Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally in Coimbatore last week launched the BJP’s assembly poll campaign in Tamil Nadu, even as uncertainty over pre-poll alliances continues to cast a shadow over the party’s preparations. The NDA nominee for the Coimbatore constituency had won over 2.5 lakh votes in the 2014 general election, but less than half a lakh people turned up to hear the prime minister. Leaders of parties that had allied with the BJP in the general election were conspicuous by their absence. It seemed that none of them wanted to reveal their preferences before the AIADMK and the DMK announced their election strategy.
The apparently lukewarm response to the Coimbatore rally points to the BJP’s predicament in Tamil Nadu. The party lacks the political and social base to challenge the Dravidian majors in the state. In the 2014 general election, it projected Modi’s leadership and built a formidable non-DMK, non-AIADMK alliance that included Vijayakanth’s DMDK, Vaiko, the PMK and assorted caste-centric outfits. The NDA bagged over 18 per cent of the voteshare and two of the 39 seats in the state. The DMK notched over 25 per cent of the voteshare but failed to win a seat. The multi-cornered contest helped the ruling AIADMK, which projected J. Jayalalithaa as PM nominee, to win an unprecedented 37 seats. The NDA has since unravelled while the political space, as the state goes into poll mode, is unlikely to be as fragmented as it was in 2014. With both the DMK and the AIADMK hinting at pre-poll alliances, the NDA constituents may well opt for a Dravidian major rather than persist with the BJP.
As it stands, the BJP lacks the organisational muscle, ideological influence and leadership to replace either of the Dravidian parties as one of the two poles of state politics. The DMK and the AIADMK have ruled the state for nearly half a century and both retain a pan-state base that cuts across caste lines. This has constricted the space for other parties to grow, forcing them to seek alliances or face electoral oblivion. Hindutva has limited traction as an election agenda in Tamil Nadu. By championing issues such as jallikattu, the BJP has sought to appeal to regional sentiments. However, its apparently conservative approach to reservations may impede the party’s growth in a region where job quotas based on caste were introduced in the 1920s. Modi’s outreach to Dalits, who constitute over 20 per cent of the population, is also significant in this context. The party’s future will depend on how well it adapts to the state’s political idiom, which is shaped by backward-caste assertion and cultural sub-nationalism.