The May 16 election in Tamil Nadu is set to see a triangular contest between the AIADMK and its alliance, the DMK-Congress alliance and the People's Welfare Front alliance. A striking aspect of the Tamil Nadu story is that the two national parties, the Congress and BJP, are no big players in this election.
While 2017 will mark the 50 years since the last time the Congress was in power in the southern state, the BJP has never been a player of any significance in this state. Even at the height of the Narendra Modi wave in 2014, the BJP-led NDA could not win more than two seats in Tamil Nadu (of that, one belonged to the PMK, a local party).
BJP always eyeing a strong partner in Tamil Nadu
This year too, the BJP tried its best to get a dependable ally for the state polls but its efforts to woo both the DMDK and AIADMK did not pay off. Without a strong ally, the BJP has no chance of making any significant impact on Tamil Nadu politics.
But why is it so? The BJP succeeded in forming its first government in South India when it came to power in Karnataka in 2007 and is also looking good to open their account in the Kerala Assembly this year. But in Tamil Nadu, its road has always been tough al through.
The BJP's success in election depends on two issues-Muslims and development. It executes either of the two ideas or strategically both to make electoral gains. But Tamil Nadu is a state where both these options are limited for the BJP to as a result, it gains very little on the ground.
For BJP, Muslims in Tamil Nadu don't fit its mission
First, about the Muslims. Though they are also Muslims, a religious identity the BJP needs to keep playing its cards of majority politics and cultural nationalism, the Muslims of Tamil Nadu are vastly different from those in Gujarat, Bihar or Uttar Pradesh where the game of majority versus minority is easier to play by means of polarisation.
In Tamil Nadu, the Tamil identity and the Dravidian political culture play the biggest role and the BJP clearly lacks the tool to make these aspects count in its politics. It has a grounding which fits more in places where the majority religio-cultural mobilisation has a relevance.
In Tamil Nadu, the Muslims had played an important role in the anti-Hindi agitation in 1937-39 led by Periya EV Ramasamy. After the DMK split from Periyar, the Tamil Muslims still maintained a godo relation with both Periyar's Dravidar Kazhagam and CN Annadurai's DMK which suggests that political polarisation didn't ever put the idea of Tamil identity under any challenge.Periyar and Annadurai also returned the favours by sharing platforms with the Muslims and all in all, there was always a comfortable feeling among the Tamil Muslims to be a part of an all-encompassing Tamil identity. The BJP's politics of exclusivity is a complete anti-thesis to this politico-cultural set up.
Politics of exclusivity will not work in Tamil Nadu
It's true that issues like Babri mosque demolition in December 1992 had made some impact on the state's Muslims and outfits like the Tamilnadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam gained strength. The serial blasts in Coimbatore in February 1998 also showed that there are areas in the state where Hindutva forces can reap some benefit but all of these did not last in the long run.
Today, the BJP is struggling to make an impact in Tamil Nadu because it hasn't succeeded in internalising the Tamilian cultural uniqueness. In fact, the national leaders of the BJP lose the very preliminary test of making inroads in Tamil Nadu when they speak in Hindi and attack Rahul Gandhi, who is a non-entity in Tamil Nadu, in that state.
Where there is no Congress, the BJP too has little chance to flourish
Besides the Muslims, the Congress is another political reason which the BJP needs to do good in elections. In Tamil Nadu, the absence of the Congress hurts the BJP as it has no enemy to erect to reach out to the voters. With almost no understanding of Tamil Nadu's cultural life, the BJP is always on a weak wicket to target the Dravidian parties and hence, it is never a force.
Gujarat story won't work in Tamil Nadu: It's already a developed state
The saffron party's other major limitation in Tamil Nadu is the ineffectiveness of its pro-development slogan. Tamil Nadu is one of most industrialised states in the country and presenting the Gujarat story before it makes little sense. The BJP's Plan B in election has always been speaking on development to hide its aggressive Hindu nationalism among the liberal-minded voters. But in Tamil Nadu, that too doesn't make any difference.
To conclude, the saffron party needs to invent a political plan which has a strong connection to Tamil Nadu's unique politico-cultural realities. Until that happens, the party will continue to struggle and need some local shoulder to rest its head.