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Kamaraj, MGR & Jaya, BJP is using them all to fight ‘North Indian outsider’ tag in Tamil Nadu

With no local icon, BJP's election campaign in Tamil Nadu is leaning on its 'politics of borrowing'. Congress says people won’t fall for it, DMK takes a dig for using K. Kamaraj.

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Chennai: Four years after the RSS held its first annual meeting in Tamil Nadu, its political offshoot BJP will contest from 20 assembly seats in the upcoming elections. But the BJP’s biggest hurdle in the south Indian state is that of its image of a ‘north Indian Brahminical outsider’.

Sorely lacking a local icon, the BJP is borrowing leaders from not just its ally AIADMK, but also arch rival, the Congress. Its desperate search for local faces has made it a target of political jibes, though the BJP leaders say they are just happy that this has brought them into public conversations.

But enlisting late Congress leader and former CM of Tamil Nadu K. Kamaraj into its pantheon of cutouts at election rallies isn’t going down well with the Congress in the state.

“Maybe they have forgotten, members of the RSS tried burning his house down. That incident can never be forgotten by Kamaraj’s followers,” Tamil Nadu Congress general secretary S. Vanamamalai told ThePrint.

The BJP last month used life-size cutouts of Kamaraj and AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR, at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Coimbatore rally. 

In the line-up of the cutouts were Modi, BJP national president Jagat Prakash Nadda, state BJP chief L. Murugan, and BJP leader C.T. Ravi. On the extreme left, were cut-outs of a smiling MGR and stern Kamaraj. 

Last November, the BJP launched the Vetrivel Yatra by invoking Lord Murugan. The yatra’s promotional video, featuring visuals of MGR, had left the AIADMK fuming at the time.

But four months later, AIADMK said “the BJP feels they can only make an entry through MGR”.

“All of this is evidence of that fact after so many years, parties still rely on the popularity of a leader like MGR,” senior AIADMK leader C. Ponnaiyan told ThePrint. 

Besides Kamaraj and MGR, the BJP has also garlanded images of late CM J. Jayalalithaa. 

But the BJP’s use of ideological opponent Kamaraj drew criticism from both the opposition and regional media.

The DMK took a dig at the BJP saying that while it advocates a ‘Congress-mukt India, it uses Kamaraj in their political campaigns. 

Congress’ Vanamamalai said, “The BJP has no history in Tamil Nadu, forget historical leaders and now they are trying to use Kamaraj to make a base in Tamil Nadu.” 

He said the BJP needs to realise that Tamil Nadu is very different from the rest of India and people would not fall for this. “After this, instead of voting for the BJP, people will vote against them.”

The BJP, however, countered the Congress and questioned whether they had a patent on Kamaraj.

“It was Kamaraj, who opposed former PM Indira Gandhi and her imposition of Emergency,” said Tamil Nadu BJP spokesperson Narayan Thirupathy.

But in this whole politics of borrowing leaders from different parties, there is one Tamil leader who the BJP wouldn’t dare to invoke — he is Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy, commonly known as ‘Periyar’, the anti-Brahmin iconoclast and the architect of the 1925 self-respect movement

“EVR (Periyar) was an atheist who abused Hindu Gods, so no, we will not incorporate him,” said Thirupathy.

Also read: Stalin is no Karunanidhi, but this is how he’s rebranding his image in Tamil Nadu politics

Leaving no stone unturned 

Aware of its outsider image, the BJP is leaving no stone unturned in Tamil Nadu. Both Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Modi in their rallies have expressed their dismay at “not knowing one of the oldest and sweetest languages of India” — Tamil. 

Besides incorporating prominent leaders in their poll campaigns, Shah even mentioned celebrated Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar in his rally. 

“PM Modi has expressed his desire to learn Tamil and read Thiruvalluvar in Tamil… Indian culture is incomplete without Tamil culture,” he said at a rally in Villupuram on 28 February.

Its ally, AIADMK, however, has a word of advice.

Ponnaiyan told ThePrint if the BJP focused on issues such as the Cauvery water dispute, the language issue, then they would not need to use cult leaders like Kamaraj and MGR. 

But BJP leader Khushbu Sundar told ThePrint, the party had always appreciated leaders in the past. “We are not arrogant, PM Modi has always appreciated leaders who have worked for the public.”  

The BJP is, however, yet to publicly invoke RSS or one of its popular leaders K.B. Hedgewar, the founder of the organisation, in its election campaigns.

One explanation behind this could be BJP’s attempt to counter its image of a ‘Brahmanical party’ in a Dravidian state, which has a long history of opposing Brahminical Hinduism

“The RSS is strong, but does not need to come out openly,” BJP’s Thirupathy said.

BJP Tamil Nadu chief L. Murugan had earlier said that the party would work harder to reach out to Dalits. 

Associate professor at the department of political science at Presidency College in Chennai, E. Chithra said the BJP is likely to focus on Hindu gods such as Lord Murugan to assert that it would “save Lord Murugan from the Dravidian parties”.

Also read: BJP inroads clear in Tamil Nadu but Amit Shah’s ‘Midas touch’ faces tough test in 2021


AIADMK confident of its legacy

Despite the BJP garlanding its stalwarts and using their cut-outs in rallies, the AIADMK remained confident of its legacy.  

Ponnaiyan said people of Tamil Nadu know that the two leaves (AIADMK’s symbol) are the symbol of Amma (Jayalalithaa) and MGR. “Whoever uses their images is canvassing votes for the AIADMK.”

The BJP, however, argued that the fact it has garnered so much attention for invoking leaders of other parties could also be reflective of the progress it was making in Tamil Nadu. 

“BJP was always a non-starter in the state, but it has picked up. When people keep targeting the BJP, when (DMK chief M.K.) Stalin picks up the ‘vel’ (spear associated with Lord Murugan) in his hand, then you know the party is making inroads and it is being noticed,” said Khusbhu. 

(Edited by Debalina Dey)

Also read: AIADMK, DMK, MMK, MNM, DMDK — Decoding Tamil Nadu’s political alphabet sambar


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