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Will BJP go the Congress way in Tamil Nadu?

By N Sathiya Moorthy
Last updated on: August 12, 2015 18:56 IST
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Narendra Modi's meeting with J Jayalalithaa in Chennai has set the rumour mills abuzz. Will the Tamil Nadu chief minister ally with the BJP ahead of the 2016 polls, asks N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa at her Poes Garden home in Chennai, August 7. Photograph: PTI Photo

Protocol-defying Prime Minister Narendra Modi's meeting with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa at her Poes Garden residence in Chennai has raised more questions than answers.

The media speculation is centred on the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government's need to muster Rajya Sabha support until the NDA improves its numbers in next year's biennial elections. But that does not seem to be the case.

For instance, on issues affecting Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam supremo has reiterated at the luncheon, her party's reservations on the Goods and Services Tax bill. Her party has already expressed its views on the even more controversial land bill, where again the Modi government faces hurdles in the Rajya Sabha in particular.

Then there is the Tamil Nadu-centric Sri Lankan ethnic issue and the fishermen dispute with the southern neighbour, where Jayalalithaa's memorandum emphasised the state government's known position.

On the Sri Lankan ethnic issue, the Centre would have to take a stand by mid-September on the United Nations Human Rights Council probe report and vote in Geneva.

The state government has since launched the deep-sea fishing diversification programme. Jayalalithaa handed over subsidy cheques of Rs 30 lakh (Rs 3 million) each to select groups in mid-July, with more to follow at the district levels, particularly in the Rameswaram area, overlooking the Sri Lankan coast.

Better or worse still, almost all the issues flagged in the chief minister's memorandum this time are a repeat of what she had said when she called on a fresh-to-the-job PM Modi in June last year. The reiteration of the same demands implies that the Centre had not reacted favourably on most, if not all of them.

The August 7 meeting was Modi and Jayalalithaa's first encounter of the year. State Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and their national counterparts, including Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu have described the visit as a 'courtesy call.'

Jayalalithaa received Modi at Chennai airport but she skipped his official function, where her speech was read out by senior ministerial colleague O Panneerselvam.

As the host at his next programme in the city -- the luncheon at her residence -- Jayalalithaa could not have been seen as arriving at Poes Garden only a minute ahead of her honoured guest.

Given official protocol, the demands of the PM's security, and personal niceties, that too in the case of a leader of her sensitivities, Jayalalithaa could not have brought herself up to leaving the Madras University Centenary Hall venue of the textiles function halfway through to be at her home ahead of her guest.

Though it was a one-to-one luncheon, there may be some truth in the BJP leaders' claims that it was only a courtesy call, and nothing more.

On the question if the meeting could pave the way for the AIADMK and the BJP to come together for the state assembly polls, due in May 2016, the answer is both a yes and no.

A day before the luncheon, BJP President Amit Shah was in the southern temple town of Madurai. His main programme was related to a rally of the Devendra Kula Vellalar sub-sect of the larger Dalit community.

Over the past years, some BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh front organisations have been hosting massive exhibitions and conferences of caste-based artisan communities in different parts of the state, in the name of promoting traditional trades, industries, job creation and community living.

It is another matter that the BJP, among a few political parties, had ridiculed those who played 'caste politics' and created 'caste-based vote banks' in the state, as it had done elsewhere across the country.

Of noticeable importance on the very eve of the PM-CM luncheon was Shah's bold claim that Tamil Nadu would have done even better on the development front but for its corrupt political leadership of these past decades.

The national leadership also did find any reason to silence or at least slow down state BJP chief Tamizhisai Soundararajan, who has been going hammer and tongs against the Jayalalithaa government, almost on every other issue, either ahead of the PM-CM meet or soon afterward. The PM-CM meeting seems to have confused the state BJP leaders and party cadres.

Where then is the BJP in Tamil Nadu post the lunch?

No one is talking about an election alliance just now or a complete U-turn by the AIADMK on contentious issues like the land bill and the GST bill. Neither is anyone ready to say there won't be any poll alliance between the two.

The one-on-one meeting would have given the two leaders an occasion to size up each other and their respective electoral health and political strengths with a possible poll tie-up in mind.

So there could be a possibility of the AIADMK moving away from the current 'issue-based support' to the Modi government to one of a political alliance, though not overnight.

It might have to wait, if at all, until the Centre had begun addressing the state's specific concerns on special issues and also on larger issues such as the land bill and the GST. On paper, the AIADMK also stands to lose the traditional share of 'minority votes' if it were to be seen as moving closer to the BJP.

Yet, there are chances that any possible consolidation of the BJP's calculated five to six per cent vote share (it has returned to the traditional minus-two per cent window, after similar increases in the past, too) could still offset the probable fall in 'minority votes' for the party.

But the question is this: Why should the AIADMK take that risk, particularly after the party had swept the parliamentary polls in 2014 on its own?

One could be the reasonable anxieties about the possible realignment of political forces against the ruling party. Second, it is the sentiment attached to the state voting out the incumbent government in every successive election in the post-MGR (M G Ramachandran) era, whatever the general perception of their performance during the preceding years in office.

Is the BJP going the Congress way in Tamil Nadu? A succession of state Congress presidents and other leaders have complained that the high command had always sacrificed the state unit's electoral interests in the name of the party's national compulsions.

Clearly, at least the BJP and the AIADMK have come some way since the heated attacks against each other ahead of the parliamentary polls.

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

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