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Will BJP’s dogged efforts to enter Tamil Nadu and Kerala yield any results?

Prime Minister Modi’s relentless visits to the States signal BJP’s strategic move to secure elusive seats in regions resistant to its influence.

Published : Mar 18, 2024 17:25 IST - 6 MINS READ

At Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public meeting in Tiruppur to mark the end of Tamil Nadu BJP president K. Annamalai’s yatra, on February 27.

At Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public meeting in Tiruppur to mark the end of Tamil Nadu BJP president K. Annamalai’s yatra, on February 27. | Photo Credit: R. SENTHILKUMAR/PTI

On March 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his sixth visit to Tamil Nadu in 2024. He also embarked on another trip to Kerala the same day. With the Lok Sabha election around the corner, the Bharatiya Janata Party believes this unprecedented increase in visits by the Prime Minister can win it a few seats in two States that have eluded it so far. Modi was in Tamil Nadu twice in January, twice in February, and once in March earlier. Together, Kerala and Tamil Nadu account for 59 seats in the Lok Sabha. Union Territory Puducherry is part of the alliance calculations in Tamil Nadu, taking the total number of seats to 60.

The BJP drew a blank in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh in the 2019 Lok Sabha election and was not in the race for the lone seat in Puducherry. Of the 29 Lok Sabha seats it won in south India in 2019, Karnataka contributed 25 and Telangana 4.

The last time the BJP won a seat in Tamil Nadu or Kerala was in 2014, when Pon Radhakrishnan won the Kanyakumari seat in a four-cornered contest. In Kerala, while the BJP is yet to win a Lok Sabha seat, it picked up a 13 per cent vote share in the 2019 election and has had a consistent 10 per cent vote share in the national elections before that.

Also Read | Daring dozen: 12 crucial States where BJP is likely to face a stiff challenge

“Whenever I come to Tamil Nadu, the warmth and affection of the people leaves me spellbound,” Modi noted on the social media platform X on January 20. “The hard work of our party is visible on the ground and Tamil Nadu is looking towards BJP with great hope. People are convinced only BJP can fulfill their dreams,” he asserted in another post on February 27.

No change in electoral template

The template for achieving the impossible dream of a few seats from these States is the same: spreading misinformation, accusing the ruling party of corruption and nepotism, heavily publicising Modi’s visits to temples, taking over smaller political parties with generous support from the investigation agencies, massive deployment of resources in social media campaigns, calibrated outreach to select minority groups, and employing Governors to frustrate the administration of elected governments.

At the dawn of the New Year, the Prime Minister was in Tamil Nadu, claiming that he was celebrating with the people of the State. “Over the next two days, I will be attending various programmes in Tamil Nadu, Lakshadweep and Kerala,” he posted on X. He went on to describe the functions he would participate in. On January 2, he posted: “It is a matter of immense joy that my first public programme of 2024 took place in the great state of Tamil Nadu and that too among our Yuva Shakthi.”

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

He was back again the same month on an 11-day pilgrimage of the southern States, ahead of the inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya on January 22. He came back in February; this time at the culmination of BJP State president K. Annamalai’s “En mann, En makkal” yatra across the State.

At the public meeting in Chennai on February 28, he made it a point to highlight the fact that although Union Minister of State L. Murugan was not elected by the people of Tamil Nadu, he was inducted into the Ministry. “Thiru L. Murugan ji is a son of the soil of Tamil Nadu. He didn’t win from the State, but we have given him a place of pride in the Ministry and sent him to the Rajya Sabha from Hindi-speaking Madhya Pradesh,” he told the gathering.

Strangely, during this visit, Modi praised All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) founder M.G. Ramachandran (“incomparable leader”) as well as former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. In 2023, Annamalai had spoken ill of Jayalalithaa, who was convicted in a disproportionate assets case.

Following Annamalai’s comments, the AIADMK had reacted strongly, calling to question his political experience and maturity. AIADMK general secretary Edappadi Palaniswami had, at that time, reminded the BJP that the “AIADMK was the reason that the BJP formed a government [at the Centre] for the first time in mid-1998”. Modi’s gesture this time appears to be a calculated effort to soothe the troubled waters between the AIADMK and the BJP leadership in the State.

The AIADMK, which is the principal opposition party in Tamil Nadu, was a BJP ally until September 2023, but broke off following differences with Annamalai’s less-than-polite utterances about the AIADMK leadership. The BJP is desperate to get the AIADMK back into its fold, but has not met with success yet.

With the AIADMK still playing hard to convince, the BJP has set its sights on the lesser parties in Tamil Nadu. All of these parties are waiting for a chance to align with a party that can guarantee them protection from raids by Central agencies.

In Kerala, the BJP’s biggest catch in recent times has been Anil Antony, son of Congress leader and former Union Minister A.K. Antony. He is contesting from Pathanamthitta. The party has also been able to convince a small section of orthodox Christians that the BJP is the way forward for them. This has come through despite some Christian protests against the attack on churches in Manipur.

The biggest fight in Kerala that the Delhi-centred media is focussing on is the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha seat, where Congress MP Shashi Tharoor faces Union Minister of State Rajeev Chandrasekhar of the BJP. But the party’s real focus is on Palakkad, where the BJP won a municipal chairman race in the last local body elections, and Pathanamthitta, where the BJP fancies its chances because Sabarimala falls in this constituency and the BJP had organised many agitations in connection with a host of issues relating to the temple.

The contest in Thiruvananthapuram: Shashi Tharoor vs Rajeev Chandrasekhar. But it is the Left Democratic Front candidate, Pannyan Raveendran, former CPI State secretary, who is expected to be the real threat to Tharoor.

The contest in Thiruvananthapuram: Shashi Tharoor vs Rajeev Chandrasekhar. But it is the Left Democratic Front candidate, Pannyan Raveendran, former CPI State secretary, who is expected to be the real threat to Tharoor. | Photo Credit: PTI

In the case of Thiruvananthapuram, Rajeev is actually fighting for third place. Left Democratic Front candidate Pannyan Raveendran, who was the CPI State secretary from 2012 to 2015, is a well-known face with a dedicated cadre vote base. Thrissur is another seat where the BJP is hoping to make some headway with actor Suresh Gopi.

Stakes in Puducherry

The only place where the BJP is locked in a straight contest against the Congress is Puducherry, where the Chief Minister N. Rangasamy has conceded the seat to the BJP. (In 2019, his party, the All India NR Congress contested.) Although the government in Puducherry is for all practical purposes controlled by the BJP, the Lok Sabha election is not a done deal, largely because in a small Union Territory like Puducherry the candidate matters as much as organisational muscle.

Also Read | Puducherry: BJP’s port of entry to the South

Given these facts, what explains Prime Minister Modi’s push in Kerala and Tamil Nadu where the BJP has a minuscule presence? There could be two reasons. One, it could be because Modi wants to disprove Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who challenged him in Parliament and said he would not make any headway in Tamil Nadu. The other could be that the Prime Minister genuinely believes that the development rhetoric he belts out in his rallies has the potential to convince the well-educated and socially aware people of Tamil Nadu and Kerala to vote for him.

Which of these predictions will come true will be known in June.

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