Chennai: Fourty-year-old John Immanuel bears a resigned look these days. A migrant from southern Tamil Nadu who now lives in the bustling metropolis of Chennai, he knows Tamil Nadu will get a raw deal if Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party win in the rest of India and draw a near blank in the southern state (as most exit polls seem to indicate). But, he says: "Already we are not getting anything, what difference does it make? We will never support Modi."
That sense of alienation and distance from Delhi's corridors of power explains why nationalism finds little appeal in the state. The BJP is contesting in a mere five of the state's 40 Lok Sabha. The saffron party's dominant ally AIADMK, which has been running a meandering state government ever since the demise of party head Jayalalithaa, is expected to lose most of the 37 seats it won in the 2014 polls.
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Tamil Nadu has been in a ferment ever since the beach sands of the Marina on the city's eastern edge witnessed a leaderless, citizen-led mass protest in early January 2017. The ostensible reason was a Supreme Court ban on the local variant of bullfighting, known as 'jallikattu'. While the sport is an annual feature in hardly a few districts in southern TN, thousands of college students came out to defend "Tamil culture". They camped out in the sands for nearly two weeks and relented only after the state assembly passed a law to blunt the SC order. But the bull was only a symbol. The real target, as most analysts put it, was "Delhi remote controlling Tamil life".
And that is precisely the reason why the appeal for a strong national leader finds little resonance in Tamil Nadu. Since the anti-Hindi protests of the 1960s, the state has always viewed Delhi with suspicion, which briefly waned in the alliance era of the late-1990s and 2000s when Delhi's power was tempered by coalition governments. With the meteoric rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, those old suspicions are now back. Every time Modi has visited the state since the summer of 2018, the Twitter hashtag #GoBackModi has trended.
But despite these odds, the BJP still senses an opening in a political landscape devoid of its two tallest leaders — DMK's M.Karunanidhi and AIADMK's Jayalalithaa — who both died in quick succession. This will be the first Lok Sabha election in the state without either of them.
BJP state president Tamilisai Soundararajan cites precisely that reason to dismiss the predictions of most exit polls, which suggested on Sunday night that the Modi wave will stay clear of Tamil Nadu. "The state is well known for hero worship. People here vote for leaders, not candidates. Now, those leaders are gone. So, the result is unpredictable this time," she said.
While the BJP holds on to the hope of making a dent, the attention of many Tamil citizens has already shifted to the balance of power in the state assembly -- whose fate will also be decided today with 22 assembly seats going in for a bypoll along with the national poll. The consensus is that if the BJP comes to power in Delhi, the AIADMK government will survive no matter the cost until 2021. Tamil Nadu has already begun to nervously weigh that cost as the rest of the country's attention is gripped purely by events in Delhi.