part of the Cauvery river basin; 15 of its 33 districts get drinking water from the Mettur dam.
The landmark Supreme Court decision in 2018 giving Tamil Nadu a truncated 177 thousand million cubic feet (TMC) share of water in itself was a big disappointment for the state. It was widely seen as yet another instance where the state’s interests were shortchanged.
Distrust of the central government deepened when it dilly-dallied on the formation of an independent Cauvery Water Management Board, in accordance with the SC verdict, to implement the water-sharing. Further proof of the BJP-led government’s step-motherly treatment, delta farmers claim, came shortly thereafter when it gave Karnataka the go-ahead to build a reservoir on the Cauvery at Mekedatu in south Karnataka. Karnataka claims the Rs 6,000-crore Mekedatu project is only for drinking water purposes and that too from its own share allotted by the SC. Tamil farmers fear that Karnataka would end up using the project to irrigate dry lands.
The gulf of distrust
Not just in the Cauvery delta, but across Tamil Nadu, the BJP and Modi face a unique double anti-incumbency. Post chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s death in 2016, the AIADMK government headed by Edappadi Palaniswami (EPS) is perceived to be controlled directly by Modi from Delhi. The failures of the state government also get credited to the BJP.
In recent years, Tamil Nadu’s suspicious view of Delhi has become more entrenched. With neither the Congress nor the BJP politically relevant in the state, Tamils fear their interests are now subservient to those of Karnataka, or the north, where the two national parties compete head-to-head. With the deaths of Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi, heads of the two major Dravidian parties, there is a growing fear that Tamil Nadu now has no effective defender of its interests at the national stage. The state has virtually been in protest mode since 2016.
The unfavourable court judgements on jallikattu and Cauvery; the National Entrance cum Eligibility Test (NEET) for medical school admissions; the proposed hydrocarbon project in the already parched Cauvery delta; the Neutrino observatory at Theni; and mineral giant Vedanta’s copper plant in Thoothukudi that locals say is polluting, have sparked largescale protests.
“To top all injustices, there is the sense that a north Indian politician like Modi is calling the shots in Tamil Nadu and in the process has made senior politicians like EPS and O Pannerselvam, BJP vassals,” says Stalin Rajangam, a Madurai-based Dalit writer and researcher. The DMK’s 2019 campaign slogan “Adhikkamum vendaam, adimaithanamum vendaam” (we want neither domination nor slavery), is aimed at harnessing this grudge.
Perhaps as a result of such prevailing sentiment, the AIADMK and other parties in the NDA alliance in the state are happy for the BJP to confine its campaign to the five Lok Sabha seats in which it is contesting. Other than a few urban pockets in Chennai, Coimbatore and Kanyakumari where it has a sizable support among the Nadars and Gounders—both relatively prosperous backward castes—and the on-ground presence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the party lacks the social base to make a dent in Tamil politics.
BJP president Amit Shah’s whistle stop one-day campaign in Thoothukudi, Kanyakumari and Coimbatore in early April came with the distinct feel of watching a Hindi soap hastily dubbed into Tamil. Shah’s speech in Coimbatore focused on issues of national security and homed in on Congress’ manifesto promise to reconsider the Armed Forces Special Powers Acts in Jammu and Kashmir. Many at the well-attended rally started making their way to the exit midway during his address.
Many BJP workers even in Coimbatore, where the party’s prospects are best, privately admit that its politics isn’t in tune with Tamil Nadu’s social realities.
“Here, Hindutva cannot have wide appeal. You can’t come to Tamil Nadu that has excellent physical infrastructure and say you are building highways. We need strong leaders who can champion people’s causes. Instead, what we end up getting are election agents and advisors like S Gurumurthy [a Chennai-based chartered accountant and convener of the RSS-affiliate Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, who is now the editor of the pro-BJP Tamil weekly Thuglak and a part-time director of the Reserve Bank of India]. Because we don’t have strong leaders who can communicate well with the national leadership in Hindi, we remain recipients of political strategy crafted in distant Delhi,” says a senior BJP farmer leader in Coimbatore district, who is active in the campaign.