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Can Tamizhisai deliver Tamil Nadu for the BJP?

By N Sathiya Moorthy
September 08, 2014 13:01 IST
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Having a young, untested leader makes sense for the Tamil Nadu BJP. But the new state president’s immediate concern will be to gain acceptance within the state unit that is still in the grip of those with a strong RSS background, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

The BJP's new Tamil Nadu president, Dr Tamizhisai Soundararajan, a medical doctor whose septuagenarian father, Kumari Anandan, was a TN Congress chief and continues to be a loyal party leader, is the ‘most wanted woman’ in Amma’s Tamil Nadu.

Barring the Congress and the communist rivals in national politics, almost every other party and leader in Tamil Nadu has welcomed Tamizhisai’s elevation. That includes All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam head and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam supremo M Karunanidhi, apart from the BJP’s state partners in the May parliamentary polls.

The competitive Dravidian polity does not miss out on underlining the cultural traditions of the state in welcoming whoever wants to make it their home.

“Yadhum oorae, yavarum kayleer” (all places are ours, all people are our kin) is a famous line from the Sangam literature that they are proud to quote from public platforms. 'Vandarai vaazhavaikkum Tamizhagamae' (Tamil Nadu that provides a livelihood to every visitor') is a famed line penned by Karunanidhi in the '50s trend-setter Tamil film, Parashakthi.

But political civility of the kind is lacking in their personal behaviour, particularly to a fellow-politician from another party. Not certainly if he or she is a competitor to whichever throne one is aiming for.

Be it Jayalalithaa or Karunanidhi, if they are greeting a political rival, it is wooing the party to which he or she belongs as a prospective ally. With the BJP leading the government at the Centre, it is but natural that both have political/electoral reasons to have the party on their side (but to the exclusion of the other).

The state party leader is a conduit that Jayalalithaa in particular seldom believes in. Barring a few occasions, she has always had direct contact with the national leadership of national parties, be it the Congress, the BJP or the two communist parties. Alternatively, she has had her designated envoys based in Delhi for coordination purposes. They too have known their limits.

Almost the first state BJP boss without a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh background, and the first woman to hold the post, Tamizhisai’s appointment by national party president Amit Shah was not without sweat and tears. She faced tough competition from older and more senior party leaders, but her choice is not totally unjustified.

Shah has his job cut out. So has Tamizhisai. Not possibly one to rest on the laurels of the Lok Sabha polls, Shah seems to realise that neither can he expect to deliver Uttar Pradesh for the BJP time and again, nor can the BJP hope to retain this kind of parliamentary margin five years hence.

If anything, in his acceptance speech at the BJP national council meeting in New Delhi recently, Amit Shah underscored the need for the party to expand its base to ‘non-traditional regions’ in the country. In the past, M Venkaiah Naidu as BJP president had made such speeches, and also attempted it, too, but to no avail.

Shah’s speech was reduced to mean West Bengal in the East, where assembly polls are due in 2016. So are assembly polls due in Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the South. Shah and BJP want to expand their base in these states, apart from Telangana though not adjoining Andhra Pradesh, as long as Telugu Desam Party Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu plays ball.

In context, having a younger and untested leader as the state BJP leader makes sense in Shah’s scheme. Tamizhisai has enough seniority for face recognition among cadres and others, but has not contested any election. Nor has she been identified excessively with any of the factions in the state unit. TN BJP like its Congress counterpart has traditionally had more factions than poll percentage.

For all the hype attached to her elevation, the question remains if Tamizhisai can deliver the state for the BJP, as and when the occasion presents itself.

It will have to start with proving that the Tamil Nadu BJP under her stewardship has performed much better than the Congress rival on its own steam, for prospective allies to take the party seriously for the assembly polls of 2016.

Otherwise, as has been the wont, the leader of the national parties in the state would not matter a bit to the Dravidian supremos, who would then talk directly to their national bosses, leaving the respective TN unit demoralised and unwanted.

But Tamizhisai’s immediate problems will be to gain greater acceptance within the state BJP. The TN unit is still in the grip of those with a strong RSS background. As an ‘outsider’ she will have to win them over to her line of thinking, rather than seeking to sideline any or all of them.

Two, the much-publicised ‘RSS discipline’ does not apply to the state BJP. It starts with those with a RSS background, to begin with. They have been daggers drawn at each other. Caste-related issues are also there.

Though domiciled in Chennai city, Tamizhisai’s family is identified with native Kanyakumari in deep south. Being a Hindu Nadar from the region, it helps, but only up to a point.

Outgoing state BJP president Pon Radhakrishnan, now a Union minister of state, belongs to the district, too -- and to the community, as well. He has a strong RSS background.

To Radhakrishnan and others should go the credit of building the party in the region, and sustaining the momentum, especially during the past 10 years when the BJP was out of power at the Centre. As a community, Hindu-Nadars have a Congress past.

Now they are with the BJP, for over 30 years. It started with the communal clash at the coastal temple-town of Mandaikadu in the early Eighties.

A lot will thus depends on how Radhakrishnan and Tamizhisai take forward their equations in the native district -- cooperative or competitive. In a way, Radhakrishnan himself came to replace the likes of M R Gandhi, who had worked up the RSS ladder in the district and the state, that too at a time when the BJP stood no chance of making electoral inroads. Though around, Gandhi is history even to his party colleagues in the district.

The author is a veteran journalist and director of Observer Research Foundation (Chennai Chapter).

Image: BJP president Dr Tamizhisai Soundararajan (centre) with party president Amit Shah (right).

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