Tamil Nadu BJP chief Annamalai and AIADMK General Secretary Edappadi K Palaniswami.
Tamil Nadu BJP chief Annamalai and AIADMK General Secretary Edappadi K Palaniswami.

Changing political dynamics in TN: Implications of AIADMK's exit from BJP alliance

The timing of the AIADMK's decision is crucial, as it could potentially impact the BJP's prospects in the upcoming crucial elections in five states scheduled for the end of this year.

On September 25, 2023, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) made a significant decision to terminate its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), subsequently leading to its departure from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). This move marked the end of a six-year partnership between the two parties, often described as a "natural alliance" due to their shared ideological leanings. Notably, the AIADMK was the second-largest constituent within the NDA, making this decision a notable blow to the ruling BJP's coalition in the southern region of India.

The timing of the AIADMK's decision is crucial, as it could potentially impact the BJP's prospects in the upcoming crucial elections in five states scheduled for the end of this year. This shift in alliances also raises the likelihood of a three-cornered contest in Tamil Nadu during the 2024 parliamentary elections. To fully grasp the implications of this development, it is essential to delve into the history and dynamics of the BJP-AIADMK alliance in the state. Additionally, analysing the fallout of this breakup on the realignment of political forces in Tamil Nadu becomes of utmost importance.

The AIADMK-BJP (2017-23)

Following the passing of their leader, J Jayalalithaa, in 2016, the AIADMK rekindled its alliance with the BJP. This partnership became particularly crucial during the internal turmoil within the AIADMK in 2017 when the central leadership of the BJP played a pivotal role in uniting the two warring factions within the party. Despite certain challenges, the AIADMK maintained a relatively harmonious relationship with the top leadership of the BJP. However, the dynamics were different when it came to the state leadership. Tensions escalated with the appointment of former IPS officer Annamalai as the state president of BJP in 2021. This move led to a heated exchange of words between the AIADMK's second-tier leadership and supporters of Annamalai, intensifying existing contradictions within the alliance.

After assuming the role of state president, Annamalai embarked on a series of initiatives to bolster the BJP grassroots presence. He strategically projected the BJP as the primary opposition force in the state, challenging the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Interestingly, despite the AIADMK and BJP being in alliance, Annamalai didn't shy away from criticising the AIADMK. This discord came to a head in June 2023 when the AIADMK passed a resolution condemning Annamalai for his remarks concerning AIADMK leader Jayalalithaa. Annamalai's supporters effectively crafted an online narrative projecting the BJP as the foremost opponent to the ruling DMK, especially during a time when the AIADMK was grappling with internal issues. However, the outcome of the Erode bye-election in February 2023, where the DMK alliance emerged victorious, underscored that the primary political contest in the state remained between the two dominant Dravidian parties. This outcome highlighted the need for a more significant space for a third party to emerge and establish itself in the state's political landscape.

In contrast to past BJP leaders, the Annamalai-led party maintained a contentious relationship with the AIADMK leadership. Annamalai was entrusted with the task of positioning the BJP as a prominent alternative to the two dominant Dravidian parties deeply rooted in Tamil Nadu's political landscape. Given that the DMK's voter base remained steadfast and impenetrable, the BJP's primary strategy involved absorbing the voter base of the AIADMK to emerge as a viable political force.

The BJP capitalised on the AIADMK leadership's inability to effectively convey the administrative shortcomings of the DMK government to the public and convert them into political leverage. Additionally, the BJP successfully attracted some AIADMK party functionaries into its fold as part of its efforts to expand its influence.

The primary source of discord between the AIADMK and BJP lies in their overlapping target constituencies. Following Edappadi K Palaniswami's tenure as chief minister, the AIADMK's influence has been largely confined to the Kongu region, adopting something of a Gounder caste party identity. In the 2021 Assembly elections, the AIADMK alliance secured 75 seats, with a significant 40 of those hailing from the western region alone. Similarly, for the BJP, two out of its four MLAs, specifically Coimbatore South and Modakkurichi, clinched victories in the western region. The BJP has also made inroads in the past, notably capturing MP seats from the same western region, exemplified by its wins in Coimbatore and Nilgiris constituencies during the 1998 and 1999 elections.

