One can only say the BJP doesn’t seem to have too many options at its disposal in Tamil Nadu.
H Raja's effigy being burnt by protesters in Chennai

Contrary to the endless hand-wringing of TV pundits, the Tamil Nadu BJP’s Hariharan Sharma Raja – or H Raja as we know him -  could be doing some good to his party in a state where it is virtually non-existent. His polemics could appeal to the constituency the BJP should be hoping to build among Tamils, who have been on an anti-Brahmin diet for long. As the AIADMK government is in the complete thrall of the Centre, possibly the Hindutvaite are seeking to push the boundaries, and Raja is playing to a script. But unfortunately for the BJP, even that is not going to be enough to get a toehold in the state.

Brahminism in the land of Periyar

The BJP, or its earlier incarnation Jan Sangh, never got going in the land of Periyar EV Ramasamy, who almost single-handedly demolished the Brahmin hegemony in the state. He was successful in making people identify the very religion of Hinduism with ‘crafty’ Brahmins.

Ambedkar too sought to do something similar. He held the Brahmins responsible for most social evils and sought the liberation of the entire society from their stranglehold. But he was fighting a much greater enemy in Gandhi than Periyar Ramasamy ever encountered, and he was from a state that was a conservative bastion, hence Ambedkar’s indifferent success – whereas Periyar could carry on with his unbridled iconoclasm almost to the end, the non-Brahmin Tamils relishing every whit of his truculence.

The politically successful DMK, though floated by his estranged disciples, has not been disruptive the way Periyar was. Right from the beginning, its leaders started piping down on the anti-Brahmin rhetoric and avoided all anti-god tirades.

They realized early that politics was the art of possible, and they found themselves vindicated when they captured power in a stunningly short period – after which there was no going back to stridency. But, and this is important, the anti-Brahmin dog-whistle continued to inform all political discourse, sometimes a few pitches higher, or a few lower, but the whistle never went away.

The non-Brahmins at large might be disenchanted with the hypocrisies and the venality of the Dravidian leaders, but they can’t forget that it was thanks to the Dravidian movement that the Brahmins were cast off the perch from which they had been lording over for centuries.

Someone like Karunanidhi, strutting around as the archetypal Dravidianist, might be voted out and people could opt for MGR, a non-Tamil, or for Jayalalithaa, a Brahmin disciple. Still, to succeed politically, one has to swear by the cause of the non-Brahmins, however glibly or falsely.

Jayalalithaa was hailed as the Samooka Neethi Kaatha Veeraanganai (saviour of social justice) by none other than K Veeramani, leader of the Dravidar Kazhagam, the outfit Periyar ran right till his death. Jayalalithaa was lauded for ensuring constitutional protection for 69% reservation in government jobs and educational institutions.

Why H Raja won’t work

Jayalalithaa’s minions might be clinging to Modi’s kurta as they see no future for themselves, but they can’t go far in promoting the BJP’s own interests. Hence, there was no one to back up H Raja’s fire and brimstone – they wouldn’t arrest him, that is about all they can do. Even superstar Rajnikanth, perceived as being a soft Hindutvaite, has denounced Raja’s jibes. The Hindu supremacist agenda doesn’t attract many, never mind the crowds thronging to the temples or the admiration Modi himself could still evoke across the spectrum.

The RSS shakhas are very thinly attended. It is peopled essentially by Brahmins and some intermediate castes like Thevars and Nadars in the south. Interestingly H Raja, even while regretting his ‘topple Periyar statue’ statement, invoked the memory of Muthuramalinga Thevar, an icon of his community and who made no secret of his piety. And Thevars and their kindred castes regularly lock horns with the Dalits. Nadars, way down in the caste hierarchy but who have made well for themselves because of their business acumen, are also backing the RSS and its political manifestations, as they are daggers drawn with their brethren who embraced Christianity. Beyond these segments and the backlash whenever there is an eruption of Islamic fundamentalism, as during the Coimbatore blasts of 1998, the BJP-type mobilization doesn’t click.

Remember the party folds up in double quick time once its alliance with a major political party comes to an end. All the din and noise of Vajpayee days became a whimper once he was sent packing. The same thing will happen again when the current NDA is voted out. The BJP has no organic roots, and it is unlikely to develop any.
Polarization remains its time-tested tactic to gain mileage anywhere, and Raja’s repeated sallies are in that direction. Even if the ruling AIADMK makes a decent show in the next assembly elections, or actor Rajinikanth for that matter, and they all decide to be friendly with the BJP, they will still be very chary of anti-Muslim politics, and hence not much of a prospect to carry forward the Hindutva agenda on the back of either the AIADMK or Rajinikanth’s party.

With the ‘vikas’ narrative losing its sheen elsewhere, the BJP might not like to try it out among a people who have experienced development on a much more impressive scale than the northerners have. In these circumstances, the Raja-type outbursts could be the best bet for the saffronites – the reactions could attain a critical mass sometime, the leaders would be hoping.
So where to from here? It is difficult to predict. One can only say the BJP doesn’t seem to have too many options at its disposal in Tamil Nadu.

(TN Gopalan is a senior journalist based in Chennai)

(Views expressed are the author's own)