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Was there a strategy behind Modi's silence on Dravida parties in Coimbatore?

By N Sathiya Moorthy
February 05, 2016 11:56 IST
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Modi’s non-reference could also imply that the BJP may be keeping its alliance options open vis-à-vis the AIADMK. It could also imply that the BJP’s national leadership had not given up on the DMK returning to power in the state post-poll, and the Centre having to do business with a new government in Fort St George, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

Tamil Nadu’s Bharatiya Janata Party leaders had projected it as their campaign launch for the state assembly elections due in May. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public rally in communally-sensitive Coimbatore ended up as ‘Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark’.

Throughout his speech, much of it in Hindi and translated into Tamil, Modi did not target the Dravidian parties that have dominated the state’s politico-electoral scene for decades. It’s the 50th year of unbroken ‘Dravidian rule’, interrupted only by two stints of President’s rule. State BJP leaders were thus hoping for a ‘strong message’ from the prime minister on ending their stranglehold in this election. It was not to be.

They are disappointed that Modi once again dug deep into the Congress and other ‘Opposition’ rivals at the national-level (an euphemism for the Communists), instead. As they readily concede, the Congress and the communists are nearly non-existent as an electoral force in Tamil Nadu.

If anything, the parliamentary polls of 2014, and those in 1998 and 1999 earlier, put the Modi-Vajpayee ‘vote-share’ much higher. It does not mean that party prime ministers had ‘transferrable votes’ for the BJP in the state, particularly in assembly polls. There, the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the rival DMK parent continue to be the main contenders.

Modi’s speech almost entirely focussed on the ‘Rohith Vemula campus death’ in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, and Dalit politics. Lately, the BJP has been seeking to ‘consolidate’ Dalit and select backward castes in Tamil Nadu. It’s based on the belief that these communities are disenchanted with their existing political leaderships.

Yet, for the prime minister to swear by Ambedkar and reassure Dalits that constitutionally-mandated reservations would continue only recalled his party’s role elsewhere in whipping up recent doubts and suspicions on that score. If he had reason to end the discourse, kicked off by some Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leaders, then he had to talk to them -- not about the Opposition.

So was Modi’s self-sympathetic mention that the Opposition was unable to accept the ‘son of a chai-wallah’ from Gujarat becoming the prime minister. “They are stalling our pro-people initiatives in Parliament,” he said. The line that was imaginative ahead of the parliamentary polls did not sell in the more recent assembly polls in Bihar -- or, so would it seem.

The greater irony for the state BJP was Modi’s Coimbatore reference to ‘corruption’ of the Congress variety under UPA-2. He also thundered about the ‘clean image’ of his government over the past one-and-a-half years, in comparison.

In Tamil Nadu, talking about corruption but not about the two ‘Dravidian majors’, could prove counter-productive in more ways than one.

‘Modi sympathisers’ apart, every voter in the state has full knowledge of the ‘Bangalore case’ against Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, now pending final disposal before the Supreme Court, later this month.

A section of the DMK leadership is convinced, in turn, about the damage wrought by the ‘2-G scam’ on the party’s electoral chances in 2011 and 2014.

In terms of prospective electoral allies, parties like the Pattali Makkal Katchi and the DMDK are confused after Modi speaking about corruption and not about the AIADMK in particular -- and the DMK, otherwise.

The two, as also the anti-BJP, non-Congress, four-party alliance with Marumalarchi DMK’s Vaiko as coordinator, have targeted the DMK and the AIADMK on corruption and mal-governance of the past decades.

To them, Modi’s non-reference would also imply that the BJP may be keeping its alliance options open vis-à-vis the AIADMK in particular. It could also imply that the BJP national leadership had not given up on the DMK returning to power in the state post-poll, and the Centre having to do business with a new government in Fort St George.

All of it has left state BJP leaders confused. They are often embarrassed in public to continue talking about ‘corruption and mal-administration’ of the DMK-AIADMK kind. It’s even more embarrassing for them, to face party cadres who want clear-cut answers.

The TN BJP’s confusion starts with the continuance of TN unit president should there be an electoral tie-up with the AIADMK in particular.

Among a few others in the state BJP, Tamizhisai Soundararajan had gone hammer and tongs at the state administration, through much of 2015.

Though she may have slowed down in recent weeks, the BJP’s electoral adversaries in the state could still quote her from the past -- and embarrass the AIADMK alliance as a whole during poll-time if the two parties were to tie up.

Ahead of Modi’s Coimbatore visit, however, Muralidhar Rao, BJP in-charge for Tamil Nadu, declared that Tamizhisai would continue as state unit chief for another term.

Willy-nilly it implied that the BJP would not have an electoral alliance with the AIADMK. Modi’s Coimbatore non-reference to the AIADMK has thus confused BJP cadres and second-line leaders in the state even more.

This time round, however, Jayalalithaa continues to wear the cap in electoral alliance(s). At the AIADMK general council meeting in December, she declared that she would decide on poll alliance(s) at the opportune time.

Jaya explained that each election demanded separate strategies in terms of alliance formation. This did cool the hearts of pro-Jaya elements in the Tamil Nadu BJP.

But even they would readily agree that even if the BJP were to be ‘admitted’ into the AIADMK alliance, Jaya would call all the shots and more -- and on poll campaigns, Modi would have to play second fiddle to ‘Amma’.

A lot would, however, depend on the Supreme Court proceedings in the ‘disproportionate assets case’ against Jayalalithaa on the one hand, and the trial court judgment in the 2-G case involving DMK functionaries, on the other.

Image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a public meeting in Coimbatore on Tuesday, along with national and state-level BJP leaders. Photograph: PTI Photo

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is director, Chennai chapter of the Observer Research Foundation.

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