The Bharatiya Janata Party is attempting to recreate the fervour of the Ram Rath Yatra of the 1990s in Tamil Nadu, a state where it does not hold even a single assembly seat. The party’s new state president L Murugan announced last month that he would travel to the six major temples of the Hindu deity Murugan, located in six regions of the state.

His tour is called “Vetrivel Yatrai”. Its purpose, the BJP declared, is to teach a lesson to “anti-national” Dravidian groups that it alleged steadily insulted the Hindu faith. The tour is also meant to publicise the policies of the Narendra Modi-led Central government in Tamil Nadu.

Given that the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is in alliance with the BJP, some in the party expected little resistance.

But chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswamy decided to do a Lalu Prasad Yadav – the Bihar politician had famously stopped the rath yatra led by then BJP president LK Advani when it reached his state in October 1990.

The AIADMK denied permission for the Vetrivel Yatrai citing the risk to public health in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. When the BJP challenged the decision in the Madras High Court, the government said it cannot allow the yatra to proceed given the fear of a second wave of the pandemic striking the state.

However, the BJP has remained adamant. It has submitted before the court that it would make a fresh representation to the government, limiting the number of tour participants to 30 party workers travelling in 15 cars. BJP leaders even attempted to defy the ban on the Vetriel Yatrai in Chennai and Tiruttani and were detained by the police.

Observers are keenly watching the developments for a reason: Will the friction over the yatrai create a rupture in the AIADMK-BJP ties ahead of the Assembly elections scheduled for April 2021?

Vetrivel Yatrai and BJP

The Vetriel Yatrai was conceptualised following a series of controversies that erupted in July over a video that a Periyarist group called “Karuppar Koottam” put up on YouTube.

The BJP alleged the video was obscene in interpreting the devotional Tamil work “Kanda Sashti Kavasam”, a hugely popular set of hymns dedicated to Murugan that is played and chanted in many Tamil households every day. In Hindu mythology, Murugan is seen as Subrahmanyan, the younger son of Shiva. He is often referred to as an ancestor of the Tamil race.

The video sparked popular anger against Karuppar Koottam. The AIADMK government arrested some of its members in July. The controversy also had its effect on the Tamil media, leading to high-profile resignations of veteran journalists, who were specifically targeted by BJP sympathisers for what they alleged to be anti-Hindu bias.

Given the popular response the controversy evoked, the BJP saw an opportunity. In August, it conducted a “Vel poojai” in which the mythical weapon of Murugan called “Vel” was worshiped in the houses of party members.

In October, the BJP announced that its state president L Murugan, who hails from the Arunthathiyar community, which falls under the Scheduled Caste list, would lead a tour to the six major abodes of Muruga in the state. The yatrai was scheduled to start on November 6 and end on December 6, the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya in the aftermath of Advani’s rath yatra.

Opposition parties including the two communist parties, the Congress and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi slammed the BJP for attempting to flare up communal passions in the garb of taking a tour to temples. They urged the AIADMK government to ban the tour to ensure peace prevailed in the state. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s Kanomozhi took to Twitter to ask if the BJP, which wants permission for the Vetrivel Yatrai, demand making Tamil national language.

State denies permission

The AIADMK government denied permission to the yatrai on November 4. The next day, it defended its decision in Madras High Court where BJP leader K Natarajan had filed a petition seeking permission for the tour.

On November 6, the BJP state president, clad in saffron robes and carrying a Vel, was allowed to head to Tiruttani, located about 100 km from Chennai. But the large convoy was stopped within the capital – only five vehicles were allowed to go through. When the BJP leaders attempted to start the tour again from Tiruttani, they were detained in an auditorium and were later let off.

According to The Hindu, when the matter came up for hearing before the High Court again on Saturday in a special sitting, the judges, after going through the representation the party had made to the government for permission, asked: “If your purpose is going to the six abodes of Lord Murugan, why do you want to tour through routes where there are no Murugan temples?”

At the same time, the court also asked the state why it was opposing the yatrai when thousands of devotees were already visiting temples in the state.

The BJP then told the court that it would limit the number of participants in the tour and make a fresh representation to the state government. It also said the tour would end much before December 6 and undertook to file an additional affidavit with all the details. The High Court will resume the hearing on Tuesday.

On Sunday, November 8, L Murugan and others were yet again detained by the police in Chennai when they made fresh attempts to restart the yatrai. It is not clear if the party had made a fresh application to the Director General of Police for grant of permission. As of 5 pm on Monday, the state government had still not given permission for the tour.

Simmering troubles

The BJP leaders in the state have been quite acerbic in their criticism of the AIADMK government for denying permission to the yatrai. On Sunday, veteran leader L Ganesan wondered why when both the BJP state president and the chief minister have been named after the deity, the government was not allowing the tour.

BJP’s Murugan himself hit out at the AIADMK government for letting even opposition parties like the DMK to conduct public meetings but was placing hurdles in the way of a tour by an alliance member.

The matters got messier on Sunday when Murugan said that the BJP would emerge as a great force in the upcoming Assembly elections and would decide the next chief minister. Responding almost immediately, senior AIADMK minister D Jayakumar told reporters in Chennai that there was no scope for an alliance government in Tamil Nadu and that the AIADMK would win an absolute majority in the polls. Last month, after a lot of internal turmoil, the AIADMK had declared Palaniswamy as its chief ministerial candidate.

The AIADMK also took exception to the BJP using images of its founder MG Ramachandran in promotional videos for the Vetrivel Yatrai.

A senior AIADMK leader told on condition of anonymity that the BJP does not have the base to contest the Assembly elections on its own. “The last time they did so, they scored a zero,” the leader said, referring to the 2016 Assembly elections.

The AIADMK leader said that the BJP had launched the Vetrivel Yatrai to increase its visibility in the state. “When the polls come, all these differences would mostly go away,” the leader predicted.

The Hindu quoted BJP leader T Narayanan on Sunday as stating that there were “no policy differences” between the BJP and the AIADMK. Whatever differences they may have were similar to the differences that the constituents of the DMK alliance have, he told the newspaper.

Veteran journalist and political commentator Ilangovan Rajasekaran said the only scenario in which the BJP could break away from the AIADMK was the superstar Rajanikanth floating a new party and leading a third front including the BJP. “In the absence of Rajinikanth, I don’t see any scope for the BJP to find success without the AIADMK,” he added.