The Bharatiya Janata Party’s sterling performance in the recently concluded local body elections in Tamil Nadu has surprised everyone, including the poll analysts, and shocked the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leadership.
The ruling alliance has won all 21 municipal corporations, with the DMK alone winning 17 of them. The alliance also won in most of the 138 municipalities and 489 town panchayats. Clearly, its rival AIADMK did not envisage such a resounding victory and drubbing for itself.
But the surprise part of the story is the performance of the BJP, which has won 22 seats out of 1374 corporation wards, 56 seats out of 2,843 municipal wards and 230 out of 7,621 town panchayat seats. This amounts to 3 per cent of the vote share and 308 seats, not the kind of victory that the BJP or its rivals were expecting. The party has finally arrived in Tamil Nadu, which should be a cause of worry for the Dravidian forces.
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BJP’s solo run
What made the contest challenging and interesting is the fact that the BJP fought the local body elections all by itself. It was in talks with the AIADMK, the coalition partner in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). After the demise of Jayalalithaa, the AIADMK government in the state was run with the help of the BJP government at the Centre. But while the BJP could make no impact in the assembly election, the AIADMK lost the state to its rival DMK.
The two unequal partners, the BJP and the AIADMK, tried their best to present a picture of unity in fighting their common adversary the DMK. The BJP realised the futility of demanding equal share of seats with the AIADMK, which was considering the BJP as a liability with its ‘northern party, Hindi belt party and pro-Hindu party’ image. The AIADMK probably thought it would be better to keep the BJP as a junior partner only to benefit in some limited constituencies. The worst part of the poll alliance talks was the decision of the AIADMK not to accommodate any of the BJP’s demands. This is where the BJP decided to take the biggest political risk of walking out of the poll alliance talks just four days before the last date of filing nominations.
In the next four days the BJP managed to field as many as 5,480 candidates all over the state and run a fierce campaign in the next 18 days. The stalwarts from the national leadership were not campaigning, which is understandable as they either had very little exposure at the ground level or were not very enthusiastic about local body elections in a state where the party was not considered a political force.
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BJP’s gamble and challenge
While the BJP’s unexpectedly surprising performance all over Tamil Nadu was probably not foreseen by the party’s central leadership, the DMK could now comprehend the rise of the BJP as a challenge. After the Jayalalitha-Karunanidhi era ended around 2016-17, the political future of the regional parties appeared to be bleak. But the total absence of national parties gave them some hope of staging a political comeback and keeping the state insulated from the influence of both the Congress and the BJP.
The Congress meanwhile got busy doing what it seems to be good at – shooting at its own foot. Many Congress stalwarts began sulking as the central leadership was keen on playing second fiddle to the DMK rather than projecting its own leaders. The BJP had two choices; either project its own homegrown leaders or piggyback on the popularity of the silver screen super hero Rajinikanth. The actor had launched a party and raised the hopes of the BJP to become a poll partner. But Rajinikanth did a somersault and withdrew from politics. Thus the BJP had no other choice but to launch its own leader.
The central leadership took the risk of handing over the state unit to a newcomer, former IPS officer K Annamalai. The gambit worked and Annamalai galvanised the BJP cadre to such an extent that everyone took note of his remarkable performance, working style, simplicity and above all the grit and determination to fight back.
The BJP’s discovery of a strong state leader capable of leading the party on his own strength, form a formidable team and emerge as an effective political alternative to the Dravidian ideology and caste-based political outfits comes as a huge opportunity at a time when there is a leadership vacuum in Tamil Nadu.
DMK scion Karunanidhi’s son M.K. Stalin managed to deal a blow to the AIADMK in the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2021 assembly elections. This time too, the local body elections have turned out to be a resounding victory to his leadership. But this victory run may not continue given the changing mood of the youth and women voters who have begun to look for economic opportunities, jobs and development.
Tamil Nadu has a huge potential to develop as a leading state. The BJP too has an opportunity to emerge as an alternative pole in politics and wean the state away from caste-oriented politics and silver screen leadership. But it is not going to be an easy task, which will also require the central leadership’s understanding and acceptance of the state’s internal dynamics.
The author is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. He tweets @seshadrichari. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)