As Tamil Nadu headed to polls, the DMK took out a number of front page ads in major newspapers, asking people to put an end to the “dreams of Fascists and their slaves”. Interestingly, the target of this vitriol was not the ruling AIADMK in the state, but the BJP government at the Centre. They accused the BJP of having designs such as renaming Tamil Nadu as Dakshin Pradesh, replacing libraries with cow welfare centers and shutting Tamils out of jobs in their own state. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Madurai on April 1, the DMK responded with an unusual social media campaign. Their candidates began inviting the Prime Minister to hold rallies in their respective constituencies, boasting that this would only increase their victory margins.
How clever is it to speak like this to the most popular Prime Minister that India has seen in decades?
As of now, the BJP is a marginal player in Tamil Nadu. As part of their alliance with the AIADMK, they are contesting merely 20 seats in the 234-member Assembly. And yet, in their election speeches, the DMK has spent a disproportionate amount of time attacking the BJP.
Why would the DMK believe that this is a winning strategy? They are convinced that the BJP does not understand the culture of Tamil Nadu and never will. They think that by playing up fears of Hindi imposition and stereotypes against the ‘cow belt,’ they can tighten their grip over the state. If the DMK goes on to win this election, as is widely expected, they are likely to get shriller in their criticism. After all, the state has traditionally been a playground for ideological movements sharply opposed to upper-caste dominance, Hindi imposition, Aryan supremacy and a number of other things that the BJP is supposed to stand for. So, this may seem like a safe political course for the DMK, but is it?
Perhaps they would do well to take a look at the troubles of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. After the 2014 elections, she launched a bitter offensive against the BJP and Narendra Modi. Her calculation used to be quite similar. The politics of West Bengal is traditionally ‘secular’ and ‘progressive.’ She reasoned that the BJP leadership did not speak the language of her state, nor did their assertion of Hindu identity resonate with the culture of Bengal. She would emphasize these differences, talk about regional identity and consolidate her hold over Bengali voters.
How did that work out for Mamata Banerjee? She ended up raising the BJP’s profile and is now locked in a desperate struggle for political survival. She had gone in hoping to use the BJP as a phantom threat to win elections in Bengal. Instead, the threat from the BJP became completely real.
In fact, it is quite astonishing that parties like the DMK have not yet picked up on the most stable, visible trend in Indian politics in the last 20 years. Regionalism, as a vote-garnering tool, simply does not work. It did not work when Raj Thackeray tried to do it in Maharashtra. It did not work for Mamata Banerjee in Bengal and least of all in Uttar Pradesh, where Akhilesh Yadav spoke of himself and Rahul Gandhi as “UP ke ladke” during the 2017 Assembly polls. During the 2018 elections in Karnataka, the Congress tried briefly to engage with Kannada regional pride as a political strategy. They should really have known better.
Overall, this is a hugely positive development for our country. From Bengal to Karnataka to Maharashtra, people are ever more proud of the many cultural identities that make up our nation. But try to turn these diverse identities into fault lines within society and people will reject you. They want to engage and share, not build walls and live in fear.
The BJP has been able to latch on to this phenomenon, with ever-increasing confidence. After 2014, they installed their first chief ministers in Haryana, Maharashtra, Assam and a number of states in the North-east. In the 2019 elections, their forays into Bengal and Telangana were nothing short of spectacular. When Mamata Banerjee tried to project the BJP as a party of Ram worshipers who do not understand Bengal, the BJP turned the attack on its head. The chant of Jai Shri Ram now echoes in every street of Bengal, taunting the TMC, giving them sleepless nights.
Worse, for non-BJP parties, this is not even a post-2014 phenomenon. In the 10 years that the BJP spent in the wilderness between 2004 and 2014, they still managed to form their first government in Karnataka, in 2008. In other words, this is not just about Modi.
Despite this, the DMK wants to build its politics around the idea that Tamil Nadu shall forever remain an exception. They do not see how easily the BJP has adjusted to local identities elsewhere. In fact, the party has learned to bend and be moulded, incorporating these tricky regional identities within a much larger narrative of nationalism. If there is any rigidity, it appears to be among their political opponents, who are stuck with stereotypical beliefs about what the BJP is and what it can do. While the BJP does not threaten the DMK in the 2021 election, there is no guarantee in 2026. A huge segment of the BJP supporters could surface overnight, almost from nowhere. And, the DMK could be left grappling with them, for political survival. As we have seen in Bengal, once this segment surfaces, no amount of regional chauvinist rhetoric can make them go away. In fact, such taunts merely add to the BJP’s strength.
There are deep philosophical reasons for this systemic failure of non-BJP parties to recognize how modern India is dealing with its multiple regional identities. Much of this has to do with putting too much faith in the views of a class of academics and civil society commentators with no skin in the game. These thinkers have always taken a fragmented view of Indian history as well as contemporary society. When the British ruled India, it obviously made sense for them to encourage such scholarship. The post-Independence thinkers continued to accept this worldview. Additionally, they gave credit to the charisma of the political leadership of the time for keeping it together.
In essence, the idea of India as a nation created by the British was never challenged seriously. And then, the far- Left took over these institutions. The latter would never accept the cultural unity of India. In fact, it was anathema to them.
But political parties, unlike academics, have to fight elections on the ground. And, India is more than the sum of its parts. The story of Durga blends seamlessly with the story of Ram. The oneness of India comes from inside, not outside. Going forward, political forces which realize this will prevail over others. And, those which do not learn the lessons from history are doomed to repeat it.