As India heads to the polls, Modi’s BJP is set to get a boost in opposition-ruled Tamil Nadu

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MYSURU, INDIA – APRIL 14: Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he addresses an election campaign rally on April 14, 2024 in Mysuru, India. 

Abhishek Chinnappa | Getty Images News | Getty Images

CHENNAI, India — Polling stations in India’s Tamil Nadu state opened on Friday as the country kicked off its massive national election process, with all 39 constituencies of the key southern state going to polls in the first phase.

Politics in India’s sixth-largest state by parliament seats has been dominated by regional players that have relied on ethno-nationalist ideologies rooted in the Tamil language and culture to build their support base.

More than 62.2 million voters will choose among 950 contestants in Tamil Nadu. Nationwide, 102 constituencies will go to polls across 21 states in the first phase.

For decades in Tamil Nadu, both the national parties — the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party — have played second fiddle to the two main regional parties, namely the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

The DMK won the Tamil Nadu state elections in 2021, defeating the incumbent AIADMK.

While Congress has been out of office in the state since the late 1960s, the BJP, which was formed only in 1980, has not been able to build a substantial voter base so far in Tamil Nadu.

But winds of change appear to be afoot — though, not strong enough to change the state’s big picture.

Pundits, politicians and people on the ground told CNBC that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP is set to post remarkable growth in Tamil Nadu, which has so far been a bulwark against what has often been characterized as the BJP’s Hindu nationalist politics.

India elections: BJP's Tamil Nadu secretary discusses how it expects to perform in the state

Following the demise of J. Jayalalithaa, the leader of the AIADMK, and M. Karunanidhi, patriarch of DMK, there has been a vacuum of charismatic local leaders, and people are now looking toward the BJP and Modi, said BJP Tamil Nadu Vice President Narayanan Thirupathy.

“There’s a silent revolution going on in the state,” Thirupathy told CNBC.

Political observers and psephologists have predicted that the BJP will make significant inroads into the state in terms of vote share. This may, however, not translate into parliamentary seats.

Prominent poll strategist Prashant Kishor reportedly said he expects the BJP to get “double digit” vote share in Tamil Nadu.

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Kishor, who has helped manage election campaigns for several parties including the BJP’s in 2014, said that the BJP “will either be first or second party in Telangana [another southern state] which is a big thing.” The party had won four of the 17 seats in Telangana in the 2019 elections.

BJP, along with its allies, could reach a vote share of 20% in Tamil Nadu, Sanjay Kumar, co-director of Lokniti, a research program at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), told CNBC.

The party, which fought the 2019 general elections in the state as a junior partner to the regional AIADMK, managed to secure just 3.66% of the votes cast in Tamil Nadu that year, even as it won a thumping majority nationwide that secured Modi a second-straight term. BJP’s national vote share was a little over 37% in the previous general election.

Though the jump in vote share in Tamil Nadu will be substantial compared with 2019, BJP might just win one or two constituencies, Kumar said. “I don’t think they’ll emerge as a challenger to the local parties in 2024.”

The BJP, however, claimed it will not only win huge in terms of vote share, but also the number of seats.

“We will be the second-largest party in terms of votes as well as seats this time,” Thirupathy said, adding that the party had built a strong foundation with presence in every “nook and cranny” of the state.  

Indian elections: Voters discuss key issues

The spokesperson for DMK, A. Sarvanan, dismissed those claims as “fantasy.” The vote share of the BJP may increase because they have fielded more candidates this time around, but it won’t win a single seat in Tamil Nadu, he said.

A poll of polls by NDTV on Wednesday showed the BJP will likely win just two seats in the state, while the opposition Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, which includes the DMK, could bag 33 seats, with the remaining four going to the AIADMK.

Tamil Nadu voters who spoke to CNBC also said the BJP was unlikely to win a significant number of seats in the state.

“It’s DMK all the way. BJP has no chance here,” said Sultan, who runs a small shop in Chennai’s T. Nagar flee market.

Seated opposite from him was Geetha, a Modi supporter, who said: “Modi is superman, but DMK will sweep Tamil Nadu. Modi will win India.”

BJP’s southern pivot

The BJP does not have as much traction in the southern states, especially Tamil Nadu, as it does in the North because its “Hindutva” politics does not appeal to the people here, DMK’s Sarvanan said. Hindutva is an umbrella term used to denote the fanning of Hindu nationalism to achieve political ends.

A Lokniti-CSDS poll last week showed religion was no longer a paramount concern among voters in general. It is even less of a concern in the southern states: Religion is a personal thing in Tamil Nadu unlike in some of the northern states, where it has been politicized, Sarvanan said.

The survey showed just 4% of the respondents want to give the incumbent government another chance because of “protection of Hindu interests/Hindutva.” In contrast, as many as 42% want to reelect the BJP for its “good work.”

Kumar of Lokniti-CSDS said people in the southern states do not get as easily swayed by emotive, religious issues as those from the Hindi heartland, which comprises several states from the northern part of India.

“If you look at the nature of campaign, the tone and tenor of campaign by the BJP in the southern states compared with the northern states, it is very different. In the southern states, the BJP is pitching more about development and about India’s image in the world,” Kumar pointed out.

The BJP wants to 'pander to Hindi majoritarianism,' says DMK spokesperson

As the BJP strives to make inroads into the Tamil-speaking state, it has also sought to allay fears of “Hindi imposition,” a matter often raised by the regional parties.

“We pledge to establish Tiruvallur Cultural Centers across the globe. As the world’s oldest language, Tamil fills us with immense pride, and the BJP is dedicated to elevating its global stature through concerted efforts,” Modi said when he released the BJP manifesto earlier this month. Tiruvallur is a revered Indian poet and philosopher from Tamil Nadu. 

The party has never won a Lok Sabha seat from Tamil Nadu. Lok Sabha is the lower house of India’s bicameral parliament that houses the representatives chosen directly by the people.

Out of the five southern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, BJP has managed to build a strong voter base only in Karnataka.

Kumar cautioned that it would not be fair to treat southern India as one single entity.

“We have to look state by state … different parties have formed government in different states. Tamil Nadu is very different from Karnataka. The nature of contest is very different [across southern states],” he said.

CNBC’s Naman Tandon contributed to this story.

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