Politics makes for strange bedfellows

| | in Oped
Politics makes for strange bedfellows

By visiting an ailing M Karunanidhi, Narendra Modi has stirred a hornet's nest but the message is loud and clear: The BJP will leave no stone unturned to expand its foothold in south India, keeping in mind the 2019 general election

What does one make of the surprise visit that Prime Minister Narendra Modi made to the Gopalapuram residence of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi last week? Is he looking for a new alliance with Karunanidhi’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)? Is the Prime Minister trying to confuse political parties in Tamil Nadu? Does he want to send shock waves to the DMK’s ally, the Congress? Or is he investing in a future alliance with the Dravidian party?

Interestingly, it was Modi who took the initiative for the meeting.  Whatever might be his intentions; he certainly stirred the hornet’s nest by his visit and added to the confusion further by inviting the old man to come to 7, Race Course Road to take rest. ‘Vanakkam Sir’, Modi greeted Karunanidhi as he held the hands of the 93-year-old veteran seated in a motorised wheel chair during his 20-minute visit, which is seen as a step to a thaw between the two parties in opposite camps for more than 13 years.

Undoubtedly, Modi walked the extra mile for optics. Though his visit was described as a ‘courtesy call’, Modi’s decision to include it in his agenda at the 11th hour indicated a loud and clear ‘political message’ that in politics, there are no permanent enemies or friends. Also a few parties, like the BJP and the DMK, have shown skills of jumping from one camp to another.

The meeting assumes significance because this was the first time that a top BJP leader reached out to the Dravidian party ever since the DMK walked out of the NDA in 2004. Secondly, it shows a significant shift in the BJP’s strategy in Tamil Nadu. The result was immediate as the DMK decided to cancel its protests against demonetisation on November 8, citing incessant rains in eight districts as a reason. The Centre, on its part, sent its signal with the on-going income tax raids on the residences of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader VK Sasikala and her nephew TTV Dhinakaran.

This was also a warning to the warring ruling AIADMK factions led by the Edappadi K Palaniswami and O  Panneerselvam. The party split after Jayalalithaa’s death in December 2016  only to see the two groups come together to expel a third faction this year. The BJP’s dilemma is whether to go with the leaderless AIADMK, which will face anti-incumbency or a cadre-based DMK. The DMK’s chances as of now are fairly bright and this has not escaped the attention of the politically astute BJP.

Why did the BJP change its strategy in Tamil Nadu? It is no big secret that the party is looking to expand in the south, West Bengal, Odisha and the North-East. With 39 MPs, Tamil Nadu is an important State for the BJP, which is a marginal player in the State, to risk its bets on a single party. While the BJP has to contend with the Congress in Kerala and Karnataka, regional parties dominate Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telengana.

Though the BJP has brokered peace between the OPS and EPS faction’s, stability is proving elusive. A divided AIADMK may be a useful ally in Parliament but does not guarantee success in elections. The DMK, in the BJP’s current assessment, seems to be a reliable ally for the 2019 poll. After all, the DMK had been with the NDA earlier and had proved to be an undemanding ally. Moreover, the entry of matinee idols, like Kamal Haasan and Vijayakanth, might add new flavour to State politics. Most importantly, it could break the Congress-DMK unity and lure the UPA ally to its side.

Even till two months ago, the BJP had not looked at this possibility of wooing the DMK. The BJP needs the Dravidian parties as it has not been able to make a foothold in Tamil Nadu for decades because of its Brahminical nature. The BJP is seen as a north Indian party and its main problem will be language, as even the most eloquent speakers like Atal Bihari Vajpayee were not able to click in the State. Ram Mandir is not an emotional issue in the State while imposition of Hindi is.  Though caste violence is common, religious violence is not known in the State.

The BJP is readying its battle plan for the 2019 poll and is looking towards south India to offset any setbacks in central and northern India, where the party swept in 2014.  The BJP managers have formulated a three-fold strategy to strengthen the BJP. The first is to get more NDA allies and mostly by weakening the UPA. The Janata Dal (United), led by Nitish Kumar, has already come to the NDA fold. The DMK also comes in this category.

The second is to expand its base by getting more party workers and more vote share in the country. The party has now 11 crore members, the largest party in the world.  The third is to import leaders from other parties like it did in Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Manipur, Maharashtra and other States. The BJP is already ruling in 19 States, either by itself or with alliance partners. The Prime Minister was clearly testing the waters in the larger interest of the party’s ‘mission South’.

(The writer is a senior political commentator and syndicated columnist)

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