When the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government decided in 2019 unilaterally to bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir and downgrade it from a state into a Union territory, many argued that it was likely to be a one-off action. No other Indian state had such a complex constitutional arrangement as Jammu and Kashmir, coupled with a hold on India’s political imagination. That’s why, it was argued, this move could not be seen a tactic that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would seek to use elsewhere.
Others, however, warned that it wasn’t unlikely that such an anti-federal tactic could be repeated, given that the BJP-controlled Parliament does as it wishes without considering wishes of states.
The BJP has not actually carried out such a move anywhere else yet. But the fact that it pulled it off in Jammu and Kashmir without major pushback from the broader Opposition appears to have given it a handle to at least threaten similar action elsewhere.
West Bengal and Tamil Nadu
After it lost the high-pitched political battle in West Bengal earlier this year, for example, BJP leaders began to call for the state to be bifurcated, turning North Bengal into a Union territory. Although not a concerted demand from the national BJP leadership, the party nevertheless did little to quash such demands emerging from its state leaders – suggesting it was comfortable, at the very least, with the idea being out there.
Now it appears to be doing the same in Tamil Nadu, another state where it lost elections earlier this year – with many saying that the BJP was responsible for pulling down its alliance partner, the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
As in West Bengal, the party that did come to power, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, wears its federal politics on its sleeve. Unlike other states, where a push for federalism is often a bargaining tactic for power sharing, the DMK has sought to turn its principles into popular politics, with a narrative of pushing back against Delhi’s heavy-handed interventions.
One of these measures was the DMK’s decision to use the term: “ondriya arasu”, meaning Union government, rather than “madhiya arasu”, meaning Central government in its official communication. While “Union government’ is more constitutionally appropriate than Central, the move ruffled the BJP’s feathers, with the party accusing the DMK of resuscitating separatist tendencies in Tamil Nadu.
When the BJP’s L Murugan was inducted into the council of ministers last week, the party’s official communication referred to him coming from “Kongu Nadu”, instead of Tamil Nadu. On paper, Kongu Nadu is not an actual entity. While the region of western Tamil Nadu districts including Coimbatore, Tirupur, Salem and Namakkal among others is known from both history and popular parlance, it has no official recognition.
On July 10, the Tamil newspaper Dinamalar announced, with little substantiating evidence, that the Union government had begun the process of carving out a new Union Territory of Kongu Nadu, as retaliation against the DMK – and because the region holds promise for the BJP.
As in Bengal, there seemed to be no serious evidence that such a move was on the cards. Yet the BJP also appeared more than willing to dangle the sword.
“Everything is Tamil Nadu, nothing to worry about,” said BJP legislature party leader Nainar Nagendran. “But at the same time, keep in mind that Andhra Pradesh was divided into two, and UP also. After all, if it is the wish of the people, it would be the responsibility of the government to fulfil it.”
BJP state general secretary Karu Nagarajan explicitly linked the move to the DMK’s effort at popularising “Union government” rather than “Central government”, saying, “It has happened like that in other states as well. Telangana is an example. If talking about Ondriya Arasu (Union government) is their wish, it is also the wish of people to call it ‘Kongu Nadu’.”
The party has spoken in multiple voices on the issue. One district unit in Coimbatore, for example, passed an official resolution calling for a Kongu Nadu. Elsewhere, BJP leaders were asked not to give their opinion on the matter, even as the state leadership has offered ambigious answers.
Tamil Nadu’s big two parties, the ruling DMK and the AIADMK, have both come out strongly against any discussion of a bifurcation, insisting that the state will not be divided.
On paper, it is not up to them. Parliament can reorganise states as it wishes, and though it is expected to solicit the opinion of the assembly, it is not bound to by this. In reality, however, this would be a highly controversial move that, as with Bengal, could well backfire against the BJP – as the fortunes of the Congress in the bifurcated states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana testify.
In both West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, the ruling parties saw opportunity in such controversy, since it supports their preferred imagery of a Delhi BJP that is out to divide the people of the state.
State bifurcations are often extremely controversial moves, especially when they emerge from internal political movements. The BJP under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee carved out three new states in 2000 – Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand – based on both local demands and the belief that smaller states will lead to better governance and development.
The Andhra Pradesh bifurcation led by the Congress was a much more contested affair, building on the long running Telangana movement. It is for this reason that national parties are usually much more careful in their handling of such impulses.
Despite some occasional demands for Tamil Nadu to be split up, there is no Kongu Nadu movement on par with the on in Telangana or, say, Uttarakhand for the BJP to tap into. Instead, the entire affair also reflects the BJP’s ability to drive conversation, even in states where it has a limited presence.
More importantly, the party seems more than willing to dangle such threats over its political opponents, even if loose talk about state bifurcation could unleash hard-to-control forces within the polity.