How the BJP weaponised dominant-caste interests in its Coimbatore campaign

A flex-banner put up by the BJP, at one of the locations of the 1998 Coimbatore blasts, where prime minister Narendra Modi paid his respects during a rally on 18 March 2024. The flex-banner was quickly changed before Modi’s arrival removing the names of a Muslim victim of the blast SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT
Elections 2024
20 April, 2024

In a white kurta, and with folded hands, Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid homage to the 58 victims of the 1998 Coimbatore bombings amid a huge roar of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” on 18 March. It was Modi’s sixth visit to Tamil Nadu this year—about as many times as he had visited in his first three years in office—as part of his Bharatiya Janata Party’s bid to make major gains in the state during the 2024 general election. There is no memorial to the serial blasts, which took place at 11 locations over a twelve-kilometre radius. A few days earlier, BJP workers had put up a large flex banner at the site of the first explosion, in RS Nagar, with an image of Bharat Mata—the Hindu Right’s deified national personification of India—and the names of all the victims listed on either side. However, the banner was changed before Modi’s arrival, to one with fewer names. “The flex banner which was initially placed had the name of a Muslim victim, Rukuma Bhai,” a local photojournalist, who had shot both banners, told me. “A new banner with only pictures of Hindu victims was placed and decorated for Modi to pay his homage.”

“The prime minister is bringing back the ghosts of 1998, the ghosts that the city has forgotten with great difficulty and after paying a heavy price,” the author S Ezhirko, better known by his pen name Paamaran, told me. Investigators found that the bombings, over a period of six hours on 14 February 1998, were part of a conspiracy, allegedly carried out by Al-Umma, an Islamist group formed in the city following the Sangh Parivar’s demolition of the Babri Masjid, to assassinate the BJP leader LK Advani during his visit to Coimbatore for that year’s general election. Investigators found that the blasts were a part of larger conspiracy to target LK Advani at an election meeting. One of the bombs went off eight hundred metres away from the podium where he was to conduct his election rally. In the aftermath of the blasts, Hindu fundamentalist groups ransacked Muslim properties, attacked people at random and the city plunged into a deep law and order crisis. The root cause of the incidents goes back to 29 November 1997 when a police constable was allegedly murdered by Muslim youth after the detention of functionaries of Al Umma. 

Agitated police men joined hands with members of Hindu Munnani and Hindu Makkal Katchi—Sangh Parivar satellite organisations in Tamil Nadu—who attacked Muslims and Muslim-owned properties across the city. Clashes erupted between both the communities and the police opened fire reportedly targeting the Muslims. By the end of the violence, eighteen Muslims—some of whom were burnt alive—and two Hindus were killed. Though the city has not seen large-scale inter-religious violence since, fundamentalist groups have kept it at a boil, making it the only fertile ground for the BJP in a state where Hindu nationalism finds little purchase.

The Coimbatore Advani visited is a very different one from the one Modi sees now. Its population has nearly doubled, attracting workers from its hinterland and north India. Few youngsters know of the instability of the 1990s, an advantage the BJP hopes to tap into with its Lok Sabha candidate: the party’s state president, K Annamalai, a former police official. However, over the past three decades, the city has transformed into a major stronghold for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, under the tutelage of the party’s headquarters secretary, SP Velumani—colloquially known as Coimbatore’s chief minister. Moreover, the city’s industrial output, particularly from its vibrant small businesses, has grown severalfold. The DMK hopes to capitalise on the slowdown these industries have faced following the union government’s implementation of demonetisation and the goods and services tax, which disproportionately affected micro, small and medium enterprises.

“Coimbatore is a city with thousands of small industries who were operating in the unorganised sector,” Krithika, who owns a company that manufactures air compressors, told me. “Demonetisation affected us badly, because most of our industries were operating in cash. We could not switch over to [the] digital economy. And then, an even bigger blow came with GST. Most micro industries were run by entrepreneurs employing four or five people. We used to file our own accounts before GST, and the process of filing GST is so complicated that our business owners had to engage a consultant, who charge us hefty fees. With the industry going through such problems already, where do we [have the money] for all this? Nearly forty percent of micro and small industries closed down after demonetisation and GST. If BJP comes to power again, all of us will be out of business.”

The worsening of Coimbatore’s economic situation has always led to an upsurge in the city’s labour unions. The communist parties, which have a storied history in the region, held the Lok Sabha seat between 1967 and 1980, before winning it in 2004, 2009 and 2019, with alternating support from the DMK and AIADMK. The complex relationships between the city’s Muslims and Hindus could also be hurt by the BJP’s campaign. “I couldn’t sell even a cup of tea on the day the prime minister came for his campaign,” a restaurant owner in the heart of the city told me. “We lost business totally. If BJP comes to power, this will happen on a regular basis. BJP wants to play the Hindutva card. We have been living in this city in harmony with people from other communities. I have a lot of Muslim customers. I don’t want to lose business listening to these BJP people.”

