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Published on: May 17, 2024, 1:20 p.m.
Will Modi’s ‘Mission South’ succeed?
  • Will Modi’s outreach in Tamil Nadu fetch votes?

By Rakesh Joshi. Executive Editor, Business India

The BJP’s war cry of 400-paar (400 seats-plus) for the NDA alliance is predicated on its electoral performance in the southern states. Making a breakthrough into the southern states, among the richest and the best-educated in the country, is crucial to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitions to gain an even larger parliamentary majority in this election and extend the reach of the BJP to every corner of the country. In the build-up to the six-week, seven-phase election, which began in April and will continue till 4 June, the BJP has been focussing its campaign machinery and financial resources on winning south Indian constituencies. 

While this is no easy feat, top BJP leaders are exuding confidence that they are heading for a huge victory in the southern states. Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu account for 109 seats, of which the BJP won 29 last time – 25 from Karnataka and four from Telangana. In both Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu the BJP failed to win any seat. The party also came a cropper in Kerala, which has 20 Lok Sabha seats.

The south has always been a tough nut for the BJP to crack because they are primarily viewed as a north Indian, Hindi-speaking party that does not represent regional southern interests, particularly around language and culture. Though the BJP made headway in Karnataka, it has lost power in the state every alternate term due to misgovernance. This time the stakes are higher. 

The BJP, battling the Congress-led INDIA bloc for a third consecutive term, is hoping that the bulk of its 400-plus will likely come from its Hindi heartland base – including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Haryana, and Gujarat, etc – which has over 200 seats. In 2019, the party swept these states, winning over 190 of these seats. It will need a similarly strong result this time and a much-improved score from the southern (and eastern) parts to hit its target.

The BJP will have to hit this target sans any significant alliance in Tamil Nadu; its biggest partner, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, walked out last year after internal squabbles. It has forged an alliance with N Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh but the share of seats it is contesting in the state has gone down drastically. 

Amit Shah, Union home minister, and the Prime Minister have led the BJP’s fight in the southern states, with Modi making over a dozen visits to Kerala and Tamil Nadu alone this year, and senior leaders deployed in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Shah was in Karnataka’s Haveri recently and declared to a news agency, “We will get more seats than Congress in the five states in South India.”

The Congress secured, in fact, fewer seats than the BJP in these five states last time; like the BJP, the party was routed in Andhra Pradesh (the ruling YSR Congress Party won 22 of the 25 seats, while N Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party picked up the other three) and got just one in Karnataka. The Congress’ big score came from Kerala, where the party won 15 seats, while the BJP got zero.

  • Across the south there are 130 seats... BJP is going to get hardly 12-15. The rest will go with INDIA

    Revanth Reddy, Chief Minister, Telangana

At the Southern battle front

The battle for South India has thus rapidly become one of the big headline points in this election, particularly since the Congress produced two thumping wins in the Karnataka and Telangana Assembly elections, defeating the BJP and the Bharat Rashtra Samithi of K Chandrasekhar Rao.

The BJP’s claim of ‘best ever showing’ in the southern states is riding largely on the Prime Minister’s supposed popularity in the region. It believes that, for the first time in South India, Modi’s popularity has grown to an extent that it can get the votes and seats. Top leaders point to increased vote share between 2014 and 2019 as another sign that the BJP’s reach in South India. In Kerala, the BJP got about 10 per cent in 2014 and 12.93 per cent five years later while, in Telangana, this jumped by over 10 per cent. In Karnataka, this increased by 8.38 per cent.

It was the reverse in Tamil Nadu, however, where in 2014 the BJP polled 5.5 per cent of the votes, which fell to less than 3.7 in 2019. Similarly, in Andhra Pradesh, the vote share fell 7.54 per cent between 2014 and 2019, 

Revanth Reddy, Telangana Chief Minister, has cast serious doubts over the BJP’s big ‘Mission South’ claim, saying he expects the party to win fewer than 15 seats from the region. “Across the south there are 130 seats... BJP is going to get hardly 12-15. The rest will go with INDIA,” Reddy said.

Delimitation woe

Like Reddy, the chief ministers of the southern states have emerged as some of Modi’s fiercest critics and accused the BJP of depriving them of tax income and investment to punish and undermine their governments. Many in the south fear that the gulf between India’s north and south could worsen after 2026, when India’s electoral map is due to be redrawn according to population growth through the delimitation process.

India’s poor, more populous north – the stronghold of the BJP – is likely to gain parliamentary seats, while southern states, which successfully brought down their populations years ago through progressive welfare and education policies, are likely to lose significant parliamentary representation.

