Sixty-eight year old Shamsuddin runs a printing press in Chennai’s bustling Triplicane locality. He pithily described the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s manifesto promise of persuading the central government to revoke the Citizenship Amendment Act as “pinching the baby and then trying to rock the cradle to pacify it”.

The AIADMK, Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, is a constituent of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance. When the BJP government at the Centre amended India’s citizenship law in December 2019, the AIADMK supported it. In Parliament, its members voted in favour of the amendments. In Tamil Nadu, Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami ardently defended the law both inside and outside the Assembly, challenging the Opposition to show how it would affect Muslims in India.

The Citizenship Amendment Act fast-tracks Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. By introducing a religious test for Indian citizenship, critics say it violates the constitutional principle of equality. Indian Muslims fear, along with the proposed National Register of Citizens, it could be used to harass and disenfranchise them. The passage of the law led to widespread protests across India, including in Tamil Nadu.

In Triplicane, home to a large Muslim population, there was absolute disbelief that the AIADMK would even attempt to promise revocation of the Citizenship Amendment Act. Many dismissed the AIADMK’s U-turn on the law as a political gimmick.

“If they were really committed to setting right the CAA, why did they not raise a whisper all this time?” asked Shamsuddin. Had former chief minister and leader of the AIADMK Jayalalithaa been around, she would have at least abstained from voting in favour of the law in Parliament, even if not opposing it, he added.

“After she died, the AIADMK has become more and more like BJP,” he said.

Electoral liability

Political observers say the AIADMK’s promise shows it is apprehensive about its alliance with the BJP costing it the votes of religious minorities in an election that could be a close contest.

This is the first assembly election to be held after both the major Dravidian parties lost their iconic leaders – Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK and M Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Tamil Nadu remains a duopoly despite their deaths, largely because the two parties have retained their organisational might and there is no viable alternative in sight to challenge them.

In 2016, the difference between the AIADMK and DMK fronts was just over 1% votes. In the event of another close contest, the votes of religious minorities could be decisive. Together, Muslims and Christians in Tamil Nadu are believed to constitute about 10% of votes.

This is what makes the BJP a burden for the AIADMK alliance – it forces the party to start the elections on the backfoot with a substantial vote deficit. To counter this, it has made a last-minute turnaround on the Citizenship Amendment Act.

CAA and TN Muslims

But the gambit does not seem to be working.

Within hours of the AIADMK announcing the promise, BJP leaders had made it clear that the amendments to the citizenship law will not be revoked. CT Ravi, the party in-charge for Tamil Nadu for the Assembly elections, said his party was not consulted about the promise. He restated the BJP’s commitment to implement the citizenship law.

In Triplicane, many voters cited Ravi’s statement to argue that AIADMK had no power to do anything about the citizenship law, given that the BJP currently has an overwhelming majority in Parliament and is not dependent on the AIADMK to retain power.

Mohammad Nasurullah, who runs an antique clocks repair shop in the locality, said people have come to take last-minute poll promises with a pinch of salt. “Frankly, I do not give much importance to these promises. Irrespective of the party that makes the promise, much of it are impossible to implement.”

In Manali, another locality in Chennai, Mohammad Sajjad, a 35-year-old who works in Dubai and has come to Chennai on vacation to vote, said had the AIADMK stood up to the BJP in Parliament against the Citizenship Amendment Act, Muslims in Tamil Nadu would have rallied behind the party. In fact, he said he would have been happy even if the party had just abstained from voting.

“They could have just remained silent about the CAA,” Sajjad said. “What they have said [in the manifesto] frustrates us even more because we know it is not possible.”

Mohammad Nasurullah runs an antique watch repair shop in Triplicane in Chennai.

Minority votes

Kombai Anwar, historian and documentary maker, said majority of Tamil Nadu Muslims have traditionally backed the DMK. However, Jayalalithaa did manage to pull some of the Muslim votes towards the AIADMK in her third term as chief minister in 2011-’16.

“In her first two terms in 1991 and 2001, she took decisions that were considered anti-minority in nature,” he said. For example, Jayalalithaa passed an anti-conversion law in 2003. “But when she came back to power in 2011, I think she made a conscious effort to reach out to the Muslims.”

But with the AIADMK now in the BJP alliance, it may have squandered whatever minority votes Jayalalithaa was able to pull from the DMK.

Anwar added that it was not just about Muslims but also Christians that should bother the AIADMK. “Unlike in Kerala where local politics sometimes pits Muslims and Christians in opposite camps, in Tamil Nadu this has not happened,” he said. “We have to see whether the AIADMK and the BJP are able to overcome this deficit from elsewhere.”