This Article is From Sep 26, 2023

Opinion: Not Easy For BJP Leadership To Salvage Tamil Nadu Alliance

From the jump, the AIADMK-BJP alliance in Tamil Nadu was a consequence of the support needed by factions of the Dravidian party to take control of the government and the party after the death of former Chief Minister and AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa, in 2016.

The backing of the BJP and the Central government was, perhaps, the key reason why former Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswamy (EPS) managed to take over and keep charge.

Today, he is the undisputed General Secretary of the party, but he had to fight first former Chief Minister O.Paneerselvam and then Jayalalithaa's former aide Sasikala Natrajan, who, ironically, helped appoint EPS as Chief Minister.

However, while the support of the BJP was useful in holding on to power, it was a futile alliance when it came to electoral realities. The alliance won just one of the state's 39 seats in 2019 and lost power in the 2021 assembly polls. Historically, after 1999, neither Dravidian party has been able to make any electoral impact when in an alliance with the BJP in Tamil Nadu.

Jayalalithaa struck an alliance for the 2004 parliamentary polls, but it was routed 39-0 by the DMK-Congress combine. After that, while publicly displaying proximity to the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she avoided entering into a formal alliance.

It was a lesson that in the electoral math of Tamil Nadu, an alliance with the BJP, which is ideologically incompatible with the Dravidian political outlook, alienated a core section of Tamil polity and so, was a futile proposition.

The DMK learned this lesson in 2001, when it lost the Tamil Nadu election as an NDA ally. While the party clung to power in the NDA till 2004, it shifted to an alliance with the Congress before the parliamentary polls, and that alliance has lasted to date, despite serious differences and a brief break during the 2G scam years.

This history is by way of reiteration that the AIADMK does not have a compelling electoral reason to remain in an alliance with the BJP. It had stayed on both to enjoy the influence of the Centre and also because EPS is close to the top central leadership of the BJP.

Against this backdrop, the state BJP unit has been aggressively reiterating its identity under the leadership of K. Annamalai. The former IPS officer belongs to the same OBC caste as that of E Palaniswamy. Though Annamalai lost the assembly elections in 2021, he has been at the forefront in taking on the DMK and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin.

His yatra across the state - he is still on a tour to visit all 234 assembly segments which the AIADMK leadership has not joined - is an effort to both build the party, which still has only a meagre electoral presence, and establish himself as a personality to reckon with. Strong personality and cult following is an essential trait in Dravidian politics and EPS is not perceived either as a powerful orator or a charismatic leader.

There is genuine fear in the AIADMK that the BJP will, eventually, build itself in the state by taking over the AIADMK's caste vote. Given that the DMK under Stalin is firmly in power and a staunch Congress ally, it is obvious that the BJP's rise in vote share has to come from the AIADMK.

To sum it up, first, there is no compelling electoral reason for the AIADMK to stay in the alliance and second, there is a perceived threat to its vote from its own ally. Even these two reasons were not strong enough for the AIADMK to break the alliance. The last straw was a hit at its very ideological and emotional foundation.

Over the last few years, sections of the state BJP leadership have been aggressively asserting their ideological beliefs. Dravidian politics is built on foundations of the linguistic identity born out of the anti-Hindi agitation, rationalism and social justice. There is a sizeable population of minorities in the state and the Dravidian parties have made co-opting them a cornerstone of their identity. All this makes an aggressive, ideological Hindutva reiteration unacceptable in the state.

While all this was simmering, Annamalai's reported comments that the founder of the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) CN Annadurai, popularly called Anna, "had mocked Hinduism in 1956" and his alleged comments on Jayalalithaa were a flash point. (The AIADMK split from the DMK after Anna's death and still sees him as its guiding light)

In fact, the first para of the AIADMK's resolution to exit the alliance released on Monday mentions that "over the last year there has been a planned, deliberate and premeditated effort to misrepresent those considered gods of our movement".

All this comes in the backdrop of the Sanatana Dharma confrontation between the BJP and DMK scion Udayanidhi Stalin. In Tamil Nadu, the ideological positions of the AIADMK are the same as that of the DMK. While the DMK is more aggressive in asserting it, the AIADMK cannot dissociate from it.

A week ago, when AIADMK leaders began making statements of breaking the alliance, it seemed like the party was flexing its muscles at a time when seat sharing negotiations were on with the BJP. There were reports that the BJP had demanded up to 15 seats - in 2019 it was allotted only five seats - and that had caused a rift in the alliance. But the AIADMK's statement clearly indicates this decision is not a mere threat to help bargaining.

The strongly-worded resolution make it clear the party's leadership feared a loss of image before their cadre and had to make a show about storming out. Especially with the DMK talking on the BJP, the AIADMK could not be seen as capitulating. At stake was not just the image of the party, but more importantly, the image of its leader - EPS.

It seems very difficult for the AIADMK to walk back to the BJP after such a strong statement, but nothing is impossible in politics. However, the only wiggle room would be if the BJP bows to it, and does so publicly. In the end, without the AIADMK, the BJP may find it difficult to even begin scripting a Dravidian electoral story in the 39 parliamentary seats of Tamil Nadu and 1 in Puducherry.

(TM Veeraraghav is Executive Editor, NDTV)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.