Where the lotus meets two leaves

Union Home Minister with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam in Chennai on November 21, 2020.   | Photo Credit: S.R. Raghunathan

Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s high-profile visit to Chennai last week brought to an end the developing discourse on whether the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) would remain an ally of his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for the Tamil Nadu Assembly election slated for April-May next year.

The AIADMK’s coordinator-Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam and co-coordinator-Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, the men who matter in the party, used Mr. Shah’s presence to declare that their party would go to the poll along with the BJP and others. In contrast to former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s approach of dumping partners once elections were over, the two leaders retained their allies even after a disastrous performance during the 2019 Lok Sabha election and faced the polls to the local bodies together later.

Editorial | Matchmaking: On AIADMK’s alliance with BJP

Where the lotus meets two leaves

Signs of discord

Yet, on a host of issues at least in the last six months, there were visible signs of discord between the AIADMK and the BJP. The differences between the two parties were obvious on the subject of the three-language formula, the abolition of the free electricity scheme for farmers, the denial of permission for the procession of Vinayaka idols, and regarding restrictions on the BJP State president L. Murugan’s ‘Vetrivel Yatra’ covering six abodes of Lord Muruga. The AIADMK never forgets to assert its “principled opposition” to the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test for undergraduate medical courses, despite the test being held in the State since 2017. Given the fact that Muslims and Christians, as per the 2011 Census, constitute 11.98% of the State’s population, the question was also raised whether the AIADMK, whose vote share went down to about 18% last year from about 40% in 2016, should ignore the minorities’ votes for the sake of its alliance with the BJP.

After the Bihar Assembly election outcome, several commentators began to predict that just as the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar has become the BJP’s junior partner, the AIADMK too would meet a similar fate, should it continue its relationship. Not many in the Dravidian party have forgotten how their party’s image was hit by searches carried out by Central agencies at Fort St. George, the seat of power of the State government, or on the residences of Health Minister C. Vijayabaskar, for one reason or the other, in the period immediately after Jayalalithaa’s death.

There is a growing view within the AIADMK that the present government led by Mr. Palaniswami, which began its innings in February 2017 with several handicaps, regained much of its lost ground by late 2019. Now, there is “no feeling of negativity” towards the State government, which got appreciation from the Home Minister when he came here. It was another matter that in his visit to Chennai in July 2018, Mr. Shah described Tamil Nadu as one of the States “most affected by corruption”.

Also read | Corruption has reached its pinnacle under AIADMK rule: Amit Shah

The Palaniswami regime’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and decision of giving 7.5% horizontal quota for admission to medical courses for students of government schools have led to many senior leaders in the party entertaining the notion that the party would do well at the hustings without most of its allies including the BJP.

At the same time, there are reasons for the two parties to continue their alliance. The absence of a charismatic leader of the stature of M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) or Jayalalithaa has left the party with very few options. The AIADMK is seen by its adversaries as giving back its due to the national party for enabling it to complete its term. What should not also be overlooked is its support to the BJP-led government at the Centre on crucial occasions such as the no-confidence motion in July 2018, the dilution of Article 370 in August 2019, and the adoption of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill four months later. That the national party would be in power at the Centre for three and a half more years would have been factored in by the AIADMK leadership at the time of its announcement of the alliance.

Ever since the 1977 Assembly election marked the AIADMK’s emergence as one of the two principal political players of the State, the other being the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), these two parties generally contested the polls in the company of allies, major or minor. This was despite the two bagging collectively, on an average, 60% of the total votes polled in all these years. Jayalalithaa’s experiment in 2016 of fielding her party’s nominees in all the 234 Assembly seats should be considered an aberration. In Assembly elections over the last 20 years, the DMK aligned itself with the BJP once (2001) and with the Congress thrice (2006, 2011 and 2016). This time too, the situation is not going to be any different.

The BJP in Tamil Nadu

Notwithstanding little support from empirical data for any claim on the BJP’s growing base, there is a perception in the political and academic circles that the party is, of late, creating a “tangible impact” in the State, which has, so far, refused to provide substantial political space to religion-centric parties. This has coincided with the innings of Dr. Murugan as the BJP’s State president. That he hails from the Arunthathiyar community, which is considered more backward than many other constituents of the Scheduled Castes in the State, is also contributing positively to the party’s image.

Also read | BJP aspires to come to power in TN, says Vanathi Srinivasan

Perhaps taking cue from MGR’s formula, the BJP is aggressively positioning itself as an anti-DMK force, as reflected in Mr. Shah’s severe criticism of the DMK. This can complement the base of the AIADMK, known to be pro-religion including Hindu ritualism. Otherwise, it would not get the benefit of support from those who would prefer an anti-DMK political formation to others.

Even as the BJP aims at becoming a big player in Tamil Nadu, it should not forget that apart from the symbol of ‘two leaves’ and charisma of MGR and Jayalalithaa, the AIADMK has grown over the years on the strength of welfarism, identity politics, social justice and avoidance of the politics of demonising any community.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2021 6:12:26 AM |

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