Testing the waters in Tamil Nadu’s Ramanathapuram

Despite its campaigns in the district, the BJP has chosen not to contest the polls

Updated - April 09, 2024 01:30 pm IST

Published - April 09, 2024 12:36 am IST

A view of Katchatheevu island in Palk Strait.

A view of Katchatheevu island in Palk Strait. | Photo Credit: L. Balachandar

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has revived the row over Katchatheevu, an uninhabited, barren islet about 14 nautical miles off Rameswaram in Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu. An agreement between India and Sri Lanka in June 1974 recognised Katchatheevu in the Palk Strait as a part of Sri Lanka.

On March 31, reacting to the reply to a Right to Information query filed by the BJP State president, K. Annamalai, Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted on X that “new facts” showed how the Congress “callously gave away” the islet. The next day, he accused the Congress’s ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), of having done “nothing” to safeguard the interests of Tamil Nadu. Mr. Annamalai’s contention is that M. Karunanidhi, who was Tamil Nadu Chief Minister in the early 1970s, should have prevented the Centre from signing the agreement with Sri Lanka.

Responding to this, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK president M.K. Stalin asked whether Mr. Modi had raised the issue of the “retrieval of the islet” with the Sri Lankan government even once during his tenure as Prime Minister. He said that the issue was being raked up as part of the BJP’s election strategy.

In 1974, shortly after the bilateral agreement with Sri Lanka was signed, the BJP’s previous avatar, the Jana Sangh, had challenged the accord through its State unit secretary, “Jana” K. Krishnamurthi, on the grounds that this had been done without the approval of Parliament and without proper amendment of the Constitution. The State unit of the BJP too has been consistently demanding “retrieval” of the islet, even though its national leadership has not made any statement to this effect, possibly because it is aware of the impact on bilateral relations with Sri Lanka.

Back in 2007, the BJP protested against the Sethusamudram Project on the ground that it would destroy the Rama Setu, officially called Adam’s Bridge. The BJP had supported the call for declaring the site as a national heritage monument.

All these campaigns are part of the BJP’s long-standing project to make inroads into the southern districts of Tamil Nadu in general and strike a chord with the fishing community in particular. In January 2014, BJP leader Sushma Swaraj had participated in the ‘Kadal Thamarai’ (sea lotus) meeting to espouse the cause of the fishing community. There was even a strong rumour for about two years that Mr. Modi would contest from the Ramanathapuram Lok Sabha constituency this time, despite the fact that the BJP has never won the seat. Some people have said that the party is trying to use the “Rama card” to strike a chord with voters. This belief got strengthened when Mr. Modi visited Rameswaram, took a dip at the ‘Agnitheertham’ on the eastern beach of the Ramanathaswamy temple, and witnessed special pujas, a few days before the consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya in January.

WATCH | Katchatheevu: Impact of foreign policy issues during election season

In terms of electoral politics, the party performed modestly in the three Lok Sabha elections it contested in 2009, 2014, and 2019, securing a vote share of 16.5%, 17.09%, and 32.13%, respectively. While in 2009, the BJP faced the electorate without the support of any major or established party, in 2014 and 2019 it put up its candidates as a constituent of a front. This time, the party has allotted the constituency to former coordinator of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), O. Panneerselvam, who hails from Periyakulam in Theni district.

Editorial | No man’s land: Playing politics over Katchatheevu 

In contrast to the previous Lok Sabha elections when the BJP contested only five seats including Ramanathapuram, this time it is contesting 23. Its candidates include T. Devanathan Yadav, a prominent businessman who is contesting from Sivaganga, and Tamizhaga Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam president B. John Pandian, who is contesting from Tenkasi, a reserved constituency for the Scheduled Castes. In certain sections, the BJP is being given the credit for getting a notification issued three years ago to use the common nomenclature Devendrakula Velalar to refer to seven different Scheduled Castes who predominantly live in the southern districts of the State. In this context, it is surprising that the party has chosen not to be in the fray in Ramanathapuram and leave the constituency to Mr. Panneerselvam. It begs the question of whether the BJP is unsure about the electoral utility of its campaigns in Ramanathapuram and is only stirring up a row to corner the Congress and the DMK.

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