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With Tamilisai's Return, Will BJP's Lotus Bloom in DMK Bastion Chennai South?

Though she has a good image in public, many feel sorry for her being pushed into an unwinnable battle, say experts.

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It's 1:30 pm on a hot Thursday afternoon in Chennai. Prabhakaran (38) and Manikandan (50), both ambulance drivers, stop at a roadside shop in Kannagi Nagar for a tea break.

Sipping his tea, Manikandan stares at a television in the shop, broadcasting former Telangana Governor Dr Tamilisai Soundararajan's campaign in Sholinganallur, merely 2 km from Kannagi Nagar.

Manikandan turns to this reporter and says:

"She's a good candidate. I heard she has left her governor post to contest from our area, which means she is here to actually serve the common people."
Though she has a good image in public, many feel sorry for her being pushed into an unwinnable battle, say experts.

The teashop in Kannagi Nagar.

(Photo: Varsha Sriram/The Quint)

Before Manikandan could complete his sentence, Prabhakaran interjects and asks, "But if she really wanted to do service, she should have left her [governor] post and began the groundwork. What's the point of resigning a month before the elections? She has no connect with the people."

Tamilisai Soundararajan is returning to the heat and dust of electoral politics as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate for the prestigious Chennai South seat, which is the fourth-largest constituency in Tamil Nadu.
Though she has a good image in public, many feel sorry for her being pushed into an unwinnable battle, say experts.

Dr. Tamilisai Soundararajan is the BJP MP candidate from Chennai South.

(Photo: Twitter/@DrTamilisai4BJP)

The segment – a traditional Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) bastion – is set to witness a triangular contest among Tamilisai, incumbent DMK MP Thamizhachi Thangapandian, and former AIADMK MP J Jayavardhan in the 19 April Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu.

But the question is whether 62-year-old Tamilisai can help with the BJP's big Tamil Nadu push – or will the DMK continue to hold its fort in Chennai South? The Quint hit the ground in the constituency and spoke to locals and party leaders to get a sense of which way the winds are blowing.

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Senior Leader, Familiar Face: Why BJP Is Banking on Tamilisai

Born to an influential Nadar family in Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu's Kanyakumari district, Tamilisai is the daughter of late Congress MP Anandan Kumari. A gynaecologist by profession, she has been an influential figure in the BJP for over a decade, holding important electoral and administrative posts.

Her most successful stint was during her five-year tenure between 2014 and 2019 as the state BJP president, where she was credited with popularising the party across the state.

However, she has had her fair share of failures, too. She had unsuccessfully contested three Assembly elections (in 2006, 2011, and 2016) from Chennai and two Lok Sabha elections (in 2009 and 2019).

In the 2009 general elections, she unsuccessfully contested from Chennai North and got 3.54 percent of votes. In 2019, Tamilisai lost to Kanimozhi from Thoothukudi, polling 21.77% votes to the DMK leader's 56.77%. Five months after her poll debacle in 2019, Tamilisai was appointed the Governor of Telangana.

Last month, on 20 March 2024, her decision to resign from the post to rejoin the party surprised many. Speaking to reporters, Tamilisai said:

"I quit the governor's post to become one of the '400 MPs' (an aspirational number set by the BJP for 2024 polls) of the Lok Sabha... I am in my happiest mood now. I don't think I have left a very luxurious life and a constitutional post because I love serving the people..."
Tamilisai Soundararajan to reporters
Though she has a good image in public, many feel sorry for her being pushed into an unwinnable battle, say experts.

Dr Tamilisai Soundararajan rejoined the BJP on 20 March 2024. 

(Photo: Twitter/@DrTamilisai4BJP)

Not many leaders return to electoral politics after becoming a governor, a constitutional position considered 'a retirement post' for politicians. But the former BJP state chief is considered crucial to the politics of Tamil Nadu, where the party is desperately trying to make inroads. 

According to BJP leaders The Quint spoke to, Tamilisai was chosen as a Lok Sabha candidate mainly due to her administrative experience in the party, and her familiarity with the state.

"Tamilisai has not only been the party president for five years but has also lifted the party's presence across the state in the last 10 years. Her presence has given a boost to both party cadres and public alike as she is a familiar face," BJP spokesperson Narayanan Thirupathy told The Quint.

Another BJP functionary described Tamilisai as a "bold, self-made and strong leader," who is an "important woman face in Tamil Nadu."

"No one knows the Chennai South constituency better than Tamilisai akka (sister), because she has been a voter from the same area for over three decades. Her skill as an administrator adds to her advantage," the functionary added.

