Tamil Nadu has emerged as an outlier among Indian states in its resistance to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva ideology and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma. The BJP drew a blank in the state during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, losing the one seat it had won in 2014. The state simmers every time Modi visits. He was, for instance, greeted with the slogan “Modi Go Back” when he flew to Chennai to inaugurate the 2018 Defence Expo. That slogan trended on Twitter earlier this month, when Modi visited the state for a meeting with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, at Mamallapuram. Several political parties in Tamil Nadu have also been vociferous in opposing some of the union government’s decisions, such as the introduction of ten-percent reservation for economically weaker sections, and the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.
Ajaz Ashraf, an independent journalist, spoke to Kalaiyarasan A, an assistant professor in the Madras Institute of Development Studies, about the reasons for the BJP’s inability to make electoral gains in Tamil Nadu. Kalaiyarasan ascribed the party’s failure to make inroads into Tamil Nadu to the state’s long history of opposing Brahminical Hinduism, which the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, are known to propagate.
Kalaiyarasan discussed the key role of anti-caste movements in forming the Tamil identity, and the strategy that Modi and his team could adopt to breach the anti-Hindutva citadel. In reference to the perception of the Muslim community in the state, Kalaiyarasan noted, “The Islamic idea of equality was in sharp contrast to the contempt that Sanskrit-speaking elites had for the lower castes.” In Tamil Nadu, he added, the othering of Muslims was “a failed project.”
Ajaz Ashraf: When Modi met Xi at Mamallapuram, the hashtag #GoBackModi generated over a hundred and fifty thousand tweets within hours. What is the degree of unacceptability for Modi in Tamil Nadu?
Kalaiyarasan A: There is very little acceptability for Modi in Tamil Nadu. His low acceptability is largely linked to the popular perception of the Bharatiya Janata Party: that it is yet another instrument for imposing the hegemony of Hindi–Hindu–Brahminical identity on Tamil Nadu. The Congress was the earlier instrument of this hegemony. Despite Modi portraying himself as a subaltern who loves the Tamil language, he and his party haven’t been able to alter the perception that they represent the interests of Brahminism and Sanskritised Tamil.
AA: What do you mean by Sanskritised Tamil?
KA: It is a mistake to think of the Tamil identity as merely a language question. The Tamil identity has historically evolved in opposition to the domination of Sanskrit and to the caste hierarchy. Speaking in Tamil implies lower-caste assertion. This is largely because the upper-caste Hindus would speak in Sanskrit.