How fake news, propaganda, and big money power BJP’s Tamil Nadu strategy

The saffron party’s immediate objective is to unseat the AIADMK and emerge as the main rival to the ruling DMK in the State.

Published : Feb 08, 2024 00:11 IST - 9 MINS READ

Tamil Nadu BJP president K. Annamalai during a rally in Vaniyambadi in Tirupathur district on February 2.

Tamil Nadu BJP president K. Annamalai during a rally in Vaniyambadi in Tirupathur district on February 2. | Photo Credit: C. VENKATACHALAPATHY

“It was a massive procession with chants of Jai Shri Ram. But I did not participate in it,” said a resident of Nanganallur, a Chennai suburb. He was referring to a procession along the streets of the suburb after the consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. “I have never seen such a huge procession in this area before,” he said, using Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shri Ram interchangeably when describing the fervour and the party associated with it. “This shows our strength in the State,” he added.

Elsewhere in the city, in the West Mambalam locality, Uma Anandan, a BJP councillor in the Chennai Corporation and self-proclaimed supporter of Godse, insisted that Ram had returned to his rightful “residence” because of the BJP. Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who, like all her Cabinet colleagues, was not among the invitees for the ceremony in Ayodhya, sat and watched the events unfold on a giant screen at a private temple. At one point, a much-photographed moment, she was seen wiping her tears away, overcome with emotion.

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In many ways, January 22 was chosen as the special day for the BJP to showcase its strength in Tamil Nadu. A few years ago, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who is also the party’s chief organiser, had recast the party and told the leadership that as long the party did not have 150 cadres in each of the nearly 90,000 polling booth areas in the State, it could not become a force there. The party’s efforts in the past few years, including organising the January 22 event, have been on reaching the unreached across the State and conveying the message that the BJP had made the temple possible.

The BJP and its supporters made arrangements across cities, towns, and villages in Tamil Nadu to telecast the Ram Mandir inauguration. WhatsApp groups run by them relentlessly sent out messages about two issues—one extolling the achievement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in ensuring the temple consecration, and the other about how the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was anti-Hindu for reportedly disallowing the telecast of the event across all temples in the State, which was a piece of disinformation.

Disinformation all around

This disinformation was put out by Dinamalar, a Tamil newspaper, which claimed that the State government had banned the conduct of special pujas on that day, a message that was amplified by Nirmala Sitharaman, who wrote on the social media platform X on January 21: “TN govt has banned watching live telecast of Ayodhya Ram Mandir programmes on 22 Jan 24. In TN there are over 200 temples of Shri Ram. In HR&CE managed temples no puja/bhajan/prasadam/annadanam in the name of Shri Ram is allowed. Police are stopping privately held temples from organising events. They are threatening organisers that they will rip off pandals. Strongly condemn this anti-Hindu, hateful action.” As on February 1, her tweet had reached 4.7 million views.

In a second post, she said: “Heart-breaking scenes in several parts of TN. People are threatened for organising bhajans, feeding the poor, celebrating with sweets even as we wish to watch Hon.PM Narendra Modi participate in Ayodhya. Cable TV operators are told that there is a likely power shutdown during the live telecast. This is I.N.D.I Alliance partner DMK’s anti-Hindu efforts.”

She also translated the essence of these posts into Hindi and reposted them on X.

The entire operation fit the pattern that many DMK-leaning political watchers in Tamil Nadu have pointed out time and again: that the BJP has been building a campaign that the DMK is anti-Hindu. This propaganda is being disseminated across India to weaken the INDIA bloc and to consolidate the Hindu vote bank.

Traditional musicians get ready to welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his roadshow in Srirangam on January 20.

Traditional musicians get ready to welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his roadshow in Srirangam on January 20. | Photo Credit: R. SELVAMUTHUKUMAR

Responding to the allegations, the State’s HR&CE (Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments) Minister P.K. Sekar Babu said on X: “Strongly condemn the spreading of false information in an attempt to divert people’s attention from the DMK Youth Conference in Salem. The HR&CE department hasn’t imposed any limitations on devotees’ freedom to offer food, conduct poojas in the name of Shri Ram, or provide prasad in Tamil Nadu temples. It is unfortunate that people in office... are purposefully propagating this erroneous information.”

Even the courts have been approached to maximise the publicity and paint the DMK as an anti-Hindu party. Strangely, even as a petition was filed in the Madras High Court, another petition on the subject was filed in the Supreme Court. The Tamil Nadu Additional Advocate General informed the Supreme Court that since the matter was already being heard by the High Court, the second petitioner should also approach the High Court.