When The Quint spoke to DMK and AIADMK leaders, both sides claimed that making Tamilisai contest from Chennai South showed the "desperation of the BJP to enter Tamil Nadu."

"Post 2019 elections, they (BJP) decided to remove her from electoral politics and make her the governor. Then they bring her back. That shows the desperation of the party... They have absolutely no worthy candidates."
DMK spokesperson Saravanan Annadurai
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Meanwhile, Chennai-based political analyst Sumanth Raman told The Quint that Tamilisai has always acted as a politician even during her tenure as the Telangana Governor.

"Technically, even after she was appointed as the governor, she was commenting about Tamil Nadu politics. People don't see her as someone who has left active politics. The good thing about her is she has a good image in the public... but they feel sorry for her being pushed into an unwinnable battle."
Sumanth Raman to The Quint

Ramu Manivannan, a political analyst and former Head of Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Madras, told The Quint that the BJP was doing a lot of "electoral, arithmetic gamble" in Tamil Nadu.

"The BJP does not have a high-profile candidate of its own. So, they have risked the element of bringing back a sitting governor to contest the elections, thinking that the people of Tamil Nadu might be attracted and vote for her. But that might not happen... She is not considered a person from the city, even though she has lived here for a long time... I don't think she stands a strong chance," he said.
Though she has a good image in public, many feel sorry for her being pushed into an unwinnable battle, say experts.
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Two Doctors, One Professor: A Triangular Contest 

Despite claiming to know the problems faced by residents of this constituency as she had lived here for 40 years, it's not going to be smooth ride for Tamilisai.

"I actually believe that Tamilisai is a nice person and a good politician. But will I vote for her? Not really. Who is she to us? Just because she votes here, doesn't mean we will all go vote for her... plus you are forgetting that the DMK and the AIADMK have a strong presence amongst us voters. It won't change even if tomorrow Prime Minister Narendra Modi contests from here..."
Manikandan, an ambulance driver based out of Sholinganallur
Though she has a good image in public, many feel sorry for her being pushed into an unwinnable battle, say experts.

A tempo spotted with the announcement of PM Narendra Modi's visit to Chennai.

(Photo: Varsha Sriram/The Quint)

Home to the IT corridor in areas such as Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) and Sholinganallur, the commercial hub of T Nagar, and the cultural hub of Mylapore – Chennai South is a 'rockstar' constituency, which has been a DMK stronghold for over four decades.

Though she has a good image in public, many feel sorry for her being pushed into an unwinnable battle, say experts.

OMR is home to more than 6,000 software companies, and a vast majority of Tamil Nadu's software engineer population reside in this area. 

(Photo: Varsha Sriram/The Quint)

The constituency has been a DMK stronghold with the party winning it five times. The AIADMK has emerged victorious twice. In 2019, Thangapandian registered a thumping victory with 50.28% vote share.

While the sitting MP – a writer and professor – is looking to secure a consecutive win, the AIADMK has fielded former MP Jayavardhan, son of the party's spokesperson D Jayakumar, who has wielded considerable influence in the city for decades.

Though she has a good image in public, many feel sorry for her being pushed into an unwinnable battle, say experts.

AIADMK cadres campaigning for J Jayavardhan in Adyar.

(Photo: Varsha Sriram/The Quint)

Interestingly, this time, civic issues have trumped national policies in this particular constituency. The DMK MP is facing anti-incumbency over the poor handling of the 2023 December floods, erratic power supply, bad roads, and increasing traffic congestion.

While the BJP, in its campaign speeches, have vocally spoken against the Dravidian ideology, the AIADMK candidate is looking to use the anti-incumbency factor to its advantage.

Though she has a good image in public, many feel sorry for her being pushed into an unwinnable battle, say experts.

AIADMK candidate J Jayavardhan campaigning in Chennai South.

(Photo: X/@drjjayavardhan)

"Our MP was missing during the 2023 floods. Yet again, our houses were destroyed, and we were on the roads. We are fed up with the DMK government and really need change. These people (Dravidian parties) ensure that they come to power by buying votes," Munniamma, a vegetable vendor in Velachery, alleged.

Meanwhile, Karuppiah, a 60-year-old security guard from Saidapet, said:

"In my opinion, the DMK government has done well so far to uplift Chennai. We saw how efficiently natural calamities like floods were handled. People may argue that there was loss of infrastructure and what not. But I feel like this damage would've occurred irrespective of the ruling party. The DMK has done well to overcome these challenges and also ensured we were compensated adequately.
Though she has a good image in public, many feel sorry for her being pushed into an unwinnable battle, say experts.

