The BJP in Tamil Nadu looks like a two per cent party. Whenever it contests alone in the assembly polls, it never seems to overcome this simple hurdle and mostly end up with 2 to 3 per cent of the popular vote.
It does not contest alone on its own volition. Whenever there are assembly polls round the corner, Dravidian parties seem to suddenly unfriend the BJP and leave them to their own fate.
Even now, left to itself AIADMK might not have allied with the BJP. But the fact that AIADMK needs support from the centre, leaves them with no other option. Hence, BJP has been allotted 20 seats in the AIADMK alliance, and is looking to send quite a few members to the assembly.
In the 2016 elections, contesting alone, the party got around 12 lakh votes across the state at about 2.86 per cent of the vote, but still drew a blank. In 2011, it went alone, got around 8 lakh votes (2.2 per cent) without not seats. In 2006, was a similar show.
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The first time the BJP ever won a seat in the state assembly was in 1996, when C Velayudhan won from Padmanabhapuram in Kanyakumari district. Then too it had got around 1.8% of the vote across the state. It was only in 2001 when it contested in the DMK alliance that it got four seats and crossed the three per cent barrier with 3.2% of the vote.
The party has a base in three parliamentary constituencies of the state namely Kanyakumari, Coimbatore and south Chennai. It’s support base is mostly with Hindu Nadars in Kanyakumari, Gounders in Coimbatore and Brahmins and other communities in South Chennai.
Unlike the assembly polls, during parliamentary polls, BJP finds some salience, as parties find it as an useful ally when national issues are at stake.
In parliamentary polls and with allies, it performs better and at times wins a few seats. In 2019, contesting in the AIADMK alliance, it won no seats. In 2014, in an alliance with smaller parties it won from Kanyakumari and the NDA won around 18 per cent of the vote. In 2009, it had no allies and drew a blank but garnered around 2 per cent of the vote. While it drew a blank in 2004 in the AIADMK alliance, in 1999 it won four seats in the DMK alliance and got around 7 per cent of the vote. In 1998, it won three seats in an alliance with the AIADMK. So when it comes to alliances for parliamentary polls, Dravidian parties are likely to be more positive towards the BJP helping it to gain a few seats.
The time, the party is nursing the wounds of the 2019 parliamentary poll debacle and is reorienting its strategy.
Modi’s outreach is a key element in this strategy. Modi frequently quotes from Thirukkural, praises the Tamil language, and was seen in Veshti, the traditional Tamil traditional dress, while meeting with Chinese premier Xi Jinping in Chennai. In one of his Mann Ki Baat radio talks, he said: “One of my shortcomings was that I could not make much effort to learn Tamil, the oldest language in the world.” That is certainly a lot of personal attention from the Prime Minister and shows that the Tamil Nadu challenge is being taken up seriously at the highest levels of the party.
However, the state unit of the party is not able to capitalise on the goodwill gestures sent by Modi. It is hamstrung by a weak organisation and a lack of narrative building on themes core to its ideology. Every time Modi visits Tamil Nadu, he faces the #gobackmodi hashtag and though it can be wished away as a motivated and paid social media campaign, it is the outcome of an anti -Modi narrative in the public sphere which the BJP is finding tough to counter.
However, the BJP is trying to score a few points on its own. It has brought in a new state president, L Murugan, a Dalit who is more in tune with the new shock and awe electioneering techniques of the central party. The earlier incumbents were a bit old fashioned, and partly puritanical.
Now, Murugan, led by the central team, is busy adding a touch of glamour to the party, bringing in some stars and a couple of starlets. And surprisingly, they have even begun poaching sitting MLAs from the DMK, of all parties. It had a coup of sorts, when Ku Ka Selvam, a DMK MLA and confidant of DMK leader Stalin, jumped ship and joined the BJP. It would have been unthinkable a few years ago. A few historysheeters too were roped in and the party had to go on the defensive promising that they would take ‘corrective steps’.
While its vote bank in the state has been built on the back of local communal mobilisation in Kanyakumari district and Coimbatore region, the BJP with its Vel Yatra (protesting the disrespect to a prayer dedicated to the deity Murugan) has tried its hand at a state-level mobilisation. While critics point out to a very lukewarm response, the party feels energised that it could reach out to its cadres even during Covid time.
Now the party is ready to use the tools of social and caste engineering for electoral gains. On top of this is the spirited campaigning, poaching from other parties, use of star power, thinking through caste alliances and more being liberal with resources. However, facing a double anti-incumbency, it remains to be seen if they cross the magical two per cent vote barrier.
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