‘Dravidian Plus’: How to understand the BJP’s new expansionist strategy in Tamil Nadu

The Hindu nationalist political party and its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), have tried their best to breach South India and Tamil Nadu in particular, Dr Arun Kumar G writes.
BJP Tamil Nadu president K Annamalai with Union Home Minister Amit Shah at a rally
BJP Tamil Nadu president K Annamalai with Union Home Minister Amit Shah at a rally
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In an interview with BBC Tamil, K. Annamalai,  IPS officer and the youngest ever president of the state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), while answering the question of how will the BJP carry forward the legacy of the social justice of the Dravidian parties, he said that he wanted the “Dravidian Plus” in Tamil Nadu. While acknowledging the success of the Dravidian majors, namely the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), in implementing the social justice schemes like reservation and in other policies, the BJP president wants to go one step further which he calls it as “Dravidian Plus”.

The 42-year-old Hindu nationalist political party and its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), have tried their best in the past to breach South India in general and conquer Tamil Nadu in particular. However, their efforts did not yield expected electoral results in the state. Even their parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is facing difficulties in expanding its base beyond its traditional strongholds. The weak presence of the RSS directly reflects the limited growth of the BJP in the state.

The trajectory of the BJP in Tamil Nadu

The BJP and its predecessor the BJS, ever since their inception in the state in 1980 and 1959 respectively, have actively pursued the anti-Dravidian party politics and vehemently criticised their secessionist demand and also their anti-Hindu, anti-Hindi and anti-Brahmin policies. The BJS had no organisational presence in the state. The BJS national leadership took the initiative to start the party in the state. With such attempts, the first unit of the Jana Sangh was started at Salem in Madras state in 1957, in the presence of RSS pracharak and the BJS National committee member Dattopant Thengadi. After severe efforts from the BJS and the Sangh, the state committee of the party was formally formed on 3rd October 1958 in Chennai. Interestingly, the first state president of the Hindu nationalist political party was a Christian, Dr V K John, Barrister-at-Law. P Govindaraj was elected as general secretary.

The BJS primary units were started in new places like Coimbatore, Nagapattinam, Tiruchirappalli, and Ramanathapuram (Paramakudi). In its initial years, the party had to face several challenges and campaigns against it. For instance, it was often portrayed as samiyar katchi (party of sadhus), vada Indiya katchi (party of north India) and Brahmanar katchi (party of Brahmins) by its political opponents. The BJS, like the Sangh, was largely confined to urban spaces and struggled to expand its organisation to rural areas. After several attempts, it started its primary units in Tanjore, Tirunelveli and Krishnagiri districts. However, the BJS was insignificant in state politics.

The BJS and also the Sangh strongly condemned the agitation against the implementation of Hindi. As a national party, it always supported Hindi as the official language and also demanded its speedy implementation. Its Tamil Nadu unit clarified that the implementation of Hindi will not affect the usage of Tamil and it urged Tamils to withdraw the agitation. At its Salem conference (1965), the Jana Sangh condemned the DK’s and DMK’s agitational politics and also the police atrocities against protesters. Various student organisations appealed to students to boycott their classes. Against such public appeal, the party and Sangh affiliates requested students to go back to their schools and colleges to resume their studies. When the ABVP affiliated students withdrew their protests to join in schools they were attacked by the DMK affiliated students. The BJS support to Hindi had further alienated them from the masses and helped the opposition parties to brand them as “anti- Tamils”.

Failure of the BJS to understand the sentiments of Tamil continued to haunt them even after floating the new party, the BJP in 1980. Due to this, the party had a minuscule presence other than the urban centres. Even there also, the party was largely confined to only upper castes and it was not able to expand the organisation to other social groups like SCs/STs and OBCs. At this juncture, the conversion of 1300 Dalits to Islam in Meenakshipuram (Tirunelveli) in 1981 gave political mileage not only to BJP but also to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). This was the time the VHP had started talking about conversion and took this issue to the national level. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other prominent leaders of the BJP, VHP and Sangh and religious leaders had visited the village and requested them not to convert. Shortly after the row over conversion, a communal riot between Hindus and Christians in Mandaikadu (Kanyakumari) in 1982 and the conflict between the Hindu/Jain traders and Muslims in Coimbatore paved the way for the BJP to expand their organisation to new areas and the new social groups.

Long-standing work of the RSS in Kanyakumari and Coimbatore (the first shakha of the RSS was started in Kanyakumari in 1946 and Coimbatore in 1949) among the Nadars and Goundars respectively has yielded the results in the 1990s. Demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the subsequent polarisation on religious lines had its impact in Tamil Nadu as well. For the first time in the political history of the state, religiosity had become a central issue of campaigning in the election. The DMK-TMC alliance made Jayalalithaa’s corruption and pro-Hindutva approach a central issue of the election and urged voters to elect a secular and corruption-free government for the betterment of Tamil Nadu.

The decline of the Congress at the centre and the growing religious polarisation had worked in favour of the BJP at the national level and also at the state level. The BJP emerged as the single largest party in the Parliament and the lone member of the party elected as MLA in Padmanabhapuram (Kanyakumari) in the 1996 elections. The decline of the Congress in national politics and the rise of the BJP as the contender of power put an end to the year-long AIADMK-Congress alliance in 1998. Later, both the DMK and the AIADMK often made an electoral understanding with the BJP in various elections from 1998 to 2004. After a decade break, again the AIADMK renewed its alliance with the BJP in the parliamentary elections of 2019 and continued in the Assembly elections of 2021 as well.

