Can BJP strategy help it breach a seemingly impregnable Tamil Nadu ?

Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
After a week-long focus on budget and its impact, the attention of the Nation has once again turned to electoral politics as fascinating battles are lined up for five States.
I had a couple of weeks ago shared few pointers on what can be possible outcomes in the five States going to the polls, based on election eve surveys of the electorate in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Puducherry.
Official notification for the Assembly polls is expected in a couple of weeks, but campaigning has picked up momentum with the ruling BJP at the Centre going all out, fielding its biggest guns–Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and its party president JP Nadda, besides plenty of its star campaigners. These high-profile political visits to Tamil Nadu are just about to start with Prime Minister Narendra Modi slated to spend some time in Tamil Nadu on Sunday.
The intent is very clear–expansion of party footprint to become a truly pan India party, and in the process further weakening its principal National opponent, the Congress across the country in States where it still has pockets of influence.
The chief strategists of the BJP’s stupendous growth over the past 7 years seldom reveal their cards, and often make moves that are not so easy to fathom in the beginning.
Its Tamil Nadu game plan appears to be one such exercise to help its ally, a relatively weakened ruling AIADMK return to power, for the third time in a row–a feat that no political party has achieved in the State for the past four decades. The BJP’s deployment, and or encouragement to smaller players, is a case in point. If the BJP manages to make its presence felt in Tamil Nadu, it would be a significant breach in the hitherto impregnable fort that the State has become for the ‘North Indian Hindi party’, as it is dubbed there.
I would, for this time, concentrate on the happenings in Tamil Nadu as it gets more fascinating with each passing day, as the broad contours of the BJP begin to get revealed. On paper, at the time of writing this article, the odds favour the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) which has its alliances more or less tied up. Also, it has nothing to fear from the return of former Chief Minister J Jayalalitha’s aide VK Sasikala to a tumultuous welcome in Tamil Nadu after serving out a four-year sentence on graft charges. If anything, Sasikala and her nephew TTV Dhinakaran, can inflict severe damage to the ruling AIADMK that expelled ‘Chinnamma’ (junior Amma) and her relatives from the party, in Southern Tamil Nadu and delta regions. At a rough estimate, she can spoil the chances of ruling AIADMK-BJP plus alliance in nearly 40 to 50 seats in the elections for 234 seat TN Assembly.
At the moment the people of Tamil Nadu are witnessing a battle royal between the two factions of the AIADMK, both claiming the legacy of Jayalalitha, or Amma as she was fondly referred to by her admirers and followers.
The ruling AIADMK, Chief Minister E Palaniswami has already ruled out her entry into the party, and in fact, has ordered the confiscation of few properties belonging to Sasikala and her relatives, indicating the animosity between the two sides.
And from Sasikala’s perspective, her intent for the present seems to be to settle scores with the Chief Minister, her own appointee who turned against her, ensure his defeat and then try and capture the party.
A quip from a friend from Chennai, for Sasikala, DMK leader Stalin is only a mere rival in politics, CM EPS is her real enemy, just about sums up the possible line up in the polls, unless the BJP manages to get these two AIADMK groups together and avoid a split in its vote. For the present, the BJP has maintained a silence in public over Sasikala, and is believed to be having conversations to get the two factions to bury their differences and strengthen the alliance.
Why Sasikala becomes important is for the Thevar caste vote bank she has in her kitty and this can make or mar the chances of the AIADMK alliance in Southern Tamil Nadu and this could spell the end of the EPS regime. Can she really make such a difference ?
In the closely fought Assembly elections, with very narrow margins of victory, every vote counts. The party her nephew launched, Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), totted up nearly 5 percent vote share in the Lok Sabha elections and one can assume it will maintain or improve on this. It is this vote that has the potential to oust the EPS regime, as the results of the 2016 Assembly elections would show.
In those elections, in 13 seats the margin of victory was less than 1000 votes and the AIADMK was the beneficiary as the anti-Amma vote got splintered in five different directions. Moreover, in 66 seats the victory margin was less than 5 percent, which benefitted the AIADMK then and could benefit the DMK today.
It was Jayalalithaa strategy to go it alone, forcing her erstwhile allies to content separately, and thus splitting votes against her. This robbed the DMK of its near-certain victory guaranteed by the revolving door policy the Tamil Nadu voters have adopted to give power to the two Dravidian parties alternatively.
But cut to the present, if the ruling AIADMK and breakaway AMMK do not pool their resources and goodwill, it is certain that the DMK stands to benefit immensely, and this reason alone could ease its victory and enable it to return to power after a gap of 10 years.
Given this scenario, it is clear that the ruling AIADMK is somewhat rattled by the kind of welcome Sasikala got from the people. In fact, Ministers were publicly shying away from commenting on her and revealed their nervousness in public doing a live media interaction and were seen playing the parcel, asking the others to speak to the media.
The fear factor of the AIADMK men, and Ministers as well, is palpable as many of they owe their political life to Sasikala who lived together with Jayalalithaa for close to three decades and wielded tremendous clout. It is believed that her blessings were needed for confirmation of party tickets, plum posts in Government and public life when Jayalalithaa was head of the Government and the party.
Her return from jail and into active politics also poses another dilemma for Chief Minister Palaniswami – whether to give tickets to the sitting MLAs or drop them. Both options could be fraught with danger, as many of them owe their position to Sasikala and could not be trusted. If dropped, surely, they will rebel and damage the prospects of party candidates.
Or will the CM show political pragmatism and play ball with Sasikala and her nephew Dhinakaran, and mount an effective bid to counter the DMK onslaught ? It all depends on the BJP strategy and its efficacy to bring the two warring groups together.
And weave a winning alliance.
Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected] and Twitter handle @kvlakshman