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Will Modi's TN Over-Exposure Boomerang On BJP?

April 11, 2024 14:04 IST
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There is an impression within the Tamil Nadu BJP -- although no one is airing it -- that over-exposure for Narendra Modi may work against party candidates as they have triggered a near-continuous social media debate on his achievements and failures, points out N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra D Modi at an election c meeting ahead of the Lok Sabha polls at Mettupalayam, Coimbatore, April 10, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

There is more dynamics and chemistry at work in electoral battles than in other things in real life.

Or, that is what the strategists of the ruling DMK-led combine in Dravidian Tamil Nadu may be learning as the campaign for the 39 Lok Sabha seats in the state and the lone seat in the neighbouring Union Territory of Puducherry peaks in the shortest, 19-day run-up to the first-phase polling on Friday next, April 19.

Weeks and months before poll fever set in, local analysts had given a clean sweep to the DMK-Congress combine in the 40 seat tally including Puducherry, and they seem to be revising their calculations.

If nothing else, they are not ready to commit themselves as vehemently as they used to do.

Then and now, they acknowledge the existence of an anti-incumbency factor against Chief Minister M K Stalin's three-year-old DMK government, but are not sure if a split in the combined vote-share of the AIADMK-BJP combine from the 2019 elections would be enough for the rival DMK-Congress alliance to win most, if not all seats, even if not by huge margins as in the last outing.

Leaders of the other two alliances, while swearing in public that they are sweeping the poll, still do not rule out a win-all for the DMK combine in private conversations.

The two allies from 2019 are now contesting separately, with other partners and that has made this election a genuine three-cornered affair.

If you add actor-politician Seeman's Naam Tamizhar Katchi (NKT), which has fielded candidates for all 40 seats, then you have a four-cornered contest, even leaving out Independents, whose numbers vary from constituency to constituency.

No one expects any of the NKT candidates to win a seat, but in close contests, they can be the clincher, by taking away votes from one or more mainline candidates.

The same cannot be said about 'Independents'. Most of them are expected to lose their security deposit.

But among them is three-time AIADMK chief minister O Panneerselvam (OPS), who as an Independent in the BJP-NDA's company, is trying his luck from coastal Ramanathapuram constituency with 'Jackfruit' as his symbol.

There are those who ask if Narendra Modi first, and Rajnath Singh more recently, raising the Katchchatheevu issue, owed to the rumoured idea for the former to choose Ramanathapuram (or, southern-most Kanyakumari) as a second constituency after Varanasi, another temple town, which has become his 'native' constituency.

The problem is mainly for the DMK and the AIADMK, and to a lesser extent, the Congress ally of the former.

Their star candidates have been around for some time, and there is no newness to their faces.

Candidates like Kanimozhi Karunanidhi (Thoothukudi), Dayanidhi Maran (Chennai Central) and many other DMK candidates are incumbent MPs, with some like the latter contesting for a third consecutive term.

The same is the case with the AIADMK. Barring now-estranged OPS, whose son Raveendranath Kumar was the sole party nominee to win his seat (Theni), the rest of them all from the NDA combine lost in 2019.

Today, the party has new faces in many constituencies, but they are so new that there is a visible disconnect with the cadres and voters alike.

It is here that the BJP has scored initially. However, that is no guarantee that they are all going to win.

More than other candidates from the other two combines, BJP candidates like former Telangana governor Tamizhisai Soundararajan (Chennai South), Union Minister L Murugan (Udhagamandalam, earlier known as Nilgiris), former Union minister of state Pon Radhakrishnan (Kanyakumari), state party chief Kuppusamy Annamalai (Coimbatore) and assembly group leader Nainar Nagendran (Tirunelveli) have made their 'star constituencies' and star contests, sort of spread across the state.

IMAGE: Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam President M K Stalin campaigns for DMK candidates. Photograph: Kind courtesy M K Stalin/X

Of them, of course, Pon Radhakrishnan is an old war-horse, who has won only twice in nine contests, and was also a Union minister of state on both occasions after winning the Kanyakumari seat in 1999 and 2014.

His choice for the constituency was near-natural, thus taking away the fizz from the contest, which is otherwise loaded in favour of the sitting Congress member, Vijay Vasanth.

For 'Ponnar', 72, as Radhakrishnan is known in the Tamil media, this may be his last electoral outing.

His cadres are citing it as a reason why voters should give him 'one last chance' in this communally-polarised constituency.

Their add-on line that if elected, he would also be a Union minister does not seem to have too many takers after Radhakrishnan, in his last stint (2014-2019) initiated an ambitious/over-ambitious deep-sea port in Colachel, which did not find favour with most constituents, as his defeat by a massive 260,000 vote margin against Congress candidate, the late H Vasantha Kumar, showed.

In the by-election that followed, Vasantha Kumar's son, Vijay Vasanth, defeated him by a substantially lower margin of 138,000 votes.

Yet, it is a high margin for the BJP candidate to cover in a traditionally strong constituency, where the AIADMK ally from the past was weak and the present-day partner PMK is non-existent.

