Last month, before electoral alliances were cemented in Tamil Nadu, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam President M Karunanidhi told reporters in Chennai that prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi was a “good friend”. This was seen by observers as an admission by the octogenarian Dravidian politician that Modi was beginning to matter in a state where the Bharatiya Janata Party has never mattered.

In the 2009 elections, the BJP polled less than 3% of the votes in the state. Except in two of the 39 Lok Sabha races in Tamil Nadu, it did not even come close to third place. Those results did not come as a surprise. Saffron politics and even the tallest of BJP leaders, such as Atal Behari Vajpayee, have never had electoral appeal in the Dravidian heartland. In fact, the BJP has only a marginal presence in much of South India, except for Karnataka.

Given this history, it has surprised observers to see opinion polls suggesting sizable support for Modi in these states. In both Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, several opinion polls suggest that Modi was the most preferred choice for prime minister. What has contributed to the change?

R Kannan, a cab driver in Chennai, seemed to have the answer. “We do not know the Gujarat Model or Modi Model but we do feel the Congress Model has failed,” he said.

Simply stated, in these elections, support for Modi cannot be construed as an endorsement of his politics, economics or personality. Instead he has only filled a space created by disenchantment with the Congress after ten years of being in government at the Centre.

The Congress’s loss of support has been accelerated by its failure to even put up a fight in Tamil Nadu. Senior leaders like Finance Minister P Chidambaram have refused to contest the elections, so there is a sense that the party has accepted defeat even before the battle bugle has been blown. “The real trouble is that the Congress has not even pitched its tent in the state and that is unacceptable in politics," said Sanjay Baru, a former Media Advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in a television discussion.

Though the Congress has played a secondary role to the main Dravidian parties since 1967, it has firmly occupied the national mind space in a state dominated by regional forces. “With Congress virtually out of the picture, regional parties have warmed up to Modi,” said Vishnu Prasad, a former Congress MLA. “They want to be on the right side of Delhi and so they have not questioned the Modi myth and serious allegations against his governance and politics.” Prasad admits that the issue in these elections is not Modi but the United Progressive Alliance's perceived failure.

Making things easier for the BJP is the fact that Modi’s claims about his performance have not been challenged by the principal political parties in the state. The DMK has focused its campaign on poor governance by Chief Minister J Jayalaithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.  Jayalaithaa’s election campaign, on the other hand, is focused on throwing out the UPA government. This effectively means that no one is talking about Modi except the BJP. Allegations of his allegedly communal politics or the flaws in Gujarat’s economic model are rarely mentioned, much less understood in public discourse.

The attraction for Modi seems to to have little to do with the man himself. For instance, while his much-vaunted oratorical powers have attracted large crowds in other parts of the country, that can’t be the reason he is gaining ground in Tamil Nadu, where the majority of the population does not even follow Hindi, the language in which he speaks. “Modi’s oratory or his personality is not the factor here,” admitted a senior BJP leader on condition of anonymity. “It is simply that people are against the Congress and they see no other option.”

Against this backdrop, the BJP has forged a third front in the state with actor tuned politician Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam and few other caste-based parties. This alliance hopes that “caste arithmetic in pockets of the state will help consolidate the Modi effect and translate into seats,” said Ravi Sundaram, an influential backroom manager with the state unit of the BJP. A post-poll alliance with Jayalaithaa may also be on the cards.

It isn’t clear that these moves will translate into seats. What is clear, though, is that while Modi may matter in Tamil Nadu, the BJP as a party still remains a marginal player in Dravidian electoral politics.