BJP’s push to bridge the North-South gap - Hindustan Times
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BJP’s push to bridge the North-South gap

Mar 07, 2024 10:03 PM IST

A breakthrough for the party in South India requires a commitment to federalism and politics that acknowledge linguistic diversity and inter-faith harmony

From the sun-kissed beaches of Lakshadweep to temple-hopping across Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, is it any coincidence that Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has made four extended visits in the last two months to southern Indian states? With the BJP having reached saturation point electorally in northern and western India, the PM seems to be making a determined effort to change the poll arithmetic with a focused campaign on the South. But is this just well-choreographed optics or will the battle for 2024 actually see a break from a widening and troubling North-South political divide?

Thiruvananthapuram, Feb 27 (ANI): Prime Minister Narendra Modi being felicitated during a public meeting, in Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday. Union Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan and Kerala Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Chief K Surendran are also seen. (ANI Photo)(Sreeram DK) PREMIUM
Thiruvananthapuram, Feb 27 (ANI): Prime Minister Narendra Modi being felicitated during a public meeting, in Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday. Union Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan and Kerala Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Chief K Surendran are also seen. (ANI Photo)(Sreeram DK)

In 2019, the BJP won just 29 out of 130 Lok Sabha seats across the South, 25 of them from Karnataka alone. Fast forward to 2024 where the BJP has raised the pitch with a distinct strategy for each southern state. In Karnataka, the party has tied up with Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular), the very party it derisively referred to as a father-son family-run enterprise in assembly polls last year. By rehabilitating former CM BS Yediyurappa and his sons, the return to a Lingayat-centric approach is apparent: Yediyurappa is 81, but margdarshak mandal retirement rules don’t apply to their tallest leader in the state.

Switch to Kerala where the BJP has never won a single Lok Sabha seat although the party did poll a significant 12.9% vote in 2019. While the PM’s claim that the BJP would win double-digit seats in Kerala can be dismissed as election bluster, there is a clear attempt to increase vote share by occupying an Opposition space outside of the traditional Left-Congress bipolar fight. With both these parties part of the INDIA bloc, the BJP is questioning the incongruity of allying in Delhi but competing for power in Thiruvananthapuram.

In Andhra Pradesh, the BJP is still a marginal player in what is probably the only genuine two-party regional fight in the country. Whichever side wins in the YS Jagan Mohan Reddy versus Chandrababu Naidu battle, the BJP will probably align with the winning side. The stakes are higher in Telangana where the BJP won four seats and almost 20% of the vote in 2019. Last year’s assembly polls, where the party was a poor third, was a setback to the BJP’s ambitions. But Lok Sabha elections may throw up fresh opportunities, especially as the Bharat Rashtra Samiti is yet to recover from its assembly defeat to the Congress.

This brings us to Tamil Nadu, arguably the most fascinating frontier for the BJP to breach. Historically, the BJP has struggled to make a mark in a state whose unique political culture offers a noticeable ideological challenge to the BJP’s worldview. When, for example, DMK chief minister MK Stalin’s son and minister Udhayanidhi Stalin triggered a row with his controversial remarks calling for an eradication of Sanatana Dharma, he was not just seeking to consolidate his own vote base but also pitting a non-Brahminical Dravidian identity as a counterpoint to the BJP’s Hindutva appeal. In the Dravidian political formulation, the BJP’s brand of politics represents an upper-caste Brahminical Hinduism wherein notions of social justice and equality lose out to rigidly hierarchical caste divides.

This radical anti-Hindutva, anti-Brahmin ideological positioning of the Dravidian movement may have stood the test of time but there is also a gradual shift taking place. Projecting a 39-year-old K Annamalai, an IPS officer turned politician, as the BJP’s Tamil Nadu face and a crusader against corruption and family raj, is a reflection of this change. His 100-day yatra may not be a game-changer just yet but it has obviously raised the BJP’s profile in the state at a time when the principal opposition party, the AIADMK, is struggling to recover from the bruising factionalism of the post-Jayalalithaa period. Not surprisingly, a recent opinion poll gave the BJP an impressive 20% vote share even if the seat count remained negligible.

In a sense, the BJP’s southern push mirrors the scale of its ambition in the Modi era to emerge as a pan-India force. It may also force the Sangh Parivar to become more politically and ideologically flexible and move away from the one-nation-one-leader-one-religion credo. Despite winning two consecutive majorities in the Lok Sabha, the saffron force’s roots lie in the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan politics of the Hindi heartland. An expanded southern footprint beyond just Karnataka requires a more inclusive worldview that celebrates a multicultural Indian ethos.

Can Hindutva nationalism, for example, accommodate Tamil sub-nationalism, not just by symbolic gestures in placing a sengol (sceptre) in the new Parliament but also in recognising linguistic diversity by not imposing Hindi in any form? Can an attempt to woo the Christian community in Kerala be separated from how missionaries are targeted through anti-conversion laws in North Indian states? Can bulldozers rampaging through Muslim homes in UP be disconnected from the inter-faith harmony that prevails in much of southern India?

Most importantly, a political breakthrough for the BJP across southern India requires a sincere commitment to the federal spirit rather than an imperious Delhi mindset which seeks the centralisation of power. The concerns voiced by southern CMs over the allocation of financial resources can’t be wished away as election posturing. Nor can the southern states be punished in any future delimitation exercise for successfully implementing population control measures. Truth is, the more economically advanced, literate, socially progressive southern states are already marching towards becoming viksit (developed); it is now for the rest of Bharat to catch up.

Post-script: A few weeks ago, after watching a Mood of the Nation opinion poll, an INDIA bloc leader remarked wistfully: “If the general election results South of the Vindhyas counted as much as the North and West, we might have a shot at power!”

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal

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