Chennai’s Cauvery protests capture Modi’s Southern discomfort

The PM was greeted with slogans of ‘Modi Go Back’ in Chennai by protestors who had taken to the streets over the Cauvery dispute. The protests are emblematic of BJP’s difficulties in the South

Black flags and a giant balloon bearing the words ‘Modi Go Back’ awaited Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Chennai on the morning of April 12. Though the PM dodged the protestors, taking a chopper to inaugurate an important defence exhibition outside the city, he couldn’t sidestep their sentiments entirely. The hashtag #GoBackModi trended on Twitter for much of the day even becoming a top global trend for a while, advertising Tamil Nadu’s discontent over the Cauvery water dispute issue.

However, the protest and its catchy slogan appeared to be much more than that. They neatly captured the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) and the PM’s own Southern discomfort in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

The Cauvery dispute, an emotive, long-standing problem involving Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, couldn’t have reared its head at a worse moment for the BJP. With Assembly elections due in Karnataka on May 12, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has been hard pressed to find a solution that will satisfy both States in the immediate run.

Unsurprisingly, the Centre’s attempt to postpone the implementation of a Supreme Court order on water sharing between the two neighbouring states has evoked a strong reaction in Tamil Nadu. Political parties and many groups including those from the film industry have joined the vocal protests. Indian Premier League cricket matches have had to be shifted out of Chennai due to the fear of disruption.

PTI/DMK MP Kanimozhi and others protesting the Centre’s delay in forming the Cauvery Management Board

But more crucially, the Cauvery row has reignited the race for a competitive championing of Tamil issues and a return to Tamil pride and identity missing from the State’s politics for some time now. This is bound to cause problems for the BJP which is perceived as a Hindi party in a State with a history of anti-Hindi protests.

If Tamil Nadu’s protestors were vocal, they only seemed to be amplifying the message coming out of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where the BJP is facing the political heat from opponents and allies-turned-foes for different reasons.

In Karnataka, the BJP is up against a formidable opponent in Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. Going by the campaign thus far, the famed BJP election machine appears to be faltering in this Congress ruled-state. The CM has countered the BJP strategy of projecting Modi as a development icon by invoking a home-grown development narrative, combining it with astute caste and identity-based calculations.

The BJP’s campaign targeting Siddaramaiah over corruption has sounded hollow coming at a juncture when the NDA’s own record on corruption is under strain in the wake of the Nirav Modi scam and questions over the Rafale deal.

The most damaging blow so far, however, has been the Karnataka government’s decision to recommend a separate religion status for the Lingayats. The move is a direct ambush on the BJP’s choice of chief minister, BS Yedyurappa, himself a Lingayat. While the jury is out on whether the Lingayat gambit will work to divert a section of the community’s vote from the BJP to the Congress, the Saffron party finds itself unable to articulate an appropriate response. It cannot support the move as this would directly call into question it’s parent body, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s, idea of a unified Hindu identity and also strengthen Siddramaiah’s hand. But openly opposing the move could mean alienating those Lingayats who may be favourably disposed towards the party.

It’s not just on the Lingayat issue that the BJP appears outplayed. Siddaramaiah has worked up a rhetoric of regional pride and identity that include the creation of a State flag and a focus on the Kannada language by making its study compulsory in all schools. To add to this, BJP’s own cultural dissonance in Karnataka has been hard to miss. The party's chief ministerial candidate has not quite managed to take centre stage and the Hindi-speaking Amit Shah and Modi have appeared no match for the Congress’ son-of-the-soil CM.

It is also Siddaramaiah who has led the debate on the sharing of central revenues among the States as per the 15th Finance Commission. By arguing that the interests of the South (which has controlled its populations) would be affected if the 2011 census was used to determine the allocation instead of the 1971 census, Siddaramaiah has managed to bring on board the Kerala and Andhra Pradesh CMs on the issue, as well as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham’s (DMK) MK Stalin. Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK government has also been forced to join the chorus belatedly.

But it is in Andhra Pradesh that Modi is as unpopular on date as he is Tamil Nadu according to the State's political watchers. In AP Modi is in the direct line of fire, facing charges of ‘betrayal’ from a cross-section of political players who have made the demand for a Special Category Status for the State their rallying cry. Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu has laid the blame for his government’s failure to construct the state’s new Capital, Amaravati, at the doorstep of the Centre, which has refused the demand. The unpopularity of the BJP can be gauged from the Andhra Pradesh deputy chief minister’s call for the Telugu-speaking people of Karnataka to vote against the BJP in the upcoming polls.

During the course of his visit to Chennai the PM was forced to acknowledge the South’s sentiments regarding the 15th Finance Commission while speaking at a function. He said the central government had suggested to the Finance Commission that it should consider incentivising states that had worked on population control. But this one statement will hardly suffice to quell the discontent from the South that promises to become acute as the 2019 elections draw closer.

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