In his written submission, the Tamil Nadu Director General of Police, Shankar Jiwal, said that the police had permitted 252 events in the State, and that there was a deliberate move to paint the government as anti-Hindu. He said: “The allegations that the Chief Minister had orally instructed not to allow any ceremony… on the auspicious occasion of January 22, the day of the pran prathistha of Ram Janmabhoomi, are totally baseless and false.”

It is not only elected representatives of the BJP who spread such misinformation to discredit the government. Governor R.N. Ravi did his bit on January 22, when he posted on X that he had visited the Kodandaramaswami temple in West Mambalam and sensed an “all-pervasive sense of invisible fear and apprehensions writ large on the faces of priests and temple staff”. This, he claimed, was in “stark contrast to the festive environment in the rest of the country. While the entire country is celebrating the Pran Pratishtha of Ram Lalla, the temple premises here exude a sense of acute repression.”

However, the temple priests busted this claim on multiple Tamil television channels half an hour after his post and stated that they were in no fear. One of them said that all priests must have been tired because they were up all night cleaning and decorating the temple.

  • The BJP has been building a campaign that the DMK is anti-Hindu, in a bid to weaken the INDIA bloc and to consolidate the Hindu vote bank.
  • Another thrust area for the saffron party is to drive home the point that the DMK government is inefficient and corrupt.
  • From the day the DMK-led alliance was voted to power in Tamil Nadu in 2021, the Sangh Parivar ecosystem has unleashed many related fake narratives.

Targeting the DMK

Another thrust area for the party is pointing out various acts of commission and omission to drive home the point that the DMK government is inefficient and corrupt.

Television and the BJP’s phenomenal reach on social media will ensure that these themes reach every voter in the State. From the day the DMK-led alliance was voted to power in Tamil Nadu in 2021, the Sangh Parivar ecosystem has unleashed many related fake narratives, including how the DMK had demolished thousands of temples in the State, how the anti-Hindu DMK was ill-treating migrant workers from the Hindi heartland, how temple priests are mistreated, and so on.

Another approach is to make it seem as if the DMK is an unreasonable party that is uncaring of the future of the people. Nirmala Sitharaman claimed in Parliament that she had been unable to learn Hindi during her schooling in Tamil Nadu because studying Hindi was banned. All these minor and major claims and allegations feed into the BJP’s giant social media propaganda machine.

In a recent instance, one person, who claimed to be apolitical, asked why the State government in Tamil Nadu did not allow the Central government to set the syllabus in Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu IT Minister P.T.R. Palanivel Thiagarajan, who knew the person and where he lived, immediately called him out. He said on X: “He lives in Chicago…. In the city of Chicago, the school education syllabus is set by the school board of the city of Chicago. Ask him why he lives in a place where the city sets the school board…. He’s telling us that CBSE should set the syllabus for schools in Tamil Nadu…. ”

Senior DMK Ministers said that it was almost impossible to respond in this manner to each fake question and counter the propaganda.

Realising the mammoth challenge on the disinformation front, the government recently created a fact-check wing to ensure that the government machinery can respond in time to malicious propaganda, especially in cases involving sensitive law and order issues.

But at the party level, especially in the districts, the response does not measure up. Speaking to Frontline, a local-level functionary in Tirunelveli said: “The DMK’s leadership in some districts is old and they are facing cases…. The other problem is that if you are in trouble and in a police station, it is a BJP person who now comes to bail you out because the Chief Minister has ordered us not to visit police stations.”

Since it first formed the government in 1967, the DMK’s regional leaders have always dominated the local police stations. To counter the negative image that had arisen as a result, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, after assuming office in May 2021, asked district and local level functionaries not to intervene in any cases.

On another front, the BJP has been consistently trying to enlarge its sphere of influence in Tamil Nadu through all possible means, including reaching out to caste groups neglected by both the DMK and the AIADMK, financially helping small temples organise temple festivals, or creating hyperbole around issues such as the suicide of a girl student in Thanjavur or the killing of an ex-serviceman in Krishnagiri.

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The saffron party believes it will be handsomely rewarded in the State’s western region, where it thinks caste equations favour it. Its State president and star campaigner, K. Annamalai, hails from the locally dominant Gounder caste, and the party is also confident of wooing Dalit votes because it has a Scheduled Caste representative as a Union Minister from Tamil Nadu (L. Murugan, the Union Minister of State for Fisheries).

The party’s other major focus areas are Kanyakumari district, from where it won a seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha, and Ramanathapuram, where it thinks it can play the Hindutva card.

However, although a lot of effort and money is being expended across the State, the BJP’s immediate objective is only to unseat the AIADMK and emerge as one of the two major parties in the State. But that will be possible only if AIADMK general secretary and former Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami plays along, which is unlikely.

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