The mess in Tamil Nadu promises to get weirder by the day, with retaliatory expulsions and disqualifications. The warring factions of former interim chief minister O. Panneerselvam and incumbent Edappadi K. Palaniswami have kissed and made up, at least for now. But their troubles are far from over. A third faction of some 20 AIADMK MLAs led by T. T. V. Dinakaran, disgraced nephew of jailed party leader V. K. Sasikala, is holding out as the heir to late supreme leader J. Jayalalithaa’s legacy. That makes the ruling party a minority in the legislature. Meanwhile, the DMK led by Stalin is watching intently, praying perhaps that the factions will fight each other into oblivion.

At one level the travails of OPS and EPS are quite irrelevant. While the two might win their own seats in a future election there is virtually no chance of the government they claim to lead retaining power. Their fate is sealed short of a miracle. But the future is not clear cut either. On the face of it, the way is open for Stalin and the DMK but there could be spoilers ahead. The first of these is the role the Bharatiya Janata Party is playing in this business. Both OPS and EPS have made more than one trip to Delhi to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and have gone to some length to stress the cordial nature of their meetings, as if to say that the reconciliation has the BJP’s approval, something unheard of in earlier years.

To an impartial observer it signals a terminal weakness in the state government. Every previous government of either party had a working relationship with the Centre, sometimes an extremely cordial one, but there never was a hint of servility. They met as equals and negotiated from the same platform. The present regime has folded at the outset and its newfound unity seems to be the work of BJP president Amit Shah using Dinakaran as a stalking horse. They obviously have not found common cause but neither is able to perform without a cue card. Contrast this with Jayalalithaa, who kept both Modi and his predecessor UPA government at a long arm’s length.

Secondly, it indicates that the BJP thinks Tamil Nadu may be ready for a swing away from its Dravidian fixations to politics more as usual. Caste and community considerations have always counted but Tamil sub-nationalism was the real key to DMK and AIADMK power. But its heyday seems to be over, especially since the demise of northern Sri Lanka’s Eelam struggle. Invocations to Tamil pride are far less strident and political battles in the last two elections have focused on welfare and governance rather than ethnic or linguistic chauvinism. Its power to shape the state’s politics is as strong as ever, as the remarkable success of the protests in January to restore jallikattu demonstrated, but nowadays it seems to be held in reserve rather than flaunted in every political context.

Then there is the BJP’s project to win 350 seats in the 2019 general elections. It is unlikely to get there without a substantial number from Tamil Nadu because West Bengal for now is a universe too far. As the party at the Centre it would expect the conventional alliance formula of two-thirds of the seats for Lok Sabha elections against one-third for the state party. That proportion is reversed for state assembly elections. The arithmetic is simple. At present it has one seat from Tamil Nadu. Even a modest advance on this number would give it a bigger footprint for the future. If the AIADMK falls apart in the process BJP could simply step away from the carcass even as it tries to hoover up the party’s supporters. Some may go to the DMK but the BJP could appeal Hindu chauvinists among the “Amma faithful” despite its Hindi fixation In any case it has nothing to lose by trying to consolidate a durable constituency in the state.

This should be a warning for the other parties because their Dravidian rhetoric rings increasingly hollow, more like the snappy slogans they were than the coherent philosophical position they pretended to hold. Their welfare programmes too have descended into competitive freebie distribution, which the BJP could do just as well. Above all, it is possible that an appeal to something greater than caste and glorious past will give voters a sense of mission that papers over the ideological vacuum in which everyone is operating. This is the challenge for DMK and other aspirants; more energy, greater focus on their objectives and a sense of purpose that matches the ferocity of the BJP mission. Otherwise they could find themselves staring into the abyss.

 

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