New Delhi: The BJP’s relative success in the Tamil Nadu urban body polls has triggered a debate on whether it signals the party’s true ‘arrival’ in the state. While the BJP has made much of the “lotus blooming” in Tamil Nadu, its performance is still a long distance away from a clean sweep.
Out of the 12,838 seats across municipal corporations, municipalities, and town panchayats, the BJP fielded candidates in 5,400, and won a total of 308. In all, the BJP won 9.26 lakh votes — 5.4 per cent of the total vote share — in the polls, held last month.
This represents a notable gain for the party, especially when compared to the 2.1 per cent vote it managed in the urban body polls in 2011, when they were last held.
While the BJP did win four seats during the Tamil Nadu assembly elections last year, marking its arrival in the assembly after two decades, it did so as part of an alliance with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). For the urban body polls, in contrast, the BJP contested on its own.
The results were encouraging enough for state party chief K. Annamalai to declare that the BJP was making the “lotus bloom in every nook and corner” of Tamil Nadu.
Today results of #UrbanLocalBodyElection came. BJP got a great victory. It has entered many places where we were not there earlier. We are making Lotus bloom in every nook and corner: Tamil Nadu BJP president K Annamalai pic.twitter.com/XsnCt0Ecg6
— ANI (@ANI) February 22, 2022
Speaking to ThePrint, Tamil Nadu BJP spokesperson Narayan Thirupathy also said that the party was not surprised at its “success”.
“Much of this success is due to PM Modi’s development agenda and policies. Be it the Jan Dhan Yojana, Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao, Kisan Samman Nidhi, or free ration and gas during the lockdown — all of this appealed to the public. It is also because the cadres took the party to the public,” he said.
However, this “blooming of the lotus” was more in evidence in Kanyakumari than other districts. Out of the 308 seats that the BJP won, 199 (11 corporation seats, 20 municipal seats, and 168 town panchayats) were in Kanyakumari.
Many political analysts also say that while the BJP’s presence has improved in Tamil Nadu, it still has a long distance to cover.
BJP’s inroads in Tamil Nadu
In the 2021 state polls, the BJP fielded 20 candidates and finally ended its two-decade absence from the legislative assembly when four of them won. The party had a total vote share of 2.62 per cent in the state, but in just the 20 seats it contested, this went up to 34.26 per cent, according to the calculations of Ashoka University’s Trivedi Centre for Political Data.
The BJP’s performance has consistently been stronger in certain pockets of the state.
The party’s most reliable support base in Tamil Nadu is Kanyakumari, home to a substantial Hindu Nadar population, from where the first BJP MLA in the state — C. Velayudhan— was elected from Padmanabhapuram constituency in 1996.
In this year’s urban body polls, too, most of the BJP’s votes came from Kanyakumari, followed by Tenkasi. The party also won from four wards in Nagercoil, and one each in Chennai, Madurai, Tiruchengode, and Namakkal.
Going by the 2021 elections, the BJP also enjoys a support base in Coimbatore (from where it elected an MLA last year) and South Chennai. Its voters in Coimbatore are mostly the Gounders and migrant populations, while in South Chennai, Brahmins and other Hindu communities back the party. The BJP, however, did not fare very impressively in these two regions in the urban body polls.
Despite its patchy showing and being dubbed as an “outsider” and even “anti-Tamil” party, the BJP has over the past few years managed to amplify its voice in the Opposition and has hit out at the DMK government at every opportunity — such as in the allegedly conversion-related Lavanya suicide case — where its alliance partner, the AIADMK, has been more low-key.
Even in the urban body elections, where the DMK grabbed a vote share of more than 43 per cent, the BJP took the opportunity to castigate it for allegedly winning by misusing official machinery and exerting money power.
Political analyst Sumanth Raman said that the BJP was benefiting from the weakening of the AIADMK, and was slowly eating into its vote-share.
“Currently, I would say [the BJP is] the third largest party in Tamil Nadu as the Congress is too dependent on the DMK and not looking to expand its party base. This is one of the main reasons which is making it weaker,” he said.
According to Raman, it might be a while before the BJP can shake off its “pro-Hindi-anti-Tamil” tag, but he credited state BJP chief K. Annamalai for his efforts in trying to set a fresh discourse around the party.
“From an energetic campaign against the DMK to moving the BJP away from being a Brahmin-dominated party in Tamil Nadu, Annamalai has made significant attempts to alter the narrative, which will help the BJP in the long run,” he said.
State BJP leaders have been clear that they are playing a long game in Tamil Nadu, and have made plans to expand their footprint over the next 15 to 20 years. In an earlier interview with ThePrint, Annamalai had also predicted that the party would win at least 150 seats (out of 234) in the 2026 state elections.
‘AIADMK weakening more than BJP strengthening’
The AIADMK secured only 20.96 per cent of the votes in the local body elections, compared to its 41.58 per cent vote-share in the 2011 elections.
In response to this flagging performance, senior party leader and former state minister C. Ponnaiyan accused not just the DMK but also the BJP of using money to win votes.
“The BJP has almost put in money equivalent to the DMK in these elections. It has only fielded extremely rich candidates, and even then not done that well,” he alleged, and also cast aspersions on the electronic voting machines (EVMs).
However, many analysts attribute the AIADMK’s lacklustre performance to not having a strong leadership — other than its top leaders, former chief ministers O. Panneerselvam and Edappadi K. Palaniswami — and little cohesiveness within its ranks.
“No one in the AIADMK knows their goals, they are clueless. Moreover, the alliance with the BJP has weighed heavily on them, shrinking their vote base. Also, the BJP is strangulating the AIADMK leadership,” professor R. Ramu Manivannan, former head of the department of politics and public administration, University of Madras, said.
The BJP, meanwhile, attributed its performance to its decision to fight alone.
“Because we were not in an alliance with the AIADMK for these elections, we could field more candidates. We would not have had this kind of success if we had stayed within the alliance. This kind of show of strength would not have been possible,” BJP spokesperson Narayan Thirupathy said, adding that there were no cracks or strains in the alliance.
However, some political analysts believe that the BJP’s showing in the urban polls is not a reflection of a major change in Tamil Nadu.
“The BJP should read this as a transition of them going from nowhere to somewhere. It is definitely a step forward, but not much should be read into it,” Manivannan said.
He explained that the BJP was enjoying more success due to the “miserably weak” situation of the AIADMK and its faltering grassroots presence, but that the gains were limited to pockets like Kanyakumari. It also did not win big in regions where it is believed to have a large support base (such as Coimbatore, Tiruppur, and Nagercoil) and failed to open its account in 10 districts.
According to Tara Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Political Shakti, an organisation that advocates for more women MPs and MLAs, the BJP’s claims of being the third-largest party in Tamil Nadu due to its local body poll performance are disputable, and its success also comes from its heft and influence as India’s ruling party.
“Their resources are immense and unparalleled when compared to other parties,” she said, but acknowledged that the BJP was “here to stay” in Tamil Nadu.
The ruling DMK, however, was dismissive about the BJP’s performance.
“This is nothing. The BJP can never shine in Tamil Nadu. The national policy of the BJP —muscular Hindutva and Hindi imposition — will never work here,” DMK spokesperson Saravanan Annadurai said.