In TN, a BJP challenge to Dravidian inheritance

Tamil Nadu, which will elect all its 39 Lok Sabha MPs today, is where the INDIA bloc is the strongest. The DMK-led alliance has a pan-state presence and represents a rainbow of castes and classes. This time, though, the BJP has been a revelation. It is in contention in only a handful of seats but mounted a high-voltage campaign by deploying its formidable resources. It hopes to emerge as the main Opposition in the state by displacing the AIADMK, which has been one of the two poles of Tamil Nadu politics since its formation in 1972. If that were to happen, it could completely change the political dynamic of the state, which has been under the hegemonic influence of the Dravidian Movement since CN Annadurai formed the first DMK government in 1967. A decent vote share could foreground the BJP as a contender for office when assembly polls are held in the state in 2026.

Coimbatore, Mar 18 (ANI): Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds a roadshow in Coimbatore on Monday. Tamil Nadu BJP chief K. Annamalai and Union Minister L. Murugan are seen. (ANI Photo)(Narendra Modi Twitter)

The BJP’s audacious campaign marks the first formidable ideological challenge to the Dravidian Movement and its multi-stranded politics that encompasses the legacies of the anti-caste social justice movements traceable to the early 20th century, pride in Tamil linguistic inheritance and identity that began in the 19th century, welfarist governance focussed on the redistribution of public resources, and an argument for a federal nation that is at peace with subnationalisms.

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The BJP, which is uncompromising in upholding a unitarian idea of India and subscribing to what it deems as the Hindu idea of society-nation, has been trying to craft a new language of politics to win over a people conditioned for a long time to perceive it as a party of north India, and a champion of Hindi and Hindutva at variance with the Dravidian cultural inheritance of Tamil Nadu.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led this outreach by trying to plug into the Tamil cultural world. The invocation of Tamil as a language of antiquity in multiple fora, the exhibition and installation of a sengol (sceptre) presented by the Thiruvavuduthurai adheenam, a Shaivite matham, to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at the time of Independence, in the new Parliament building, the Kashi Tamil Sangamam, started in 2022, which has seen thousands of people travelling from Tamil Nadu to participate in annual festivities at Varanasi, the Prime Minister dressing up occasionally in veshti (dhoti) and angavastram (shawl), or most recently, the promise in the BJP manifesto to build Thiruvalluvar Centres are, surely, aimed at bridging the political and cultural distance between the BJP and the Tamil political and cultural ecosystem.

The outreach has a past. The BJP appeared to be getting a foothold in Tamil Nadu’s electoral politics in the late 1990s. It succeeded in getting the AIADMK to join the National Democratic Alliance ahead of the 1998 polls. When AIADMK quit the alliance a year later, the BJP persuaded DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi to become an ally. In 1998, the BJP won three Lok Sabha seats as part of the NDA. A year later, its tally increased to four. The DMK held important portfolios in the Vajpayee government until it left the coalition in 2004. In this period, the BJP state leadership tried hard to dispel the notion that its politics was inimical to Tamil interests by open advocacy of Tamil language, literature, and culture, particularly its Shaivite inheritance. In a prescient essay (‘Tamil-style Hindutva’, 2000), the late historian MSS Pandian wrote, “Where once the Hindu nationalists dreaded Tamil as the vehicle of anti-Indian desire, these new votaries of Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan no longer fear it; in fact, if the recent past is any indication, the BJP’s new slogan for Tamils could well be ‘Tamil-Hindu-Hindustan’.” However, the party’s best record in Tamil Nadu was a 5.7% vote share in the 2022 local body elections.

Despite Periyar EV Ramaswamy’s atheist leanings, Tamil Nadu has remained an intensely religious society — except that a subaltern Hinduism that subscribes to mother goddesses and Murugan has far more resonance than the Sanatana Dharma variants — which, the BJP seems to believe offers an entry point to project its vision of a pan-Indian Hindu constituency. For its part, the language politics championed by the Dravidian Movement has a Shaivite inheritance. For instance, it appealed to the Pure Tamil Movement of Maraimalai Adigal for its anti-Sanskrit, anti-Hindi stance, and promotion of Tamil. It was subsumed as a cultural influence for its religious content. The DMK also privileged the text of ethics, Thirukkural, over the massive corpus of Bhakti literature to build a non-denominational, secular Tamil public culture.

The pockets of influence that the BJP has in the state were the result of isolated communal polarisation. The Nagercoil (now Kanyakumari) parliamentary constituency became a major centre of Hindutva politics following the Meenakshipuram mass conversions and the communal riots that followed in Mandaikadu, a coastal village famous for its mother goddess shrine, in the early 1980s. The BJP’s rise in the Coimbatore region followed the 1997 Hindu-Muslim riots and the 1998 bombings.

The demise of J Jayalalithaa in 2016 and the subsequent decline of the AIADMK has opened up the political space in Tamil Nadu. There has always been a 10-15% vote that was uncomfortable with the OBC-dominated, and Tamil-centric, Dravidian parties, and preferred a pan-Indian centrist force like the Congress. There is also a new class of voters — young, middle class, aspirational — who may be willing to look beyond the state’s political inheritance tied to the Dravidian Movement.

Politics abhors a vacuum. The further rise of the BJP is incumbent on two factors: One, the implosion of the AIADMK, which continues to have a robust cadre network and the memory of MGR and Jayalalithaa to appeal to its rural, women voters; two, a significant inflow of castes and communities, who are not represented by the DMK or the AIADMK, into the BJP. The fact is the BJP, despite acquiring a non-Brahmin leadership, often slips into a language more identified with the old disempowered Tamil Brahmin elite, which, immediately, restricts its growth in a polity dominated by the idiom of an OBC-centric politics identified by its allegiance to caste-based reservations and a non-Brahmin cultural mores. That calls for politics which is more grounded than spectacular.

The views expressed are personal

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