IMAGE: Bharatiya Janata Party Supremo Narendra Damodardas Modi at a BJP rally in Chennai, March 4, 2024. Photograph: Kind courtesy K Annamalai/X

N Sathiya Moorthy 

‘If he has not achieved a ‘Congress mukt Bharat’ even now, the question of his creating a ‘DMK mukt Tamil Nadu’ does not arise,’ points out N Sathiya Moorthy.

While Narendra Modi’s exceptionally shrewd electoral tactics of declaring a 370/400 seat-goal for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-National Democratic Alliance in the Lok Sabha polls may convince neo-generation fence-sitters to tilt in his favour, and so could his Cabinet meeting to set the 100-day agenda of a post-poll government of his current coalition, a question has arisen if such an approach would work in Tamil Nadu?

Modi’s repeated visits to Tamil Nadu, purportedly for official purposes, which he also conveniently convert as party functions, and his all-out attacks on the ruling DMK in the state displays the kind of ‘missionary zeal’ to ‘destroy’ the party, as he has mentioned in one of his recent outings.

However, he sort of qualified it during a subsequent visit, by focussing more on ‘dynastic politics’ (of the DMK/RJD kind, apart from that of the Congress leader of their INDIA combine) and also corruption.

‘I will not allow the DMK to loot the people’s money,’ he declared even while seeking to snub RJD founder Lalu Yadav’s reference to the PM not having a family of his own (to know the impact of price rise and inflation) and made his Chennai audience chant ‘I am Modi’s family’ — meaning that all 1.4 billion Indians were his kith and kin, and he lived and worked only for ’em all.

Modi did not stop there. He cited the Supreme Court’s seven-judge unanimous verdict in the ‘JMM bribery case’ dating back to a quarter century, and said that the INDIA bloc leaders were now worried.

In the same vein, he also referred to a division bench of the Supreme Court rebuking state minister and DMK youth wing leader Udhayanidhi Stalin on the multiple criminal cases pending against him in many courts across the country, and said that ‘insulting the beliefs of crores of people is also the future and habit of dynasts’.

Udhayanidhi’s lawyers were prompt to point out to the court that they were not arguing the merits of the case — which is what the observations from the Bench seemingly qualified it to be — and were only seeking to club them all together for matters of convenience.

Outside, Modi’s quick reference to the judicial observations has seemingly left a bad taste in the mouth — at least in Tamil Nadu.

Likewise, Modi referring to the Supreme Court verdict in the JMM case has left a bad taste in the mouth of many, both politicians and others.

By implication, they have concluded that the BJP Centre would cite the Supreme Court verdict harassing Opposition MPs and MLAs, under the cover of Chief Justice Dr D Y Chandrachud’s observation that no such thing could/would happen.

Can all of it help ‘destroy’ the DMK, as the PM seemed to have taken a public vow?

Rather, can Modi-led BJP’s psychological mind-games of winning over voters, starting with a large-number of fence-sitters, and putting the other side on the defensive all the time play out as well in Tamil Nadu as elsewhere across the country, at least this time?

The BJP’s psy-war worked wonders for the party all across the country, barring Tamil Nadu, Kerala and to a lesser extent, in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha and West Bengal, both in 2014 and 2019.

More importantly, it made the upbeat Congress feel defeatist even before the poll battle had been joined in 2014.

There has been no return to the old ways and days for the Congress since.

The ruling BJP rival’s ‘India Shining!’ did not stand a chance before Sonia Gandhi’s ‘Aam Aadmi‘ call in 2004, but the latter did not measure up to Modi’s ‘Achche Din‘ in 2014 — the inevitable anti-incumbency taking over first, to be followed by calculated narratives against the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Today, there may be more young Indians who believe in the BJP’s version of Nehru being a ‘sinner’ than a ‘doer’.

As far as Tamil Nadu and the DMK are concerned, this is not the first time that a national party or regional challenger had vowed to decimate the party.

Historically, it was ‘promised’ a few times in the past, but they did not succeed.

After breaking away from the DMK to form the AIADMK, the late M G Ramachandran did target former friend, M Karunanidhi — mainly because that kept him and his infant party relevant and brought him votes.

He did not exactly try to destroy the party.

After MGR’s time, when J Jayalalithaa became AIADMK chief minister in 1991, in the aftermath of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination — their two parties were poll allies at the time — everyone had written off the DMK, which polled the worst-ever electoral results for the party since entering the poll scene in 1957.

Contesting 176 of 234 seats, leading an alliance to call its own, the DMK managed the lowest-ever two.

The poll percentage at 22.5 too was the lowest-ever while contesting as many seats.

Even adjusted to the seats that it contested, the figure did not cross the 30-per cent mark.

So bad was the DMK’s performance in 1991 that in the last months ahead of the successor elections in 1996, the party did not have any parliamentary representation, either in the Lok Sabha or in the Rajya Sabha.

That is to say, the DMK did not win a single Lok Sabha seat — in fact it lost every seat by huge margins owing to the Rajiv Gandhi assassination — and could not field a single candidate through those years to get even one member elected to the Upper House.

Going by the available figures on the board, Jayalalithaa, who was still a novice to electoral politics and public administration, committed the undeniable mistake of writing off the DMK and Karunanidhi with that one election result.

