Since the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam came to power in Tamil Nadu in May 2021, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been aggressively pushing its Hindutva agenda in the state.

The state government’s weakness in handling this politicisation of religion is being taken advantage of by the BJP.

A series of incidents seem to indicate that the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is succumbing to the pressures of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other Hindu nationalist organisations.

For instance, a biryani festival scheduled for mid-May in Thirupathur district ran into controversy over the sale of beef and pork at the event and was called off.

Days earlier, the state government on May 8 made a U-turn on the ban on the Dharmapuram Math’s pattina pravesam, a tradition of devotees carrying the seer in a palanquin. The event was held amid tight security on May 22.

In January, the BJP had immediately intervened in the death by suicide of a 17-year-old girl in Thanjavur district and alleged that she had been tortured because she refused to convert to Christianity. The Central Bureau of Investigation is currently inquiring into the matter.

Straightforward Hindutva

In the North Indian states, the expansion and growth of the BJP and its ideological fountainhead the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh can be attributed to the agitational politics against the then Congress regime and the agenda of straightforward Hindutva – its programme of religious polarisation aimed at marginalising Muslims and other minorities.

In an attempt to make headway with voters in Tamil Nadu, the BJP has projected the narrative of Hinduism and Hindu temples being in danger under the Dravidian political parties in general and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in particular.

The BJP and other Hindutva organisations alleged that the temples under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment administration are being mismanaged. Hence they have been demanding the exit of the state government from temple administration. In this context, Jaggi Vasudev, a spiritual leader initiated the “Free Tamil Nadu Temples” movement which is supported by the BJP.

The BJP’s central leadership also worked to strengthen the party’s organisational structure. In 2020, BJP National Secretary CT Ravi was put in charge of the Tamil Nadu state unit. Ravi had played a vital role in the BJP’s expansion in Karnataka’s Chikkamagaluru district and is known for his hard-line Hindutva.

Soon after Ravi’s appointment, the BJP had started a Vel Yatra ahead of the 2021 assembly elections, aimed at covering sites associated with the the popular Tamil deity Murugan. However, the attempt to rally devotees behind the BJP was unsuccessful.

One of the primary challenges before the BJP in Tamil Nadu is that despite being in power at the Centre, it is considered a minor or junior player in the electoral alliance in the state.

The BJP aims to replace the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam as the second-largest party in the state and emerge as a strong challenger to the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. To do so, it aims to create an ideological battle between Dravidian nationalism and Hindu nationalism in Tamil Nadu.

Expanding party base

Since its inception in the 1980s, the Bharatiya Janata Party has made several attempts to expand its base to the southern and eastern states of India, where the party is historically weak.

After several efforts, including engineering mass defections and mergers with regional parties, the BJP or its alliance parties are in power in all the North Eastern states of India, and Bihar. The party also emerged as the primary Opposition party in West Bengal and Jharkhand.

To become a truly all-India party, the BJP has increased its activities in the south Indian states, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in particular. The usual Hindutva mobilisation strategies of religious polarisation, which helped the BJP and its ideological mentor the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to become the “saviour of Hindus” in the Hindi-speaking states, have not yielded the same results in the southern states.

Among the factors that allowed Hindutva organisations to expand in North India was the strategy of tapping into memories of the communal violence related to Partition and the Hindu-Muslim polarisation that resulted from this.

South Indian states, however, have not witnessed such crises. Moreover, the Hindu nationalist parties have also encountered the ideological challenges posed by the Dravidian and Communist movements in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

To enter these states, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and BJP had followed hitherto unpractised strategies, including a preference for non-Brahmins in leadership positions, floating regional or vernacular organisations such the Hindu Munnani, or Hindu Front in Tamil Nadu, and the Hindu Aikya Vedi, or Hindu United Front, in Kerala.

Despite their efforts against the Dravidian parties, the BJP and Bharatiya Jana Sangh were unable to overcome their marginal status in state politics. Nevertheless, due to the longstanding work, BJP candidate C Velayutham was elected as a legislator MLA from the Padmanabhapuram constituency in Kanyakumari in 1996.

Electoral alliances

The emergence of the BJP at the Centre led the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (1998, 2004 and 2019-present) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (1999-2003) to forge electoral alliances with the Hindutva party.

The BJP electorally benefited from the coalition with the Dravidian political parties in this period. For instance, the party was able to send representatives to Parliament from the state in 1998 (three MPs), 1999 (four MPs) and 2014 (one MP) and to the state assembly in 2001 (four MLAs) and 2021 (four MLAs) when it was in an alliance with the Dravidian parties.

However, the BJP does not want to depend on its alliance partners anymore to increase its electoral prospects.

The primary obstacle for the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh combine in Tamil Nadu is that it has been unable to redefine the narratives of “Brahmin and non-Brahmin” and “Hindi vs Tamil” set by the Dravidian movement. This has prompted the BJP to shift the focus from language (Tamil) to religion (Hindu).

The recent developments in the state further illustrate the kind of politics the BJP wants to pursue against the Dravidian parties.

The future of the BJP now depends upon how it pursues its Hindutva agenda and more importantly, how the MK Stalin headed-government tackles the challenges posed by the saffron combine.

Arun Kumar is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at GITAM University, Bengaluru.