Both the AIADMK and the BJP have sought to strengthen their connections within the Gounder communities, assigning key positions in both the party and government to individuals from this demographic/region. The BJP, for instance, appointed CP Radhakrishnan, a prominent Gounder figure, as the Governor of Jharkhand. The party also elevated Vanathi Srinivasan, an MLA from Coimbatore South, as the all-India president of the BJP women's wing, and made L Murugan, an Arunthathiyar from the western region, an Union minister. Given that both parties are vying for the same constituency and actively cultivating support among the Gounder communities, conflicts between them become virtually inevitable.

Political implication

The BJP has been diligently striving to establish a more substantial presence in Tamil Nadu's political landscape. Tamil Nadu has been one of the few Indian states where the BJP has struggled to gain a significant foothold in state politics. Efforts of Annamalai, aimed to demonstrate the party's strength in the 2022 local body elections, where the BJP contested independently and garnered approximately 5.4% of the votes. However, claims by BJP supporters of a potential vote bank ranging from 15% to 18% have yet to be substantiated by concrete evidence.

With the AIADMK's exit from the NDA alliance, there has been speculation in the state that the BJP is actively working towards forming a new alliance, often referred to as the "third front," to contend against both the DMK and the AIADMK. In 2014, the BJP successfully forged a "third front," popularly known as the "rainbow alliance," comprising various caste-based and smaller parties. This coalition, under the NDA banner, achieved notable success in the 2014 elections, securing 18% of the vote share and winning two seats (Dharmapuri and Kanyakumari).

It's important to note that the political landscape in the state was vastly different in 2014. During that election, there was a five-cornered contest, with the AIADMK, DMK, and Congress running independently (albeit with alliances involving smaller parties), the NDA fielding its own candidates, and the Left political parties also going solo. This fragmentation of votes among the five competing groups played a pivotal role in the NDA alliance securing two seats.

However, by the time of the 2016 Assembly elections, the BJP's performance took a stark downturn, as the party failed to win any seats and garnered only 2.84% of the votes. These results underscored that the NDA's success in 2014 was primarily a consequence of the vote division among multiple parties and was not necessarily reflective of the BJP's or Narendra Modi's popularity in the state.

Considering this context, the reported efforts by the BJP to forge a third front by aligning with parties such as the Pattali Makkal Katchi, Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), Paari Vendhar's Indhiya Jananayaka Katchi (IJK), AC Shanmugam's Pudhiya Needhi Katchi (PNK), and Kongunadu Makkal Desia Katchi (KMDK) in an attempt to replicate their 2014 success may face significant challenges at this juncture. The political landscape has evolved since then, and the dynamics are now different. Likewise, the AIADMK's hope that its departure from the BJP-led NDA alliance will aid in reclaiming its voter base and garnering support from minority communities represents a strategic move aimed at revitalising the party's electoral prospects.

However, earlier actions of the AIADMK during the EPS regime does not give it much chance of reclaiming its vote base. The AIADMK has compromised its core principles and unconditionally supported almost all the decisions of the BJP in the Parliament. For instance, the party has supported the Farmers Bill, CAA, Triple Talaq, abrogation of Article 370 and several other bills proposed by the BJP. This has led to the AIADMK losing its credibility among the voters and for the opposition parties to call it “slave of the BJP”. It has also made the party unreliable. 

At the same time, it's crucial to recognize that the AIADMK's departure from its alliance with the BJP has empowered smaller parties within the DMK coalition. In the 2019 and 2021 elections, parties within the DMK alliance had opted to reduce the number of seats they contested, aiming to consolidate all anti-BJP votes and prevent vote division. Without a coalition with the BJP, the AIADMK can position itself as a "secular party" and a "party for all," potentially making it more attractive to smaller parties seeking an alliance. This shift could potentially impact the DMK's prospects in the 2024 general elections.

It's worth noting that a similar scenario unfolded when the AIADMK left the BJP alliance and contested the 1999 elections. During that time, all secular parties that had not previously aligned with the AIADMK formed an alliance against the BJP-DMK coalition. Whether history repeats itself in Tamil Nadu in 2024 will depend on future developments, and only time will answer this question.

 Arun Kumar teaches Political Science in GITAM (Deemed to be University) Bangalore. Views are personal.

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