In an age of 24/7 media coverage, optics has a way of influencing politics. The political parties often seek to build their narratives based on well-orchestrated media events relying more on symbolism, atmospherics and personal chemistry than on specifics. The choice of Mamallapuram, the 7th century magnificent temple structures near Chennai, for the second informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping and the pride of place given to the Tamil sartorial and culinary cultures come with a loaded political message, both for international diplomacy and domestic political consumption. At a time when Sino-Indian relations have come under considerable strain over Kashmir and certain trade issues, the “Chennai Connect”, the two-day informal interaction over a veritable feast of South Indian delicacies and its rich art and culture, had set the tone for further strengthening the personal rapport between the two leaders, leading to a better understanding of each other’s concerns. More importantly, by donning Veshti, white half-sleeve shirt and Angavastram during his meetings with the visiting dignitary, Modi sent out a clear sartorial message to the Tamil people. The menu was strictly south Indian. And, care was taken to pay rich tributes to the glory of Tamil culture and history during the personal briefing that Modi gave to Xi Jinping. For the BJP, domestic politics is never forgotten on big occasions, even if it comes via international diplomatic channels. The Mamallapuram spectacle represented its quest for Tamil voter’s approval.
There has been conscious and systematic attempt by Modi to reach to the Tamil hearts and prepare a fertile political ground in a state that has been cold to his party. First, Modi had extolled Tamil virtues at his address at United Nations General Assembly by quoting Sangam-era poet Kaniyan Poongundran and highlighting classical language status of Tamil and then followed it up with a copious praise for Tamil cuisine at an event at IIT Madras. These overtures are cleared aimed at removing misgivings over the draft National Education Policy and countering the DMK-Congress combine’s attempt to flag it as ‘Hindi imposition”. Tamil Nadu, the crucible of Dravidian politics that is anathema to saffron party’s core ideology, has so far remained an impregnable fort for the BJP. It is now keen to win the hearts and minds of Tamil people ahead of the next assembly elections, less than 18 months away. However, it’s an uphill task for the saffron party to make a splash in TN politics, given the general public perception of BJP as a north Indian party bent upon imposing Hindi and Sanskritised Hindu culture on the state. Without making inroads in TN and Kerala, the BJP cannot expect to achieve its ‘Mission 330’ in 2024.