A slew of welfare measures, particularly those targeting women, have increased the DMK support in the district. These include the Kalaignar Magalir Urimai Thogai, entitling women heads of families to a thousand rupees every month, as well as free local bus travel for women and morning meals for students in government schools. When I visited the locality of Palladam, almost every woman I spoke to mentioned these three schemes. The DMK candidate, Ganapathy Rajkumar, defected from the AIADMK, in 2021, after serving as mayor of Coimbatore. The party hopes Rajkumar’s candidature will help attract women—a waning support base of the AIADMK—though the impact of these schemes may be sullied by the condescending comments of various DMK leaders about how women could use the basic income to buy beauty products.  

A mega-rally organised by the DMK, along with their allies in the Democratic Progressive Alliance, which reportedly had over a hundred thousand attendees. Much of the DMK’s campaign has focussed on the protection of Dravidian values and on the portrayal of the BJP as a threat to Indian democracy. A VIGNESH  

Several of these factors have led to an upsurge in the DMK’s support this election, most visible in a rally, on 12 April, that reportedly had over a hundred thousand attendees. Much of the DMK’s campaign has focussed on the protection of Dravidian values and on the portrayal of the BJP as a threat to Indian democracy. Thus, the party’s allies were visible across its messaging, with the Congress princeling Rahul Gandhi handing over sweets to Chief Minister MK Stalin at the rally and calling him anna—elder brother. Also making a large presence at the rally were the communists, who had been allocated four seats in the state, including the neighbouring Tiruppur constituency.

Ground reports indicate that seventeen hundred out of the twenty-one hundred polling booths in Coimbatore trended towards the DMK during polling on 19 April. “Coimbatore has 21 lakh registered voters, of which we can expect 15 lakh voters to cast their votes,” a senior political journalist told me. “The DMK and its allies have a vote bank of 4.5 lakhs, which is solid. Muslim votes, MSMEs and anti-BJP votes are extra, which will come close to 1.5 lakh votes. The DMK has a clear edge in Coimbatore this time.”

Anyone making gains in Coimbatore can only do so at the cost of the AIADMK. “The issue is that the AIADMK, which has a considerable vote base in Coimbatore, does not seem to be in high spirits,” Nazir Ahmed, a resident of Kuniamuthur, a neighbourhood close to the city centre, told me. “I am a staunch AIADMK supporter, but I don’t see any big activity happening in the AIADMK camp. The AIADMK candidate, Singai Ramachandran, a young leader, made waves initially, but, somewhere down the line, they lost hope.” Velumani has remained low key this election, a factor which is very visible on the ground.

This is odd, given that Coimbatore is perhaps the region where the AIADMK has the most cards stacked in its favour. The largest and most influential caste in Kongu Nadu, the western part of the state, are the Vellala Gounders. Following the death of the former chief minister J Jayalalithaa, in 2016, her AIADMK split into two factions, led by O Panneerselvam—who draws much of his support from the Mukkulathor community, which is dominant in southern Tamil Nadu—and Edappadi K Palaniswami. Palaniswami was able to manoeuvre the party’s factious politics to ensure that he became the state’s first Vellala Gounder chief minister. During his tenure, much of his focus was on the Kongu region, particularly his native district of Salem. Velumani is also Gounder and draws much of his support from this caste. However, unlike in the rural hinterland of Kongu Nadu, the AIADMK seems to be perilously losing Gounder support in Coimbatore.

This has allowed for the BJP to consolidate its campaign under Annamalai—also a Gounder—by claiming to be the primary protectors of dominant-caste interests in the region. The party’s early campaigns in the city focussed only on Hindu nationalism. In the aftermath of the 1998 bombings, the BJP’s CP Radhakrishnan won the seat in two consecutive general elections, with the support of the AIADMK in 1998 and the DMK in 1999. Radhakrishnan won 55.9 percent and 49.2 percent of the vote, but most of this seems to have come from the BJP’s allies. After he was defeated by the Communist Party of India’s K Subbarayan, in 2004, the party’s prospects plummeted. In 2009, the BJP candidate received less than five percent of the vote.

Five years later, with the support of the Kongunadu Munnetra Kazhagam, a Gounder caste organisation that had won over fifteen percent of the Coimbatore vote in 2009, and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Radhakrishnan won a third of the vote, finishing well ahead of the DMK candidate but trailing the AIADMK’s P Nagarajan by over forty thousand votes. However, in 2019, despite the support of a still stable AIADMK, he lost to the communist candidate—part of the DMK-led alliance, which has remained unchanged in 2024—by nearly two hundred thousand votes.

