On July 12, the Coimbatore unit of the BJP passed a resolution kicking off a political storm in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. The resolution, in favour of carving out a separate state of ‘Kongu Nadu’ from the western districts of the state, was passed during the unit’s executive committee meeting. It appealed to the Union government to “reorganise” the state for the formation of Kongu Nadu, for the sake of “protecting the self-esteem and livelihoods” of the people from the western region and to ensure development.
A few days before the resolution was passed, a list of newly inducted Union ministers had referred to the native place of Loganathan Murugan, who was sworn in as the Minister of state for Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying and Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, as ‘Kongu Nadu’. While Murugan was quick to dismiss the mention of ‘Kongu Nadu’ as a clerical error, the controversy refused to die down, as several BJP leaders from the state kept making contradictory remarks vis-a-vis the party’s stand on the creation of a separate Kongu Nadu.
WHY A SEPARATE KONGU NADU?
Kongu Nadu is not a well defined geographical or administrative unit within Tamil Nadu, but an informal term or name commonly used to refer to some districts located in the western part of the state. This includes districts of Coimbatore, Erode, Karur, Salem, Namakkal, Nilgiris, and parts of Dharmapuri and Dindigul districts.
‘Kongu Nadu’ also finds a mention in ancient Tamil Sangam literature, which mentions five different regions. The word ‘Kongu’ means nectar or honey, and thus ‘Kongu Nadu’ translates to the land of honey or nectar. Alternatively, it is said that Kongu Nadu derives its name from the Kongu Vellala Gounders, the numerically dominant OBC community of the region. Interestingly, there has never been a strong movement demanding the creation of a separate state of ‘Kongu Nadu’. There have been demands for the creation of a separate state from fringe groups like the Kongu Nadu Desiya Makkal Katchi, but such moves have failed to gain any traction.
The region is an industrial powerhouse for Tamil Nadu, with heavily industrialised districts like Salem, Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Namakkal, and it reportedly contributes about 40-45% of the state’s income. Despite being reasonably well developed, those in favour of creation of Kongu Nadu argue that the region has been neglected for too long. Echoing similar sentiments, BJP’s MLA from Coimbatore, Vanathi Srinivasan was quoted as saying, “We don’t want to divide the state, but the growth of people in this region and taking care of their needs is also important and is pending for years. Depending on how the state is going to handle these issues, we might go forward with the discussion on Kongu Nadu.”
IS THIS DEMAND A RETALIATION AGAINST DMK'S ASSERTION OF FEDERALISM?
The BJP's demand for Kongu Nadu is being viewed as a counter narrative to the DMK using the term 'Ondriya Arasu' (Union government) to refer to the Modi government, instead of using the term 'Mathiya Arasu' (Central government). The usage of 'Ondriya Arasu' had left BJP leaders seething with rage. When BJP leader and MLA from Tirunelveli, Nainar Nagendran asked if the state government had any ulterior motives and if it was purposely using the term 'Ondriya Arasu' to malign the Modi government, CM Stalin reiterating the state's commitment to federal principles had said that there was no reason for anyone to fear the word 'Ondriya', as the constitution describes India as 'a union of states'.
A report published by a Tamil daily Dinamalar added more fuel to fire by claiming that the BJP-led Union government was planning to carve out Kongu Nadu as a Union Territory from Tamil Nadu as a “befitting” response to the DMK government referring to the Union Government as "Ondriya Arasu" in Tamil.
While the Dinamalar report has to be taken with a pinch of salt because one does not how seriously the Union government is toying with the proposal, it does give credence to the theory that the BJP has raised the Kongu Nadu issue as an immediate retaliation to the DMK’s aggressively assertive stance on the right of the states and federalism.
When BJP state general secretary Karu Nagarajan was asked about the Centre's plans to bifurcate the state, he said “this is the first stage”. “It has happened like that in other states as well. Telangana is an example. If talking about Ondriya Arasu (Union government) is their wish, it is also the wish of people to call it ‘Kongu Nadu’,” he further added.
While countering the DMK’s pitch for a greater stake in power sharing for states may be one reason behind the BJP’s attempt of playing the Kongu Nadu card, there may be more in it for the saffron party.
THE LONG TERM POLITICAL RATIONALE BEHIND THE MOVE
It is essential to understand the political significance of the Kongu Mandalam or Kongu belt. The Kongu belt and the entire western part of the state, of which the Kongu belt is a part of has traditionally been an AIADMK stronghold. In the recently concluded assembly elections, it was the AIADMK alliance’s outstanding performance in this region which helped it defy the prophecies of a complete rout in the polls. Among the 57 assembly seats in these districts, the AIADMK alliance bagged 40 seats.
The BJP, which continues to be a marginal player, enjoys some support in parts of the Kongu belt, especially from Hindu Nadars and Devendrakula Vellalars. The BJP’s limited presence in the state is heavily concentrated in this belt. Two of the party’s four MLAs come from this region. It goes without saying that if the BJP has to become a major power across the state, it has to build on the influence it holds in pockets of the Kongu belt. The BJP’s Kongu Nadu move can be seen as a part of its TN expansion plan and also as an attempt at weakening its major ally, the AIADMK in their bastion, thus hoping to grow at their expense—a strategy that has benefited it immensely in a few other states like Bihar and Maharashtra.
Realising that the move may backfire, the BJP has been playing it safe, as leaders form TN BJP have spoken in different voices over the Kongu Nadu issue. While Nagarajan, the party’s state general secretary, the Coimbatore unit, and a few other voices have put their weight behind the demand for a separate Kongu Nadu; the likes of K Annamalai, the newly appointed state party chief and the party’s leader in the state assembly Nainar Nagendran have exercised restraint and distanced themselves from the issue.
The threat of splitting up states that have non-BJP ruled governments, hostile to the overarching ways of the Union government has off-late become a quintessential feature of the BJP’s political strategy. In West Bengal which went to polls with Tamil Nadu, after an embarrassing thrashing at the hands of the Trinamool Congress, several BJP leaders from the state made demands for bifurcating the state and carving out North Bengal as a Union Territory. In Maharashtra too, where the BJP had to eat the humble pie after the Congress, NCP and the Shivsena formed an unlikely alliance, BJP leaders have periodically made comments about carving out a separate state of Vidarbha. This template of ‘fixing’ politically hostile governments has been so far applied to Jammu and Kashmir, and even Delhi, where the powers of the state government were severely curtailed.
But the same template is unlikely to work in a state like Tamil Nadu, which has a long history of tackling the Union government’s overreach and fiercely strong regional sentiments. As cliché as it sounds, it is time that the BJP government realises that a ‘one size suits all’ principle does not always work in politics and policymaking.