THE SOUTH, as a whole, remains as a no-go area for the BJP. To which, till recently, Karnataka was an exception. It tasted power there repeatedly. But, times are changing. Even Bellary, known for the presence of the infamous mining baron Reddy brothers and their lethal muscle-flexing, has turned its face away from the BJP. Notably, North Karnataka, once a fortress for the BJP due to the strong presence of the Lingayat community to which the BJP kept anchoring its prospects, is no safe zone for the BJP anymore. The present round of by-elections to three Lok Sabha and two assembly constituencies –just five months after the state assembly polls – proved as much.
If Karnataka looks the other way, it means Prime Minister Narendra Modi can simply write off the entire South, forming five states besides the small entity called Puducherry — altogether the Dravidian landmass south of the Vindhyas.
The BJP had never got the mechanics that guide politics in the southern states right. It is failing to penetrate the vote bases principally allied on community lines. The RSS base in the South was what the BJP –or even its previous presence in politics as Jan Sangh – built into its launch pad effectively since the early 1980s. It had an elitist base, just as the Congress too had to a large extent, to which was supplemented the force of the poor through the slogan of socialism and the goodwill of the minorities through the party’s advocacy of secularism. Neither the Muslims nor the poor improved their lot substantially under the Congress hegemony, but votes went into the party’s kitty every time elections were held. This was a lethal combination to mesmerize the folks in Karnataka and undivided Andhra Pradesh.
The Congress game did not work as effectively in Kerala, but it alternated in power, with the Communists too stepping in for a five-year term in every span of 10 years. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravidian politics reigned supreme for well over half a century, in which neither the Congress nor the BJP could breathe easy. The Telugu landscape, now split into new Andhra Pradesh and Telangana with Hyderabad as its epicentre, had a strong Congress presence for long years until matinee idol NT Rama Rao came from behind and made a success out of a regional entity he crafted by name Telugu Desam. In later years, Congress recaptured the Telugu support with the presence of leaders like YS Rajasekhara Reddy – a crafty politician who took the poor in his hands with a slew of welfare schemes, and minted money through perceived high-scale corruption. A part of what he took, he reached to party brass in Delhi as well. His death in a helicopter crash ended that era, though the Congress continued to rule the state for more years, with an interregnum led by Chandrababu Naidu, son-in-law of NTR and present chief minister of the new Andhra Pradesh state.
Muslims are a prominent presence in both Telangana and Karnataka, just as Christians are at a lesser level across the South and in prominently placed in Kerala. Muslims form the single largest community, with a vote share of 26 per cent in Kerala, where Christians form 18 per cent of the population. Communal equations partly work to the disadvantage of the BJP in Kerala, Karnataka and Telangana states.
But, the plight of the BJP in the South has less to do with the presence of the minorities. The central reason for the weak showing of the BJP in the south is lack of credible leaders. A BS Yeddyurappa in Karnataka gained prominence after he became chief minister, at the back of a strong support the BJP got from the Lingayats who might form a little more than 10 per cent of the state’s population. Yet, problem arose as the party got mostly identified with the causes of this community, per se. Other communities looked for sanctuary elsewhere. The minorities and the Dalits were solid vote banks for the Congress as is the case in the north too. The Vokaligas, a strongly-placed backward community, cast its lot with HD Deve Gowda in recent years, a support that his son and present CM, HD Kumaraswamy inherited. The BJP failed to extend its support from that of the Lingayats as also Brahmins, and the corrupt image of Yeddyurappa further caused problems for the BJP. The stranglehold of the Reddy brothers, flush with cash from mining deals, posed another problem for the Saffron party.
All of which went to show that despite the likelihood of an anti-incumbency factor working to the disadvantage of the Congress and then chief minister Siddaramaiah, the BJP could not garner enough seats to form a government of its own after the 2018 May assembly polls. The post-poll alliance crafted by the JDS of Kumaraswamy and the Congress outwitted the BJP and grabbed power in the state. By now, this alliance carries the collective weight of the Vokaligas, the Dalits and the Muslims, proving its support base is impregnable. Reason why the alliance grabbed both the assembly seats up for bypolls and two out of three Lok Sabha seats set in election mode. The BJP is satisfied with winning just one Lok Sabha seat.
If Karnataka looks the other way, this will be the season of desperation for the BJP in the South. Its efforts to have a base in Tamil Nadu are not gaining traction. The latest effort was to somehow make a mark by riding piggyback on matinee idol Rajinikant’s proposed formation of a new political party. There still are if’s and but’s. How much of a success this could be is anybody’s guess. The DMK is today in top form and could win power in the next assembly election season. The party stands somewhat solidly behind MK Stalin after the demise of M Karunanidhi. Not so, the AIDMK after the exit of J Jayalalithaa. Split into factions, AIADMK will have a tough time sailing through the next round of polls. AIADMK’s ally is BJP; and the Congress is tied firmly to the DMK.
The exit of chief minister Chandrababu Naidu from the NDA has come as another jolt to the BJP in the South. His main grouse is that the state’s demand for Special Category Status –meaning generous grant of funds from the Centre and liberal rules for setting up of industries etc – was not met by the Modi government. Modi took a stand that the age of SCS is over, and there are new ways being devised by the Niti Ayog to meet states’ requirements. Also, the demand for SCS came from other states too; Odisha and Bihar, for instance. The Centre cannot help one and ignore the other. Naidu also senses a possibility of bargaining for the PM post in the event of the BJP failing to muster strength to form the next government at the Centre. If Naidu has reached the Congress camp, what of Telangana’s chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao? He could side with either the Congress or the BJP, depending on situations emerging after the next Lok Sabha polls. He has as much of smartness.
Clearly, neither the BJP nor Prime Minister Modi can hope for a betterment of the party’s prospects in the South. Amit Shah could do little for the party in the landmass south of the Vindhyas. His failure to effect a turn-around in the South has also to do with his failure to craft a new set of leaders with mass appeal in these states.