Political analysts from the region are sceptical about the BJP’s claim that Coimbatore is theirs to win. “The BJP has spread propaganda in the last few years that Coimbatore is their bastion, but the truth is Coimbatore has always been a stronghold for communist parties, with its industrial background,” Senthalai Gowthaman, a historian and expert on the politics of Kongu Nadu, told me. “The Kongu region as a whole has had labour movements functioning efficiently, and so, right from sending the first woman MP, Parvathi Krishnan from the CPI, Coimbatore has always had the left leaning historically. The BJP won twice, that too during the bomb blast period, with the help of allies.”

For the 2024 campaign, the BJP seemed to have replaced the support of regional parties with that of caste associations. “Komutti Chettiars are traditionally a business community,” Jawagar S, a wholesale trader from Coimbatore, told me. “Apart from business interests they have the caste pride like all other upper castes. For the last two weeks, the Komutti Chettiar Association has been providing food in our temple and asking people from our communities to promise that they will vote for BJP. This has never happened before.” Other caste associations followed suit. In a video made by the group Naidus 4 Annamalai, a doctor can be seen talking about the troubles corporations face in Coimbatore, such as infrastructure failures and the Bharat Mala scheme not reaching the city, the blame for which he lays at the feet of the Dravidian parties. As the News Minute reported, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s primary ingress into Tamil Nadu has been through caste associations, which the Dravidian parties kept alive and often relied upon for support—despite them running directly in the face of their ideological positions.

For dominant caste groups, belligerent about even the lukewarm Dalit representation the Dravidian parties have given, the BJP seems a safe bet. Jawagar put this simply. “All these years, people belonging to Pariayar and Sakkiliyar communities—basically the SCs—have been given importance, education and social status,” he said. “Now, all those communities have developed economically, which the upper castes could not come to terms with. They could not flaunt their upper-caste pride in the Dravidian rule. Now, BJP is giving them a platform to do that.” This is a reductive argument, one that ignores the decades of dominant-caste influence, enrichment and “flaunting” that Dravidian parties have allowed since 1967, but it is one that has many believers.

Annamalai has been able to effectively channel this into overt Hindu nationalist politics. During the first week of April, I spent three hours waiting for his campaign to arrive at the Ayyavazhi Sree Vaikundar temple. R Sumathi, a 37-year-old homemaker who was visiting the temple, spoke to me in language laced with the Hindi and imagery common in Annamalai’s speeches. “Annamalaiji is the new face of change,” she told me. “He will develop Coimbatore if he wins.” She called Modi “the protector of Hindus” and the BJP “the only party” for them. “All our Hindu temples were destroyed by the parties ruling all these years. Only the BJP has been protecting our temples. Modiji built the Ram temple at Ayodhya and will build temples across the country.”

The BJP campaign itself seemed to be turning heads. On 10 April, the party held a major meeting in Mettupalayam, near the foothills of the Nilgiris. The Nilgiris ticket had been given to L Murugan, the state party’s first Dalit president. After a failed statewide temple tour built on Hindu pride alone, Murugan was replaced by Annamalai, in seeming recognition that Hindutva cannot grow in the state without being repackaged as a campaign of dominant-caste consolidation. It was a sleight of hand that clearly worked. The Mettupalayam rally, with nearly twenty thousand people, saw Murugan give a brief introduction before long, rambling speeches by Annamalai and Modi. Many attendees had the same thing to say. “Annamalai will bring positive change,” K Mani, a 67-year-old from Mettupalayam who had brought his granddaughter along, told me.

Mani is part of a large floating voter base in Coimbatore that supports neither the DMK nor the AIADMK. The influence of this cohort has grown after a recent delimitation exercise, which moved Kuniamuthur, as well as the neighbourhoods of Karumbukadai and Athupalam—all of which have large Muslim populations that traditionally voted for the two Dravidian parties—to the Pollachi constituency. “The problem is with the so called neutral voters who will vote for anyone new,” a journalist at a leading regional magazine told me. “Coimbatore has this culture of voting for change. That’s how Kamal Haasan could get a close second position in the 2021 assembly election, with Vanathi Srinivasan of BJP winning by a meagre margin of 1,728 votes. In the urban areas, Annamalai has a lead, but, in the rural regions, DMK has a clear edge.”

Even if the DMK does win, however, the primary question that Coimbatore throws up is who will finish second. If the BJP were able to convincingly become the primary opposition in the state, then the AIADMK would face the same fate as the Shiv Sena, a slow cannibalisation by the saffron party. This focus seems clear to the caste outfits backing the BJP. A video put out by a YouTube channel dedicated to Annamalai’s Coimbatore campaign explains the target. The channel began a campaign called #Operation2LV, aiming for a respectable 2 lakh votes for the BJP in Coimbatore. These are not winning numbers, but they will firmly place the BJP as the main opposition to the DMK, a position that much of the mainstream media has already convinced its north Indian audiences is true.

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