Burdened by her own mishandling of governance and the excessive authority that she conferred on an extra-constitutional person like her live-in confidante Sasikala Natarajan, Jayalalithaa ended up losing the 1996 elections to an alliance of the DMK and the Tamil Maanila Congress, a breakaway group of the parent Congress, founded by party veteran G K Moopanar.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Extraneous political developments have always helped the DMK — and at times the AIADMK — to survive and jump-start the opponent in the past. So has the leadership’s cunning.

Thus when the AIADMK split after MGR’s death gave hopes to the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi a fighting chance to return to power after losing power in 1967, a lil’ something was said to be behind the DMK winning the assembly polls of 1989.

For a prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi created campaign history of sorts by visiting Tamil Nadu 11 times in 13 months, and yet the party came third.

Of course, most, if not all Rajiv Gandhi visits to the state were political — and he did not camouflage them as official.

But a lil’ bee kept telling whichever Congress leader was willing to listen that not all those massive crowds identifiable in their white khadi attire were Congressmen.

A decade before this, the Indira Gandhi government at the Centre sacked Karunanidhi’s state dispensation, seven months after the proclamation of the Emergency and instituted a commission of inquiry headed by Justice R S Sarkaria, a sitting judge of the Supreme Court.

The commission found evidence of what it called ‘scientific corruption’ in many departments and areas.

However, when the breakaway MGR decided to go it alone in the post-Janata Party elections of January 1980, as in the post-Emergency 1977 polls, Indira Gandhi readily patched up with Karunanidhi and the DMK — and Sarkaria’s hard work was forgotten.

In Tamil Nadu of Stalin — and rival AIADMK boss, Edappadi K Palaniswami, then CM — the BJP has faced two major elections after the charismatic Jayalalithaa’s death in December 2016) and a politically-toughened Karunanidhi’s passing in 2018.

Both the Lok Sabha polls of 2019 and the assembly elections of 2021, the Modi leadership lost, though the latter one involved a mandate for EPS.

The AIADMK cadre did not stop complaining that they lost even in their traditional western stronghold only because of the ‘Modi magic’ that worked against the party.

They also recalled how in 2014, Jaya went alone and swept 37 of 39 Lok Sabha seats with the one-liner, ‘Modi-yaindha Lady-ya?’ All of it forced EPS to snap ties with the BJP, with his focus now trained more on the 2026 assembly polls than the Lok Sabha election that is round the corner.

It is this that has further stirred up the BJP’s hopes in Tamil Nadu, having trained its guns on the DMK on the very same issues of dynasty rule and corruption — but there is more ‘evidence’ to it since Stalin became CM in 2021.

There is now anticipation of more raids and court cases, at times leading up to arrests, involving central agencies like the ED, CBI and IT department.

There is a new case of a lower-level DMK functionary being wanted in an international drug-smuggling case and purportedly with connections to party and government higher-ups too has not gone down well with a section of non-committed voters.

Whether or not it would persuade them to vote against the DMK is one thing — but visible action in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls on this and other cases, new and old, could be a clincher.

Or, that is the expectation on the one side and anticipation on the other.

The question still remains. Can the DMK be ‘destroyed’? Naturally, insiders refuse to believe in such possibilities.

If anything, Modi’s avowal has left a bad taste in most people, independent of their opposition to the DMK, at times bordering on aversion.

They feel his comments were haughty for a leader holding his position and given his own stature. To some it sounds authoritarian, having surpassed ‘arrogance’.

If anything, such thoughts triggered by Modi’s statements seem to have triggered the question of the larger issues in the Lok Sabha polls — whether it was DMK’s dynasty rule and corruption, where they agree to such a construct, or if there was more to it than even Sanatan Dharma, ‘Dravidian model’ of development, Centre-state issues of federalism and, of course, Dravidian ‘social justice’.

Without other frills, this could be the deciding factor. However, if push comes to shove, there is little appetite now in the DMK for a good fight, political, legal or social. Or, so it seems.

Karunanidhi was the longest-serving ‘elected’ leader of any political party in any democracy across the world. He possibly lost more elections for the party than won.

Yet, hours after the results were known, he would be back in the party headquarters, to console the cadres and confer with senior leaders — not doing a post mortem examination of what went wrong, but what the party would have to do for the next election, however distant it be.

Party cadres readily concede that Stalin is made of different stuff, and his son Udhyanidhi, the heir apparent, even more different than his father.

This has raised questions about the ‘staying power’ of the party leadership — also at other levels, where controlling leaders all are past seventies and have been given to comforts and luxuries that the Karunanidhi generation of leaders did not know existed when they began it all.

This very change in lifestyle could dictate their approach and attitude towards politics and elections — where you still need fighters with a ‘killer instinct’.

But then as biographers of Jayalalithaa have pointed out, she grew up to be a leading actress of her time, charging the highest for each of her films in her time.

Yet, she was as determined like Karunanidhi and many others — and even more — to fight her way through it all, until death embraced her while in office in December 2016.

That is the kind of stuff, it is argued, that every leader at the top is made of.

It is no different with the DMK, whether it was Karunanidhi in his time, and Stalin and/or Udhayanidhi now or in the future. Or, so goes the argument.

As they point out, as if for effect, though Modi has been talking about a ‘Congress mukt Bharat’ over the past decade, both while in power and earlier, too, even today, he does not seem to have achieved it.

Rather, he is still afraid of the Congress in Elections 2024, more so after the founding of the INDIA combine.

If he has not achieved a ‘Congress mukt Bharat’ even now, the question of his creating a ‘DMK mukt Tamil Nadu’ does not arise