India Today


- ( Aroon Purie)

People often recall how the then newly- minted Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP) had won “just two seats” in the 1984 general election. But it has largely fallen out of memory that one of them was in South India: in Hanamkonda, Andhra Pradesh, where an old Jan Sanghi defeated the future prime minister Narasimha Rao. Strikingly enough, the other consolatio­n prize was Mehsana, Gujarat, home of another future prime minister, Narendra Modi. That duality carries a special resonance in 2024 as Modi attempts to close a historical gap in the South. After 1984, the party’s southern haul had stayed in the single digits till 1998 and plateaued at an average of 20 over the next two decades. One of the empty columns in Modi’s 2019 electoral account books, too, was the South. In Karnataka, it did win 25 out of 28 seats. But outside of that, it won just four seats in four states. Actually, all of them in Telangana; it drew a blank in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala— zero out of 85, including Puducherry. Yet, its glaringly thin southern haul of 29 out of 130 in 2019 is also its best. Therefore, the 2024 general election is as much a beginning as a destinatio­n.

How do its intentions measure up on hard ground? The tones here are more grey and embattled than in the BJP’s northern heartlands. The party has a long- term and short- term strategy in place for the South. It has tempered its ambitions with realism. Its 2019 vote share chart holds out plenty of reasons for this. The percentage­s, in decreasing order: Karnataka 51.38, Telangana

19.45, Kerala 12.93, Tamil Nadu 3.66, Andhra Pradesh 0.96. Not exactly a picture of bounty. Therefore, the party’s short- term plan is to map out constituen­cies where it has a realistic chance to add to its 2024 kitty. The long- term focus, meanwhile, envisages more incrementa­l progress: the idea is to take physical turf and mind space inch by inch so that it readies the BJP to move into more prominence, even the slot of the main Opposition party, ahead of future state elections.

Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the two hardest nuts to crack for the BJP, are both due for assembly polls in 2026. The slow atrophying of the post- Jayalalith­aa AIADMK opens up space for it in the heartland of Dravidian politics. To try to breach the hitherto bipolar spectrum, it has tied up with a quartet of small caste- based parties. There have been enthusiast­ic projection­s of a surge in vote share, but caution is advised. An AIADMK leader, voicing the party’s newfound spunk after being dumped as an ally, taunted the BJP saying it better drop the “1” from its target of “21 per cent”. So the DMK’s reigning supremo M. K. Stalin won’t be alone in trying to stop Modi’s rath. In Kerala, an untamed strip of land for the BJP where it has never won a single Lok Sabha seat, the stern Pinarayi Vijayan lords it over a realm shaped by Left politics. But infighting mars the local Congress, though organisati­onally strong and buoyed by a community mix that lures Rahul Gandhi to Wayanad. And Hindutva has entered the local vocabulary. Accordingl­y, the BJP’s vote share in 2019 swelled to double digits from 6 per cent in 2009. A war is raging for its first Lok Sabha seat. Maybe even a second one.

Karnataka, the happy hunting ground for Team Modi in 2019, is now ruled by the canny, powerful Congress satraps Siddaramai­ah and deputy D. K. Shivakumar. So, a degree of rever sal in fortunes looks inevitable, with the Congress well- poised to improve on its low base of one seat. The critical question: how much can the BJP hold on to? In Telangana, too, the Congress’s new helmsman, A. Revanth Reddy, hopes to carry over the energies from his assembly poll triumph in December. With the oncedomina­nt Bharat Rashtra Samithi receding, the BJP’s revised strategy is to occupy that void. In Andhra Pradesh, the party has teamed up with Chandrabab­u Naidu, but CM Jagan Reddy will be offering no walkover. Therefore, the BJP is up against very strong local leadership in all five states— something often missing from its Modi- centric arsenal.

This week’s cover story maps out this important sub- plot of the 2024 Lok Sabha election with a rich medley of analyses and ground reports from the Battlegrou­nd States. Senior Deputy Editor Amarnath K. Menon casts his experience­d eye on Andhra, Telangana and Tamil Nadu; our old hand in Kochi, Jeemon Jacob, covers God’s Own Country; Associate Editor Ajay Sukumaran covers Karnataka. Group Editorial Director Raj Chengappa encountere­d the man on the very frontline, K. Annamalai, the feisty 39- year- old BJP chief in Tamil Nadu, on his electionee­ring trail in Coimbatore. Also, the formidable Dravidian army he’s up against— the DMK kicking up dust ominously in Chidambara­m and Puducherry, fronted by the unflappabl­e Stalin. He also met the protagonis­ts on the western front. The suave Congress star- MP Shashi Tharoor and his combative challenger, Union minister Rajeev Chandrasek­har, in Thiruvanan­thapuram.

Conquering the South is a long- held desire for BJP- RSS strategy gurus but has remained largely unrequited, with an electorate groomed in political cultures antithetic­al to Hindutva. While very devout, they have kept religion mostly insulated from politics. Caste- and class- based social justice politics instead delivered much richer progress than the North. Linguistic identity drove a scornful pushback against northern hegemony. The BJP’s wish to alter the South's political landscape is driven by ideology and battlefiel­d exigencies. For a national party ruling India for a decade, the lack of a truly pan- India footprint causes discomfitu­re— especially its stereotypi­ng as a ‘ north Indian party’. Also, Modi’s 400- seat target will be difficult to realise if the 130 seats of the South are subtracted from 543. The alternativ­e prospect of a tight election only adds to the urgency for a buffer stock.

The BJP has left no stone unturned in acting on these twin triggers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made himself very much an ambient presence in the South with a combinatio­n of personal visits, wall- to- wall coverage of publicity material and, most critically, forging symbolic connection­s. From giving centrality to the sengol at the new Parliament building’s inaugurati­on, floating the Kashi Tamil Sangamam project and singing frequent paeans to the Tamil language, the BJP has spread its cultural outreach thick. Modi also wove a web of temple visits across the south as the Ayodhya ceremony drew closer, playing on organic North- South links. The outcome will give us the South Side Story of 2024.

 ?? ?? April 15, 2019
April 15, 2019
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