NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with the DMK patriarch Muthuvel Karunanidhi on November 6 has, predictably, set the cat among the pigeons. There is speculation galore on what the 12-minute meeting means for the DMK, the AIADMK (and its warring factions), the BJP (and its plans to enter the fray in Tamil Nadu), and for Tamil Nadu politics in general.

The meeting is an admission that the BJP has shed its illusions of PM Modi being able to work his “magic” in Tamil Nadu without the support of the AIADMK or the DMK. Under Modi, three years after coming to office at the Centre, the BJP remains a non-starter in Tamil Nadu. There are no takers for it in Tamil politics. The BJP is shunned by the big Kazhagams. Hopefuls like superstars Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan are equally loath to touch the BJP with a barge pole.

In recent months, the BJP had hoped to capitalise on the demise of AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa by taking over the “orphaned” party and herding Amma’s flock to do Modi’s bidding. However, all the power, resources and resourcefulness of the BJP backed by the might of the Centre and the full force of the Central agencies failed to: keep in office the AIADMK, prevent its splitting into at least three major factions and unite the factions with the government as the glue.

The AIADMK is in a shambles. There is no sign of the three factions led by Chief Minister Edappadi K Palanisami, deputy chief minister O Panneerselvam and ousted AIADMK deputy general secretary TTV Dhinakaran patching up. In fact, there is a constitutional breakdown in Tamil Nadu with a party in office that is yet to prove its majority on the floor of the house; a situation contrived by the maneuvers of shady players behind the scene with the suspected support of, among others, the Centre, the BJP and the state Governor. Dhinakaran commands the support of at least 18 MLAs; and, without their support in any floor test, the Palanisami government is certain to collapse.

Yet if a government without any legislative legitimacy is continuing in office, it is because the factional fight for the AIADMK’s symbol of two leaves is yet to be resolved by the Central Election Commission; and, the BJP-ruled Centre has found it expedient to let the situation drift.

Having failed to arm-twist the AIADMK factions into merging (despite raids by Central agencies) and come a cropper in its attempt to ride piggyback on Rajinikanth, the BJP is staring at a dead end in Tamil Nadu, as it cannot make any headway on its own.

Hence, it wants to signal that if the AIADMK factions do not get their act together, the BJP may seek to join hands with the DMK. In Tamil Nadu today, the DMK is the best available option to form a government based on legislative majority. The DMK has overtly kept off the goings-on in the AIADMK because it knows that the government is a low-hanging fruit all but ripe and ready to fall into the party’s hands sooner rather than later. And, that it is only Modi’s support to the AIADMK that has kept the DMK from picking up pieces of the AIADMK to form the government.

Now, India’s most powerful man has had to accept that there are no takers for him and his party in Tamil Nadu. The BJP’s campaign to gain a foothold in Kerala has been perhaps the most vile, venomous and violent in India’s political history. After the backlash and revulsion caused by its unsuccessful campaign for space in Kerala, the BJP, perhaps, realises, that a similar attempt to force its way forward in Tamil Nadu could boomerang disastrously.

The BJP’s atavistic stand on religion, language, linguistic identity, welfare policies and social justice would be anathema to Tamils. On these issues, if it wants to gain acceptance in Tamil Nadu, the BJP has to adapt itself to the position of the Dravida parties.

Therefore, the BJP was left with no choice but for Modi to make an overture to the five-term chief minister and patriarch of Tamil politics if only to increase his electoral acceptability as an ally of a Dravida party.

It may be recalled that Modi who had ignored successive requests for a meeting from the DMK’s Working President M K Stalin, met him as well as Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi who is an MP. The 2G case pending against Kanimozhi and the DMK’s former Union telecom minister A Raja is coming to a close and Delhi Special Court Judge O P Saini is expected to deliver the verdict soon.

Regardless of the outcome in this case, the Prime Minister cannot let the matter stand in the way of the BJP’s ambition for a foothold in Tamil Nadu. With Modi’s popularity elsewhere receding, the 39 Lok Sabha seats from Tamil Nadu could be invaluable for the BJP in 2019. In meeting Karunanidhi, Modi’s message may be that he is prepared to pay the price, howsoever high it may be, for electoral gains in Tamil Nadu.

The DMK, like Rajinikanth, knows that aligning with the BJP could extract a heavy political price. Rajinikanth, who batted for the DMK-TMC alliance in the 1996 general election, flopped miserably in 2004, when he jumped into the fray and rooted for the Vajpayee-led NDA. The BJP not only lost the election, but was wiped out in Tamil Nadu. It blamed this outcome on the unpopularity of its ally -- the AIADMK which, in turn, attributed its defeat to the alliance with the BJP.

Even more than the AIADMK (and Rajinikanth), the DMK cannot afford to pit itself against the minority and secularist vote banks that can be won over only with the support of the Congress party and other non-communalist forces. By joining hands with the BJP, the DMK – even if, in the near term, it forms the government -- would only be shooting itself in the foot as a long-distance runner. The DMK had partnered Vajpayee’s NDA in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections only to be routed by an AIADMK-led secularist alliance in the assembly election of 2001.

Modi’s reminder to Karunanidhi that he had supported the Vajpayee government is also a warning to the DMK that drinking from the BJP’s poisoned chalice for immediate gains might kill its long-term electoral prospects based on its own strengths.

Amidst all the speculation, what is clear is that Modi is agonising over the BJP’s relevance in post-Jayalalithaa Tamil Nadu and trying to figure out how best the party can play off the bigger Dravida parties against each other. Implicit in this is the admission that without the coat-tails of either of the big Kazhagams, the BJP cannot draw any water in Tamil politics.

(Shastri Ramachandaran is a senior editor and writer)