Amit Shah’s ‘Operation Kamalam’ | India Today Insight
With just months left for the assembly election in Tamil Nadu, the three-day visit of Union home minister Amit Shah has aroused intense interest in the state. The BJP and the state government led by their National Democratic Alliance partner, the AIADMK, are already on the warpath after the state government blocked the former’s Vetrivel Yatra and arrested state unit chief L. Murugan. The AIADMK, in a strong editorial in party newspaper Namadhu Amma, also criticised the attempts to “divide the people on the base of caste and religion”. Stirring the pot further, ex-MP K.P. Ramalingam, a close confidant of M.K. Alagiri—the rebel son of the late DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi—joined the BJP in Chennai ahead of Shah’s visit. Speculation is ripe that Alagiri too might join the party soon.
The BJP has already roped in actress Khushboo from the Congress and the late forest brigand Veerapan’s daughter Vidya Rani. Vidya Rani is from the Vanniyar community, which has pockets of influence in northern Tamil Nadu. The Paattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), started by S. Ramadoss and his son Anbumani Ramadoss, has so far lorded over this votebank. The PMK is currently part of the NDA, so this could be the cause of friction between the two parties.
The BJP has appointed a Dalit state unit chief, and is positioning itself as the ‘nationalist’ party in the state. With Murugan as chief, the BJP also hopes to deflect criticism from the DMK (and in the future, the AIADMK too, if they move out of the NDA) about being a “party of Brahmins”. Chief minister E.K. Palaniswami has made it clear that the alliance with the BJP is intact, but the latter is keeping its cards close to the chest.
The BJP has a tough task ahead, building up the party in Tamil Nadu. But with ‘Operation Kamalam’, the party is looking at ways to crack the caste combinations and build avenues in the five states and Union territory of Puducherry in the south. South India sends 130 MPs to the Lok Sabha and in the last general election the BJP won 30 seats, largely because of the landslide in Karnataka, where it won 26 seats (along with one supported independent) and four in Telangana. In the recent bypolls, the BJP wrested Dubbak assembly seat from the ruling TRS in Telangana and took the JD(S) Vokaligga bastion in Sira for the first time in Karnataka. In July 2019, the BJP had elevated the party’s organisational secretary for south Indian states, B.L. Santosh, as national general secretary (organisation) and had given him the task of building the BJP team in south India.
The task is to build the cadre in three states–Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu—where the party has so far got naught out of a possible 84 MPs. As always, the BJP is hoping to build on the goodwill generated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi among the Dalits, OBCs and EBCs to push the party’s case. The focus is on the 2024 general election, irrespective of the results in the assembly polls. So leaders with a base are being wooed from other parties. In Tamil Nadu, for a while the BJP had the idea of supporting mega star Rajinikanth’s political ambitions, but that seems to have flopped even before it could take off. Sources say Covid-19 and the actor’s health issues have derailed the plan.
The party’s analysis is that ties with the AIADMK are not paying enough dividends, for a) the AIADMK is losing its core voters among the women and Dalits; b) after J. Jayalalitha’s death, the internal bickering on the leadership issue is still simmering; and c) the anti-incumbency vote is moving en bloc to the opposition led by the DMK. In 2019, the BJP’s five per cent votes in the previous general election shrunk to 3.5 per cent whereas ally AIADMK was decimated, down from 45 per cent to 18.5 per cent. This gave the DMK-led alliance 38 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP leaders in the state as well as in New Delhi were forced to rework their plans for the state, and that now includes gradually distancing itself from the AIADMK.
And it’s already happening. In September, the AIADMK regime refused the BJP permission for an idol immersion programme during the Vinayaka Chathurthi celebrations. And despite the arrest of its state president, the BJP is continuing with the month-long Vetrivel yatra—visiting six big temples of Lord Murugan across the state, culminating in Thiruchendur on December 6. Earlier in October, there was another confrontation when governor Banwari Lal Purohit blocked chief minister Palaniswami’s ambitious bill allowing 7.5 per cent reservation for government school students in medical colleges. After a 45-day wait, he finally gave his assent to it.
Meanwhile, ‘Operation Kamalam’ continues, which includes making space for politicians from south India not only in the Union government, but also in the party organisation. In the last week of September, party chief J.P. Nadda appointed leaders from the south in three of the organisation’s seven verticals. So the women’s wing has Tamil Nadu unit general secretary Vanathi Srinivasan, the OBC wing is led by ex-Telangana unit president K. Laxman, and South Bengaluru MP Tejaswi Surya is the new youth wing chief. All three are relatively young and have at least two to three decades of active politics in front of them, which gives the party a chance to build them into bigger leaders.
After almost two decades, the party also has two general secretaries from south India, D. Purandeshwari (daughter of the late NTR) and C.T. Ravi. The party has also gambled with the elevation of D.K. Aruna from Telangana and A.P. Abdullakutty from Kerala as national vice-presidents (traditionally, the BJP has only appointed former chief ministers, senior ministers or partymen to these posts). Both are below 60, and while Aruna joined the BJP just before Lok Sabha polls, Abdullakutty joined a month after. Aruna’s family have strong ties in the Mehboobnagar area in the state and also the dominant Reddy community. The BJP already has MoS in the home ministry, Krishna Reddy (an erstwhile protege of M. Venkaiah Naidu) and these two leaders will have to help engineer the inorganic growth of the BJP in the two Telugu speaking states. The BJP’s next target is taking on the TRS in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) election, and Reddy has been given a free hand to handle the party campaign.
Meanwhile, in Tamil Nadu, the BJP will be looking to Alagiri to give them a toehold in the land of the Dravidians. Alagiri apparently is contemplating two options; floating his own party, the Kalaignar DMK, or joining the BJP. In 2014, when he lost out to younger brother M.K. Stalin in the DMK succession battle, Alagiri had been keen to join hands with the BJP. But it didn’t happen. Now with the demise of his father and his ouster from the party, Alagiri may not have resources to bankroll his own party. The voices coming out of the Alagiri’s camp haven’t denied or confirmed any speculation on the Shah meeting.
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