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PM's 'Tamil Nadu Connect': Modi’s Domestic Politics through His Global Diplomacy Hasn't Been Missed

The veshti-and-angavastram-do were quite clearly a different kind of 'Chennai Connect' than what was officially spoken of -- the BJP's eternal quest for the Tamil voter’s approval was back in the picture at Modi's informal summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Mahabalipuram.

Deepa Balakrishnan | CNN-News18deepab18

Updated:October 12, 2019, 11:01 PM IST
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PM's 'Tamil Nadu Connect': Modi’s Domestic Politics through His Global Diplomacy Hasn't Been Missed
PM Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Kovalam on Saturday. (PTI)

Bengaluru/Chennai: As he guzzled tender coconut water sitting side by side with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Modi was not unaware of soft messaging from the sands of Mahabalipuram.

The veshti-and-angavastram-do were quite clearly a different kind of “Chennai Connect” than what was officially spoken of — the BJP's eternal quest for the Tamil voter’s approval was back in the picture. For the BJP, domestic politics is never forgotten, even if it comes via international diplomatic channels.

The tone for the Tamil outreach perhaps began last month, when Modi chose to quote Sangam-era poet Kaniyan Pungundranar in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly to stress diversity. “Yaadhum oore, yaavarum kelir,” he said, which translates to, “we belong to all places, and to everyone”.

“Of course it is politics,” says Commodore RS Vasan, head of the Chennai Centre for China Studies.

“It is not necessary that everything is political. But if there is an opportunity, everyone will make use of it. The choice of Mahabalipuram for this summit itself was two-way -- apparently China was also keen on it, going by history -- but it presented an opportunity for Modi to look at Tamil Nadu, to some extent win over the hearts and minds of the people of Tamil Nadu. And why would an astute leader like Modi not make use of the opportunity? Of course, how much he will be successful, we will only know after the next election.”

There is just about 18 months before Tamil Nadu heads to Assembly polls -- and the BJP has always been known to work on its electoral strategies much in advance, especially in its weak spots. In May, Tamil Nadu showed it won’t bestow even a single seat on the BJP or its allies in the Lok Sabha -- and so it’s a front the BJP wants to conquer.

Political analyst RK Radhakrishnan, also the associate editor of ‘Frontline’ magazine, says the party has been trying hard for quite some time.

“They have been trying very hard -- first through the likes of S Gurumurthy, then through the AIADMK government, such as OPS (O Panneerselvam) and EPS (Edapaddi K Palaniswami). That also didn’t work,” says Radhakrishnan. “Then they tried through their local BJP workers -- leaders like Tamilisai (Soundararajan) and H Raja, which did not go well either. So, obviously, he has decided he is giving some attention to Tamil Nadu now that he isn't worried about Maharashtra and Haryana.”

So a little Tamil here, a smattering of Tamil there, a dinner of ‘thakkali rasam’ and ‘Tanjavur kozhi curry’ (for the guest, of course, the prime minister remains vegetarian) are being witnessed every now and then.

Tamil civic rights activist and founder of the May 17 Movement, Thirumurugan Gandhi, says Modi is a past master at adopting attires local to all places he visits. For instance, even in South Africa, he had donned the tribal attire. Modi, in fact, had also worn a “veshti” on a visit to the Guruvayur temple in Kerala soon after the elections.

“Of course in Tamil Nadu they are trying to woo the voters, because the BJP is an alien party to Tamil Nadu, but I don’t think this is going to work. They did not really produce hard results. They have not allocated funds for our archaeological excavations in Madurai, they tried to bury those excavation reports. They did not give funds for Tamil classical language research,” Gandhi tells News18. “When it comes to competitive exams in banking or Railways, they are undermining Tamils. Tamils are keenly watching these areas. Every third Tamilian depends on the Cauvery water, but there is no help on this front.”

Arguing that only the ‘veshti’ does not define Tamil identity, Gandhi says they are more concerned about issues of policy, be it the Cauvery river water or the hydrocarbon project or those related to their livelihoods. Cosmetic optics do not work, as the Tamil voter needs something more organic, he adds.

“That is what has been proven in the past elections as well. We grew up that way. If you ask us to study the Gita in schools, people will ask why not the Thirukkural,” argues Gandhi.

BJP spokesperson Narayanan Tirupathi says Modi's body language is not just an outreach to the voters of the state but an attempt to shun the perception that the BJP is anti-Tamil.

“Of course, there is no doubt there is false propaganda that the BJP is anti-Tamil, despite whatever the government has done for Tamil Nadu, be it in establishing the defence corridor or improving port connectivity,” says Tirupathi.

Radhakrishnan agrees with Gandhi that he does not see people buying this.

The economy is one issue -- Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) have been hugely affected over the last three years, which has benefited China. So, to host the Chinese premier here under the circumstances makes unhappy MSME workers unhappier. And the Centre has been unrepentant on this -- something that Tamils do not accept. But more importantly, the Tamil voter does not like to be discomfited.

“He cannot inconvenience one-sixth of the population, people are unable to go home, travel that entire 50-km stretch. Even when there is a bandh in Tamil Nadu, private vehicles will ply, nobody throws stones at private transport -- this is unique to Tamil Nadu, unlike anything in Kerala or Karnataka. So, he will be blamed for the discomfort caused,” says Radhakrishnan, adding, “In any case, no outsider can appropriate Tamil pride -- it didn’t happen even with Jayalalithaa, it won’t work here.”

But Modi is undoubtedly pitching himself as not just an Indian leader but that of an international stature -- one who showcases India at a global stage, and is using Tamil, too, to do so.

“He wears India on his sleeve, I'm not surprised he uses Tamil here and Punjabi in Amritsar -- that is his style. He likes to blend with the local population, tries to be ‘one of us’. He is saying he is not an outsider, that this is the larger picture of India I'm trying to showcase and I would like you to join me on this journey,” Vasan points out.

The route to the Tamil voter’s mind may be through different ways and, of course, there’s no harm in trying.

Modi signed off from Chennai with a video of the coastline, while he was air-borne, with a message to his “brothers and sisters of Tamil Nadu” thanking them for their outstanding hospitality and his gratitude to the political and socio-cultural organisations of the state -- some would say that was a sardonic take on the Twitter hashtag #GoBackModi that trended all of Friday.

Vanakkam, Chennai. Doubtless, there is more to come in the next 18 months.

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| Edited by: Moonmoon Ghosh
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