DMK leader Kanimozhi Karunanidhi campaigns for sitting Chennai South MP Thangapandian in Virugambakkam.

(Photo: X/@ThamizhachiTh)

Refuting the allegation of anti-incumbency in the constituency, DMK spokesperson Saravanan Annadurai said:

"If they (BJP) are speaking about anti-incumbency in the three-year-old DMK government, imagine the anti-incumbency people must be facing in the 10-year-old BJP government at the Centre? It's three times as much as what's here. So, who will win? The BJP has done nothing for the people of Tamil Nadu... instead of talking about the BJP's development work, their only tool is to hit out at the Opposition. That won't work here."
DMK Spokesperson Saravanan Annadurai
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Will the Brahmin Votes Help Tamilisai? 

On 9 April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a massive roadshow in Chennai covering T Nagar. As the BJP tries to increase its vote share from the 3.6 percent in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, its heavyweights have made a beeline for Tamil Nadu, with this being Modi's seventh visit this year.

Though she has a good image in public, many feel sorry for her being pushed into an unwinnable battle, say experts.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigning for Dr. Tamilisai Soundararajan in T Nagar on 9 April

(Photo: Twitter/@narendramodi)

Political analysts explained that the BJP has always had an eye on this constituency as it has the biggest population of Brahmins in a Lok Sabha seat in the state, with Mylapore, T Nagar, and Velachery commanding a sizeable portion of the community vote.

"The Brahmin vote is definitely a factor, because they can bring about a third polarisation. Traditionally, in the DMK vs AIADMK battle, the Brahmins voted for the AIADMK. For the first time, they might vote for Tamilisai. But that won't make a big difference," said political analyst Ramu Mannivanan.

Meanwhile, Sumanth Raman said that the Brahmin vote is hardly enough for the BJP to win the seat in Chennai South.

"It's only in T Nagar and Mylapore that there's a significant population of Brahmins. But unlikely that all the votes will go to her. Large numbers may abandon the AIADMK to vote for BJP, but not all," he added.

Both analysts, however, agreed that the vote split between the AIADMK and the BJP will help the DMK in securing a victory in the Chennai South constituency.

"The vote split will help the DMK candidate win, even though she (Thangapandian) has hardly been present. Her performance really does not merit a re-election. But she is in the right place at the right time, so she will definitely have an edge this time. It's more like a default win for her."
Political analyst Sumanth Raman

"But the DMK's vote share will drastically reduce this time," added Ramu Mannivannan.

Speaking to The Quint, an AIADMK leader, refused that there will be a split between the party and the BJP's votes in the constituency. "It's not a three-way contest. It's a contest between the AIADMK and the DMK. The BJP is not even in the picture, so there will not be a vote split," the leader said.

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Will The Tamilisai Factor Work in Chennai South? Voters Speak

For 52-year-old Chitra, a Brahmin cook based out of Adyar, Tamilisai is a "breath of fresh air" in Chennai South.

"We need a change from both the DMK and the AIADMK. Tamilisai Akka is a people's person, seems very warm, friendly, and approachable. In between the Modi-Stalin fight, it's us Tamil Nadu voters who are stuck. I feel if Tamilisai wins, it'll be good, as she is a woman and she will further work towards Modi's women empowerment rhetoric," she told The Quint.

Meanwhile, Karuppiah, too agreed that while Tamilisai is a "new entrant" to Chennai, she is "capable of making good changes and bettering the lives of common people.

"Our lives are beyond ideology, and ultimately the positive impact on your livelihoods is what will make us vote for a person," he added.

However, several voters The Quint spoke to believed that Tamilisai did not stand a chance, and neither did the BJP due to the party's "ideology", which they believed would not work in Tamil Nadu.

A 25-year-old doctor, who's a resident of T Nagar, told The Quint:

"The BJP has gone all guns blazing to make a dent in Dravidian politics. They've appealed to the Hindu upper caste Brahmin sentiments by way of the Ram Mandir. I don't think that will work in Tamil Nadu... They haven't found a sentiment to reach the majority of people in Tamil Nadu, and now instigated a Katchatheevu discussion. In my opinion, this year will be another disappointment for the BJP."

Meanwhile, as Manikandan finished his tea and walked towards his ambulance, he looked at this reporter, and said: "It's going to take the BJP a long time to enter into the land of Periyar (EV Ramaswamy), Anna, and Kalaingar (Karunanidhi)."

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  BJP   Tamil Nadu   Chennai 

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