IMAGE: AIADMK General Secretary Edappadi K Palaniswami, third from right, releases the party manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections 2024 in Chennai. Photograph: ANI Photo

From among the rest, it is the name and their background that have made the BJP candidates look popular -- whether or not they are acceptable to the voters in Coimbatore (Annamalai), Chennai South (Tamizhisai) and Udhagamandalam (Murugan). The latter alone has a tough rival in the reserved seat.

Rather, the DMK's former Union minister A Raja, who is the incumbent MP, is facing Murugan, who was re-elected to the Rajya Sabha from Madhya Pradesh only in recent weeks.

Tamizhisai is likewise pitted against incumbent DMK member Tamizhachchi Thangapandian, born Sumathi, with the AIADMK's past MP, Jayavardhan (2014-2019), forming the triad.

Of them, Tamizhisai and Jayavardhan are medical doctors and the incumbent MP is a PhD-holder, in a constituency, which in the past has returned former President R Venkatararaman, DMK founder C N Annadurai, former Union ministers T T Krishnamachari and Murasoli Maran, all of it going to make it the 'most elite constituency' in the state.

IMAGE: BJP supporters during Modi's election meeting in Coimbatore. Photograph: ANI Photo

But then, more than any of these three star candidates, it is Tirunelveli's Nainar Nagendran who is known as an effective poll-manager from his days in the AIADMK and as a minister in Jayalalithaa's maiden government (1991-1996).

A native to the constituency, he is taking on Robert Bruce, whom local Congressmen are saying is an 'outsider' and so is the AIADMK's Jansi Rani.

However, it is not going to be a cake-walk for the BJP as Nainar Nagendran has since been involved in the recovery of Rs 4 crores (Rs 40 million) from his alleged aides by the Election Commission's 'flying squad' on a train, off Chennai, the other day.

His denials have not cut much ice with local voters though that will not be the deciding factor unless the controversy takes a further turn.

Likewise, the DMK's T M Selvaganapathy, a minister in Jayalalithaa's maiden government, who defeated the late Union minister Vazhappadi K Ramamurthy of the Tiwari Congress in 1999, is an effective candidate in Salem, the native constituency of AIADMK boss and former chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS).

Over the years, the DMK has freely admitted senior leaders from the AIADMK rival, giving them ministerial positions and major party assignments, including ticket to contest the Lok Sabha/ polls.

IMAGE: Crowds listen to Stalin at a rally in Madurai, April 9, 2024. Photograph: DMK/X

Yet, the BJP's Hindutva ideology and what has been propagated as the anti-Tamil and anti-Tamil Nadu policies of the party's north Indian leadership may come in the way of the party candidates in Tamil Nadu, this time too.

There is an impression within the state party -- and no one is airing it -- that over-exposure for Modi over the past months may work against BJP candidates, as they have triggered a near-continuous social media debate on his achievements and failures.

This contrasts with the state BJP IT wing's contributions that are confined to attacking the Congress and the DMK on 'corruption' and 'dynastic politics', which have not had electoral success in a state through the past decades.

They have not been able to effectively counter the charges against the BJP ideology and 'Modinomics' policies, if they could be called so.

Traditional BJP supporters and 'Modi bhakts' in the state are still targeting the DMK on issues of religious beliefs on social media even after two successive defeats in 2019 and 2021.

Again, it is not a welcome topic that in a state where despite the perceived anti-Hindu, anti-god politics of the early Dravidian movement leaders -- for the critics it is centred on and stops with former chief minister M Karunanidhi -- people cherish their inherent 'secularist' (!) credentials to the last village.

Here, casteism is a greater issue, but the BJP has never ever attempted to address it, not knowing what would be in store.

As anticipated, today, the party has tied up with the Vanniar-strong PMK, which is considered by many as the 'fountainhead' of casteist politics in the state, in turn triggering a Dalit backlash, which is equally violent at times, but not as effective (!).

IMAGE: An election meeting addressed by Modi at Mettupalayam in Coimbatore, April 10, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

The fact is that crowds for the campaign meetings of all three alliances are massive.

In the BJP, Modi is the real crowd-puller while Stalin and EPS draw equally and at times even larger crowds.

This is so despite the unprecedented early summer when daily temperatures have already crossed the proverbial 100-degree mark (Fahrenheit, 39 degree Celsius) in many parts of the state.

Generally, these temperatures are reserved for late April and most of May.

This could well mean that Tamil Nadu's early, first-phase poll may imply that the state's poll campaigners and even cadre-crowds might escape a longer and harsher summer, as elsewhere in the country.

For the same reason and even otherwise, political parties in Tamil Nadu may be able to keep the poll momentum and cadre-involvement at their peak, for the short, 19-day duration of campaign period and another two days for polling, on 19 April.

Their counterparts elsewhere may have trouble on their hands as the hot summer and scorching summer could well seal the fate of even some favourite candidates of favourite parties in some individual constituencies, if they are unable to keep the campaign and cadre momentum at their peak all the time, for a longer period from the day the Election Commission announced the poll schedule nearly a month back on March 16, with the last phase of polling slated for June 1 -- and vote-counting three days later on June 4!

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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