L Murugan showed a confident, though slightly fixed smile from atop a campaign vehicle as the procession wound its way on a busy road in the middle of a hectic work day. Motorists stared bemused at the man clad in saffron, posing with a medieval-looking spear in his hand. The crowd in front of the vehicle was just a smattering of saffron but they were a spirited bunch.
The setting was the ‘Vel Yatra’ in November last year, and the man atop the vehicle was L Murugan, Tamil Nadu state president for the BJP and now the Cabinet Minister.
The Yatra was an inflection point in Murugan’s political career as it was an attempt to ride the social media backlash to the Periyarist grouping Karuppar Kootam, which had posted videos that contained obscene remarks on the Tamil God Murugan and the paen Kanda Sashti Kavasam.
For so long, the BJP had been looking for a handle to take on the Dravidian majors in Tamil Nadu. Actor Rajinikanth had shown up as a glimmer of opportunity but there were murmurs he would vanish from the milieu in his trademark quick gait. Without a strong local leader, and facing a formidable social media army of the DMK, the BJP was pretty much tottering about when the insult to the Vel presented itself.
It had struck gold at last and Murugan was the harvester. In he jumped. He announced that the BJP would go across the state to uphold the pride of Lord Murugan. In the middle of the pandemic, the BJP took the issue to the court to allow the processions to continue; Murugan was stalled, stopped and arrested often en-route: He had vowed to visit all the six abodes of Lord Murugan in Tamil Nadu. In his own way, he drew the kind of attention his party seldom received in the Dravidian heartland.
As L Murugan took oath as minister, his contributions to the BJP’s rank and file in Tamil Nadu stand testament to his political and administrative abilities. Murugan emerged the state chief for last March. A lawyer who had been the government’s standing counsel at the Madras High Court, Murugan had also been the vice-chairperson of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes. He contested the 2011 Assembly Elections 2011 from Rasipuram in Salem and lost. An ABVP man, he was hardly in the reckoning when the party was scouting to fill the space of current Telangana Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan. Once he became state chief, Murugan set about roping in popular figures in the film circles and the political spectrum. After six months of vacuum, the Tamil Nadu BJP seemed to be up to something.
Even though Murugan had lost in Dharapuram in the state Assembly, the margin of loss was quite slender compared to many of his colleagues. With four lawmakers in the state Assembly, the BJP can no longer be at the receiving end of snarky remarks about little representation in the Assembly. As state chief Murugan managed to pull the party through a tough political terrain, where even accepted leaders with a lot of social capital such as Kamal Haasan faced strong headwinds.