By Arun Janardhanan
Barely a week after she was appointed, the BJP’s new Tamil Nadu president Tamilisai Soundararajan, 53, is at work forming a fresh team of office-bearers to “develop the party base outside the Hindi land”, as Amit Shah had put it. She has been given the tough task of fighting the Dravidian parties, made tougher by the fact that BJP has just one MP from the state.
Daughter of Kumari Ananthan, former president of the Tamil Nadu Congress unit, Tamilisai is a doctor known for her closeness to the Narendra Modi camp for nearly a decade, though she is not as popular with the state RSS. A skilled orator, she is also known for the strong arguments she makes in the BJP’s defence on Tamil news channels.
When Modi had been facing challenges within the party, she had pitched for him as the prime minister in 2011 on the stage of the Sadbhavana Yatra at Ahmedabad. “Modiji was on stage. I went to greet him and he made me speak,” she recalls. She went on to compare him with M G Ramachandran.
She was one of the few leaders from the south who managed an appointment with Modi after he assumed office in Delhi. In the 20-minute meeting on August 6, she presented him a copy of Narendra Modi… Suvaimigu Theneer Thuligal (Narendra Modi and Memorable Tea Moments), a book she has written on her meetings with him.
He asked her about her plans for the party in the state. “I submitted a vision document. I remembered an SMS he had sent us after the election victory in Gujarat, saying he would be a CM (common man) forever. I told him he is now a PM (people’s man) forever. He laughed.”
For a woman hailing from the family of a top Congress leader, it was not the first meeting with a PM.
Tamilisai was a little girl when she met Indira Gandhi at a Royapuram rally in 1974, when her father was a Youth Congress leader. She recalls more clearly a meeting with Rajiv Gandhi towards the end of her MBBS course from Madras Medical College.
“Before joining the BJP in 1998, I was practising medicine besides helping my father. I accompanied him on a 45-day long padayatra from Kanyakumari seeking prohibition. But I always had a feeling that the Congress is not doing enough,” she says.
Ramu Manivannan, professor of political science at University of Madras, sees Tamilisai as the face of transition in the BJP, so far in the grip of the RSS and upper-caste Brahmin leaders. “Now they have to play the game of other Dravidian parties by ensuring a reasonable space for OBCs too,” he says.
Some BJP and RSS leaders believe she has been rewarded for her perseverance. The day the BJP finalised its Lok Sabha candidates, they say, she broke into tears when she was denied a seat. “She was keen to be part of the new Modi government. After Sriperumbudur and Tiruvallur were allotted in the first list, she hoped to get Vellore but her name was not in the final list either,” says a senior BJP leader. But Tamilisai did not let the disappointment get the better of her. “She went on a 21-day state tour. At many places, internal party issues brought her troubles. She was denied a vehicle at many places and she had to organise meetings on her own,” he says.
The run-up to the selection of the BJP state chief was marked by stiff competition from H Raja, a veteran leader with RSS backing. “Her close links with Modi and Amit Shah helped. And she was quick to meet all RSS leaders immediately after being appointed. She also kept the RSS in the loop whenever the party had to attack Subramanian Swamy for his stand on the Sri Lankan issue,” says a BJP leader.
Asked about her father’s reaction to her new stature, she says: “We had not been talking to each other for a long time. When I embraced the BJP, my loss was my father. He conveyed his wishes after I was selected to the new post and I hope this will heal the wounds. He is a true Congressman; I am dedicated to my party too.”
‘Rajinikanth a nationalist, would be an asset’
Interview: Tamilisai Soundarajan
Won’t it be difficult to build a party with nationalistic ideas in a Dravidian land?
After the ’60s, Dravidian parties took control of Tamil Nadu. They separated this state from the national sphere by raising sentiments based on language and the region. They talk more than they do. The biggest challenge for the BJP is to restore the political scene that existed before the 1960s.
Is it true that Rajinikanth is being considered as the BJP’s CM candidate for the assembly polls?
He is a nationalist and we welcome any nationalist. Yes, we are welcoming him… I will meet him soon. He has always been close to our party and he would be an asset too.
Tamil parties have been opposing the Modi government’s Sri Lanka policies. Won’t that make things difficult?
One should understand that the government in Sri Lanka has not changed. The Indian government is watching the rehabilitation process there. The denial of visas [to a UN team] was a government decision, I agree, but it is not because we are anti-Tamil. Unlike the previous UPA regime that was a silent spectator to genocide, we are slowly moving towards justice for Lankan Tamils. And a BJP and RSS delegation from Tamil Nadu has already expressed our strong sentiments against those who join hands with the Sri Lankan government.