Prime Minister Narendra Modi had proudly said after his party's historic victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha election that it was after three decades that India had seen a single-party majority in parliament and now it was up to the Opposition to form a coalition. Modi's facts were right. It was only after Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 that Modi came to lead a majority government at the Centre. A historical feat indeed but can Modi do what Rajiv couldn't in the late 1980s – make his party a big player in Tamil Nadu politics?
The post-Jayalalithaa scenario in Tamil Nadu draws almost an identical parallel with the post-MG Ramachandran situation three decades ago. Though Edapaddi Palaniswami has won the floor test in the Assembly, we do not yet know whether he can avoid becoming another Janaki Ramachandran, the widow of MGR who had won the initial rounds but was ultimately eclipsed by J Jayalalithaa – the leader who would remain a towering figure in the state till her death in December 2016.
And this chaos following the death of a popular leader raises the question: Can Modi's BJP take the opportunity and boost its own status in the southern state?
So far, nothing of that sort has happened. Close observers of Tamil Nadu politics felt that the saffron party was initially trying to back O Panneerselvam against Sasikala Natarajan but it was understood gradually that the party is in favour of a chaos so that it can fish in troubled waters. But can the BJP make any inroads in the state through that strategy? After the death of MGR in 1987, the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi made 17 visits to Tamil Nadu in a single year to capitalise on the vacuum that was created.
Besides him, several central ministers and top Congress leaders arrived in Tamil Nadu, a national holiday was declared, Doordarshan extensively covered the post-death developments while the Indian Air Force was brought in to ferry men and material for MGR's funeral. Yet these proactive measures did not earn the Congress what it had been aiming: power in a state that it had last ruled 50 years ago.
And BJP is unlikely to achieve what Rajiv couldn't
This time, it is the BJP which is in power at the Centre with a brute majority but still there is very little chance of Modi achieving the feat: coming to power in a state which it has never ruled.
The BJP has virtually no foundation in Tamil Nadu. Its vote-share is less than three percent with no MLAs in the Assembly. By contrast, the Congress was the second-largest party in the Assembly after the 1984 state polls after the AIADMK, with 61 seats and over 16 percent vote-share. Despite things looking bleak for Rajiv in the Bofors days, the Grand Old Party still had some base in the state, which rose to the occasion to back Rajiv Gandhi (who ironically was killed in the same state less than four years later).
BJP's state chief Tamilisai Soundararajan has said the party has no intention of imposing a President's rule and would like to fight up front through an election. It sounds great but the BJP's top brass knows that it amounts to nothing.
Also, when MGR died, the AIADMK was still what late Cho Ramaswamy had described "more a fan club than a party". People used to vote for MGR more than the politics or the party. Today, the AIADMK is a powerful regional outfit which has been running the state for six continuous years (winning two consecutive elections first time since the MGR days). In fact, the settlement of the question of succession in the AIADMK was facilitated by Rajiv's death in 1991 which had hurt the DMK and cemented Jayalalithaa's grip on the party and state. For the BJP, it is very difficult to make its own space in a bipolar state. Even if the AIADMK gets split, the BJP will not find it boosting its own strength for it has no leadership, organisation or historical support to fall back on.
Third, for a party ruling at the Centre, the Sri Lankan Tamil issue is a prime one to capitalise on if it wants to influence the state's politics. But that issue has lost its prominence so much today that the BJP leadership has little to do to win the Tamil sentiments by fuelling them against Sri Lanka's majoritarian politics.
The defeat of the LTTE and the coming of a friendly government in the maritime neighbour have eliminated the equation of fuelling regionalism in Tamil Nadu to win hearts. The most the BJP has in its armour now is the issue of Jallikattu but then again, the Dravidian outfits have a better grip on it than the saffron leadership.
Finally, both the Dravidian parties will try little to take help from the BJP to outsmart each other. It was seen during the past elections that the Dravidian parties – even the smaller ones like Vijaykanths' DMDK or Vaiko's MDMK or A Ramadoss' PMK – feel reluctant to continue with an alliance with the BJP, especially when it comes to the state's elections -- perhaps because of its overtly majoritarian political tone. So, in that way, the BJP has a disadvantage over the more inclusive Congress to widen its base outside the heartland.