Strategies of the BJP in the state

The RSS failed to develop an all-round presence in the state. The RSS affiliate organisations like Seva Bharathi, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA), Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), and ABVP had a weak presence in the state. Bearing Hindi terms in their organisations' names like, Sangh, Parishad, Bajrang Dal, alienated them from the non-Hindi speaking masses. Failure of the RSS and other Hindu organisations to devise a plan to counter the dominant Dravidian party narratives were major limitations for them to expand. However, the emergence of the fragmented party system of the 1980s gave a new lease of life to the BJP and other caste-based parties to expand their organisational strength to new areas. Most of these new entrants have pursued agitational politics against the Dravidian majors to attract disgruntled voters.

The BJP also engaged itself in the agitational politics in the state as against the AIADMK and the DMK. Nevertheless, since the scope of the party is confined only to Kanyakumari and Coimbatore and some neighbouring districts, it never had a state-wide impact. One such example would be, July Porattam (July agitation) of the BJP. The census data of 2011 created controversy in Kanyakumari, and the Hindu organisations effectively used this census data to advance their position in the district. In Kanyakumari, according to the 2011 census, 73,474 households (15.20%) were below poverty line (BPL) (State Planning Commission 2017, 30). The BJP and other Hindu organisations used these statistics to interpret it as Hindus forming the majority of the BPL families. However, the Hindu organisations had no evidence to support their claim. In this context, they demanded that the state and central governments should give scholarships to poor Hindu students like their Christian and Muslim counterparts. The BJP announced a state-wide protest in all district headquarters in July 2010 to get the attention of the state and central government to their demand. The party leaders called this protest the July porattam. This protest was more powerful in Kanyakumari than in the rest of the state. The BJP through this protest successfully mobilised the masses and made inroads into new places in Kanyakumari where the Congress and communist parties were traditionally strong.

The ‘July porattam’ was organised in 22 districts in the state and the BJP successfully mobilised a large number of people cutting across identities under its banner. In all protests, the BJP accused both the central and state governments of their discriminatory treatment of Hindu students. The party promised that it would give similar scholarships to poor Hindu students if they were voted to power. A huge turnout in the July agitation boosted the morale of the BJP, which made it organise the ‘Thamarai yathirai’ (lotus yatra) all over the state to cement the support it garnered in the ‘July porattam’. Soon after the protest, on 19th November 2010, Pon Radhakrishnan started the yatra from Thiruvottiyur (Chennai). The yatra vehicle was designed as a chariot with the BJP’s party symbol the lotus prominently displayed on it.

The BJP to prove its existence in state politics used each conference to show its strength to other parties. In doing so, the party invited other small opposition parties to join in its NDA alliance. The BJP held a conference named ‘Ilam thamarai manadu’ (Young Lotus Conference) in Tiruchirappalli on 26th September 2013 intending to strengthen the party among the youth. The then Gujarat Chief Minister and Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi and BJP chief Rajnath Singh addressed the conference. Leaders in the conference elaborated on the need to have a ‘strong person as a prime minister’. The BJP, prior to the 2014 parliamentary elections announced ‘padayatra’ programme titled ‘Veedu thorum thamarai; Ullam thorum Modi, (Lotus in every house and Modi in every heart) in December 2013. It was a two-week drive to reach all households to popularise BJP’s symbol across the state. The ‘padayatra’ planned to reach all 12,618 panchayats in Tamil Nadu.

Likewise, to gain popularity among the fishermen community, the party organised ‘kadal thamarai manadu’ (Sea Lotus Conference) in Pamban (Ramanathapuram) on January 31 2014. The BJP even went to extent of coining the slogan of “Kazhagam illa Thamizhagam” (Tamil Nadu without Kazhagams)  — Similar to BJP’s aim of Congress mukt Bharath at the national level — in the Assembly elections of 2016. Despite organising yatras, protests, conferences, and slogans its attempt of becoming an alternative party went in vain. The BJP remained as a marginal force, except in its traditional strongholds.

Scathing attacks of the BJP leaders against the doyens of the Dravidian movement like Periyar, Annadurai and Karunanidhi were disliked by the majority of Tamils and the party had to change its strategy towards the Dravidian parties. Despite all its accusations, the new generation is not attracted towards the BJP as of now. The BJP has accused the Dravidian parties of their failure on social fronts, but the government data tells a different story. Tamil Nadu is on top in all social welfare activities, in Public Distribution System (PDS), in reducing urban-rural inequality, in infrastructure, education and so on. On the other hand, the BJP ruled states like Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh lagged behind Tamil Nadu in every social indicator. Therefore, the BJP’s claim of giving a clean administration and bringing development to the state has not attracted a majority of the people.


The BJP, like any other political party, wanted to capture the power in the state to further their political agenda. The DMK successfully brought the discourse of Aryan (Brahmin) vs Dravidian (non-Brahmin) and north Indians vs Tamils identity into political discourse in the late 1950s, and subsequently defeated the Congress in 1967. Since then, the politics of the state was centred around the Dravidian and Tamil identity. The BJP failed to redefine the Dravidian or Tamil identity in its favour. The leadership of the BJP simply ignored this ethnic identity and without challenging the existing discourse they tried to implement the Hindutva variant of nationalism in the state. Unfortunately, Hindutva is largely seen as an ideology which is non-local. The majority of the people considered the BJP as an “outsider”. This posed an important challenge and prevented the party’s growth beyond a limited extent.

Furthermore, both the Dravidian majors have used Tamil as a connecting factor between different castes. Surprisingly, the BJP was not able to appropriate the symbol of the Tamil language to mobilise the disgruntled castes and failed to translate the popular discontent in its favour. The BJP state president’s new approach of “Dravidian Plus” and appropriating the legacy of the Dravidian principles in his party is a new attempt to make his party more presentable to Tamils by not making them hostile. Will their efforts bear fruit on the electoral front is the intriguing question before us.

Dr Arun Kumar G is an assistant professor at the Dept. of Political Science at GITAM University, Bengaluru.

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