Chennai: Tensions have been running high between the AIADMK and the BJP in Tamil Nadu, but senior leaders of the southern party say that the alliance is a “marriage of compulsion” that will likely survive at least until the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, not least of all because of Prime Minister Modi’s popular appeal.
Over the past week or so, a war of words has raged publicly between the two allies in Tamil Nadu, leading political observers to question if all is well with the alliance.
The discord between the two parties was laid bare at an event last week when AIADMK organisational secretary C. Ponnaiyan lambasted the BJP and accused the Union government of following “anti-Tamil” policies.
He also described the alliance as an “electoral adjustment” and alleged that the BJP was trying to grow at the expense of the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.
The event reportedly had party functionaries echoing these sentiments, albeit in a lighter vein, and agreeing that the BJP was trying to wrest the mantle of principal opposition in the state from the AIADMK.
Speaking to ThePrint, however, senior AIADMK functionaries admitted that the party had little choice but to remain in the alliance if it wanted to stay relevant in the 2024 parliamentary elections, especially in the absence of a strong prime ministerial candidate of their own.
“In the Lok Sabha elections, you need a PM candidate and Modi stands tall today,” a senior AIADMK leader said on condition of anonymity.
“Who is the AIADMK going to project? Problem is whether you like it or not, for the Lok Sabha elections, we cannot contest without the BJP, the BJP cannot go without us. It is a marriage of compulsion,” the leader said.
Even Ponnaiyan, when asked about the sparring, said that the two parties enjoyed a “cordial relationship” despite differences.
The differences are not new. Right after its defeat in the assembly elections in April-May 2021, AIADMK leader and former law minister C.Ve. Shanmugam was outspoken about the alliance with the BJP leading to an erosion of minority votes. Even so, in December that year, the AIADMK expelled key minority leaders, Nilofer Kafil and former labour minister Anwhar Raajhaa. The latter was reportedly against the alliance with the BJP.
“The way the state of the AIADMK is today, is it the case that just because we withdraw from the BJP, are all the minorities going to stand in queue and vote for us? No! Whatever additional vote we get from the BJP also we will lose at this rate,” the senior AIADMK leader told ThePrint.
However, the BJP’s attempts to position itself as the biggest challenger to the ruling DMK is a bitter pill for the AIADMK, which has traditionally fulfilled this role.
ThePrint tried contacting BJP MLA Nainar Nagendran — who created headlines last week by appearing to invite expelled AIADMK leader V.K. Sasikala to the party — over the phone for comment, but did not receive a response.
Also Read: ‘BJP has gone from nowhere to somewhere’: Message from Tamil Nadu local body poll results
A battle for narrative supremacy
The BJP and the AIADMK have been known to be uneasy bedfellows occasionally, but conflicts were generally kept muted until C. Ponnaiyan’s tirade last week, in which he went through a long list of complaints.
He accused the BJP of trying to erode the AIADMK’s presence in the state, even urging party cadres to use social media to expose the BJP’s “double standards” to the public.
Tamil Nadu BJP president K. Annamalai countered these views by saying that the BJP was growing rapidly in the state and was “becoming the opposition party narrative-wise” because it was “at loggerheads with the DMK”.
Annamalai’s confrontational style, especially against the DMK, however, is just one facet of the BJP’s visibility in the state.
As Professor Ramu Manivannan, who taught political science at the University of Madras, commented in an Indian Express article: “[I]t is not Annamalai but the BJP ruling [at] the Centre [that] is playing the role of principal opposition in Tamil Nadu with all their government machinery.”
Speaking to ThePrint, C. Ponnaiyan also emphasised that the policies and principles of the BJP in Tamil Nadu could not be the same as they were at the national level.
“The national need is different from provincial need for Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu’s needs and requirements are totally different. If the BJP in Tamil Nadu changes these attitudes, if they start fighting for the aspirations of Tamil Nadu’s people, they will benefit,” he said.
When asked about his party’s relationship with the BJP, Ponnaiyan said it was “cordial”, and added that Modi’s performance as Prime Minister was “excellent”.
‘If only madam was there…’
The fight is also over who is dominating air waves and “calling out the DMK” over issues.
Another senior AIADMK leader acknowledged that the party had ceded space to the BJP.
“Unfortunately, somehow, we have ceded our space as principal opposition party to the BJP,” he said. “In active political commentary in Tamil Nadu, the BJP is doing very well at present. On ground I cannot say, but on paper, through the media, they are functioning like an opposition party,” he added.
One example cited by the AIADMK leader was Annamalai’s press conference over the weekend, accusing the DMK government of favouring a specific private company in issuing the tender for purchasing maternal nutrition kits. Annamalai claimed that the state would incur a loss of Rs 77 crore. However, Health Minister Ma. Subramanian countered these claims, noting that the bids were yet to be opened for the scheme.
“Annamalai listed corruption charges against the DMK ministers. This should have been something that came from our side as principal opposition party,” the senior AIADMK leader told ThePrint. “If madam (late party president J. Jayalalithaa) had been there, she would have done it,” he added.
Added to the friction with the BJP is the internal dynamics within the AIADMK.
For instance, party coordinator and former chief minister O. Panneerselvam went easy on the BJP by stating that Ponnaiyan’s statement reflected his personal views. However, AIADMK leader and joint coordinator Edappadi K. Palaniswami, also a former CM, openly took umbrage at BJP state vice-president V.P. Duraisamy’s remarks that the party was not playing the role of opposition well.
With expelled AIADMK leader V.K. Sasikala reigniting speculation that she may return to the party fold a week ago, the BJP added more fuel to the fire with its MLA Nainar Nagendran suggesting that she was welcome to join his party.
“If the AIADMK does not want to readmit the former interim general secretary, then we will welcome her to the BJP. We are taking steps to ensure she joins the BJP as this would help the party to grow,” he had said in Pudukottai. However, Annamalai dismissed this as Nagendran’s personal views on the matter.
‘Expect more fighting’
Chennai-based political researcher Ravindran Duraisamy is of the view that the two parties will continue to bicker and quarrel this way leading up to the 2024 elections. This is “because the BJP will now claim a bigger chunk of the seats”, he told The Print.
Soon after Ponnaiyan’s comments, BJP president Annamalai reportedly said: “You will witness the growth of the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections where the party will win 25 MP seats. The BJP is growing in TN by leaps and bounds.”
“The AIADMK needs the BJP on its terms, the BJP needs the AIADMK on its terms. It’s a mutual suspicion. We cannot bridge the position that the two parties have, and that gap is quite wide,” noted Duraisamy.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)
Also Read: BJP is no ‘alternative pole in Tamil Nadu politics’. Its local election results show why