Opinion | With An Eye On The Future: Decoding The BJP's Tamil Nadu Strategy

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With just days to go before the Lok Sabha polls, election fever has gripped Tamil Nadu. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi have held multiple rallies and roadshows in the state; in fac, PM Modi has already made seven visits since February 27. 

Tamil Nadu, which goes to polls on April 19, is witnessing a triangular contest for the first time since 2014. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) aims to make inroads in the state to accomplish its 'Mission 50' in the South of Vindhyas, hoping to attract voters who are seeking change and a third force apart from the two dominants in the state, the DMK and the AIADMK. Accordingly, the plan is to exploit the leadership vacuum created after the deaths of Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. 

BJP-AIADMK: On Again, Off Again

The DMK-led bloc as part of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) swept Tamil Nadu in 2019, bagging 38 of the 39 seats. The AIADMK, in contrast, could win in only one constituency. 

The love-hate relationship between the AIADMK and the BJP continues even today. The parties contested together in 1998, broke up in 1999, joined hands again in 2004, and called it quits again in 2009. Despite Jayalalitha sharing a good rapport with Narendra Modi, the AIADMK didn't join the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 2014. Instead, it decided to contest alone for the first time and went on to sweep the state, bagging 37 of the 39 seats. However, five years later, in 2019, when the party decided to join the NDA, it was routed badly. The two have parted ways again ahead of the 2024 polls.

Seat Calculations This Time

This year, of the 39 seats, the BJP is contesting 23, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) 10, former minister G.K. Vasan-led Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) three, and T.T.V Dhinakaran's Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) is fighting for two. One seat has gone to expelled AIADMK leader O. Panneerselvam, a.k.a. OPS

While the AIADMK has sealed alliances with the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) and the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the DMK-led group comprises the Congress, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the CPI-Marxist, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi  (VCK) and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK). The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), meanwhile, has extended its support to the AIADMK-led bloc, a move that can split the minority vote, which constitutes 6% of the total population. 

Given the national character of polls, the BJP seeks to position itself as the main opposition party against the DMK-led front in Tamil Nadu. Its efforts to dent the AIADMK vote base are part of that strategy. In fact, BJP President Annamalai, who has been trying to capture the opposition space and emerge as an independent force, was one of the main reasons for the split with the AIADMK. 

Wooing Intermediary Castes

Caste is a critical factor in Tamil Nadu, where OBCs and SC/STs account for 68% and 21% of the population, respectively. Traditionally, the AIADMK has enjoyed strong support from upper castes, the Vanniyars, Dalits, the Gounders, and the Thevars, while the DMK's loyal votes come from the Vellalars, the Mudhaliyars, the Udaiyars, the Nadars, the Naidus and Muslims. 

However, the arrival of the MDMK and the DMDK on the state's political scene has provided the Naidu community with additional options. Data indicates that there has been a shift among SCs and Vanniyars towards the DMK, while the Gounders - the community Annamalai hails from - the Thevars, and the Nadars are warming up to the BJP. Around 20% of Thevars and Goudners in Tamil Nadu voted for the BJP in 2019, according to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies' (CSDS) National Election Studies survey. 

A Tough Road Ahead

Despite the hard work of both PM Modi and Annamalai, winning a decent number of seats in Tamil Nadu is going to be a daunting task for the BJP, which couldn't even open its account in 2019. In fact, the party's best performance was in 1999, when it won four seats in alliance with the DMK. This is why the BJP, it seems, is focusing largely on improving its vote share this time and setting the foundation for gains in the future. 

What could work in the BJP's favour is the large chunk of swing votes Tamil Nadu has. In the 2014 election, the AIADMK gained 22-percentage-point more vote share at the expense of the Congress, the DMK and others, which saw their vote shares dipping by 11, one and 12 percentage points, respectively. In the 2019 elections, while the AIADMK's vote tally was cut down by 26 percentage points, the DMK's increased by 10 percentage points, the Congress's by nine, and others eight. 

It is these swing voters who are not ideologically aligned to any party that the BJP wishes to woo.

Annamalai has claimed in some television interviews that the BJP-led alliance would get a 20% vote share in the state in this election. In 2019, the BJP, the PMK and the AMMK together netted around 10% votes, while in the elections before that, in 2014, the BJP-led alliance had got a 19% vote share in total. Its target this time thus doesn't seem entirely unachievable.

What The BJP Is Banking On

However, two parties from that group, the DMDK and the MDMK, have now left the alliance. The BJP is banking on S. Ramadoss's PMK - which has been consistently getting 5-6% votes since its formation - to provide it with some ammunition in North Tamil Nadu and amongst the Vanniyar community. In the South and the West, and in urban areas in the state, the BJP has managed to make some inroads too. Strong leaders like Annamalai, T.T.V Dhinakaran and OPS can also help the party against its weak organisation and cadre base in Tamil Nadu. More specifically, the Coimbatore and Kanyakumari seats, which the BJP has won in the past, remain its pillars of strength. 

Meanwhile, the DMK leads a formidable grouping. It enjoys a combined vote share of over 50% and has the same advantage that the BJP has in four states, where it won all seats with over half the votes, and in six states where it won three-fourths of the seats with over 50% of votes. As things stand in Tamil Nadu, even if the BJP hypothetically manages to get all the votes that the AIADMK got in 2019 (in which its vote share was 20%), its chances of making it big remain slim.

Competing Narratives at Play 

The BJP has alleged that the DMK is propping up AIADMK to prevent it from making any inroads in the state. The party also accuses the INDIA bloc of creating a North-South divide. On the other hand, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin has accused the AIADMK of having a secret relationship with the BJP.

Stalin has also raised the banner of unfair tax devolution from the Centre and has accused the BJP of weakening the federal structure. Banking on Tamilian pride, it is trying to portray the BJP as a party of 'outsiders'.

A number of commentators believe that a three-way contest in the state can split the opposition vote and end up helping the DMK-led alliance. Can the BJP dent the Dravidian party's fort? The next few weeks will tell. 

(Amitabh Tiwari is a political strategist and commentator. In his earlier avatar, he was a corporate and investment banker)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.