To put the controversy in the political context, the largest gainers under delimitation would be the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, which would go from their current 174 seats to 284 seats (a 63 per cent increase) in the new larger Lok Sabha. The NDA won 156 of these 174 seats, an impressive strike rate of 90 per cent in the 2019 election. At these strike rates, the NDA would receive 255 seats just from these 4 states after delimitation – much of the way to the new majority mark of 377 seats.

In contrast, the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala would go from their current 101 Lok Sabha seats to 107 seats (just a 6 per cent increase) in the new larger Lok Sabha after delimitation.

The worry is equally palpable in the matter of distribution of resources – and this explains the pushback by the opposition CMs. Since 2014, there has been marked political and fiscal centralisation in India. And the BJP has been openly campaigning on a platform of ‘double engine sarkar’ in state elections – an explicit promise of political patronage and party bias in fiscal transfers from the Centre.

  • Modi's roadshow in Tamil Nadu: can it get votes and seats?

The concerns around delimitation for the South are not just about losing a few parliamentarians. Rather, there is the real possibility that the fact that the South has a different political culture – along with better development outcomes and lower fertility rates – than the North, will result in the systematic loss of fiscal support from the Centre.

While there is talk that the concerns of southern states will be taken care of during the delimitation of Lok Sabha constituencies by developing a mechanism that they continue to get a proportionate representation, the states are not impressed.

While the delimitation problem may emerge as a major administrative and political challenge for any government at the Centre, the immediate question is whether the political scenario in the South has changed dramatically for the BJP. Traditionally, the BJP has not been able to make much headway in the southern states, where regional parties or alliances are strong. Modi has been trying to gain acceptability in the South by projecting the development mantra and promoting the notion of a common national ethos. 

Southern states contribute significantly to the country’s GDP (31 per cent), boasting of robust industrial sectors, thriving IT hubs, and a strong services economy. Recognising the region’s economic potential, Modi’s initiatives aim to play to these strengths like promoting investment, boosting starts-ups and infrastructure development.

Modi’s temple run and other gestures

Cultural symbolism also plays a crucial role in Modi’s South push. The Prime Minister has made efforts to engage with the unique cultural identities and sensitivities of southern states, fostering a sense of inclusivity and representation. From participating in regional festivals to promoting local languages, these gestures resonate with the populace, contributing to a sense of connect and belonging. He made multiple visits to southern temples before the Ram Mandir ‘Pran Pratisthan’ ceremony in Ayodhya in January 2024.

He has projected the installation of the ‘sacred sengol’ (sceptre) in the new Parliament building as an attempt to draw inspiration from the model of good governance that the Tamil heritage has given the country, in an apparent attempt to woo the people of the key southern state.

These are not bad goals themselves but they do not mitigate fears about Modi being a politician with a pro-Hindi bias, which works against people in the southern parts. From all indications, the PM so far has not been able to establish a strong emotional connect with the South. Lingual and cultural diversity, entrenched regional identities and historical political affiliations present hurdles to the BJP’s expansion efforts. His outreach also needs to be bolstered by a ground level network of party cadres, which is evident in Karnataka but absent in most of the other southern states. 

Electoral alliances could have made up for some organisational deficiencies but this is not happening in any significant way, except in Andhra Pradesh. The BJP thinks it has pulled an ace in the form of the articulate K. Annamalai, who has enthused large sections of younger Tamilians but it remains to be seen how the former police officer fares.

  • Modi’s outreach also needs to be bolstered by a ground level network of party cadres, which is evident in Karnataka but absent in most of the other southern states

Holding up funds?

The southern leaders have taken up Modi’s challenge and have propagated alternate agendas that focus on northern domination and discrimination by the Modi government. There are a number of real concerns here, and the southern leadership has decided to articulate and manipulate them to their advantage. In Kerala, for instance, Pinarayi Vijayan, the veteran CM, has blamed the Modi government for allegedly holding up development funds. Kerala’s demands were endorsed by the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu leaderships. 

Fortunately, Modi is not playing the Hindu card in the South but the nationalistic card. Whether that will work or not is anybody’s guess. However, most observers feel that while the BJP might not be able to dramatically increase its seats in the South, it will be lucky to do better than before, at least in terms of vote share.

What is likely is that, unlike in the last Lok Sabha elections, this time the BJP will pick up a couple or more seats. In Andhra Pradesh, where the ruling Jagan Mohan Reddy government is facing headwinds, the BJP’s alliance with the TDP is certain to yield seats in this state for the first time. The BJP’s vote and seat share in Telangana is also certain to rise while Karnataka, as in the past, is expected to support the BJP in pockets. 

While precise numbers are impossible to predict, the overall upswing is sure to be a symbolic boost to Modi as even a partial victory in the southern states could weaken if not break the notion that his charisma is restricted to mainly the Hindi belt and parts of western India. On the other hand, a stellar performance will establish him as a pan-India leader of the stature of Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi.

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