As polls wind up, north-south and rural-urban faultlines emerge

Updated 9:25 PM, 14 May, 2019
Within the political north, specifically the heartland of Uttar Pradesh, there seems to be a significant variation in the manner urban and rural areas have voted. Photo: PTI

The parliamentary elections of 2019 is perhaps turning out to be one of the most difficult ones to unravel. But two political faultlines that seem to be emerging with much more clarity are the political divide between the north and the south, and, within the north, the rural versus urban question.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi still has a lot of appeal in the north, the political south seems unconcerned. Within the political north, specifically the heartland of Uttar Pradesh, there seems to be a significant variation in the manner urban and rural areas have voted.

The southern states in any case have very little BJP presence. Though the BJP has been trying hard to make deep inroads into these states it hasn’t got much success.

In Telangana and Andhra Pradesh neither of the national parties—BJP and Congress – has any presence. Therefore, the analysis becomes that much simpler. In both States, because of the strong presence of regional parties, the BJP has not been able to spread its appeal.

In Karnataka, the BJP has made some inroads but is unable to expand in the manner it would have liked. In north and coastal Karnataka, the BJP has made an impact. The lingayat factor in the northern parts of Karnataka has hugely helped them, but the Congress-JD(S) alliance in the State seems to have arrested the BJP’s march. While in the Assembly the two parties got together to outwit the BJP, the 2019 outcome would reveal the working of the alliance arithmetic.

In Kerala, the BJP has used the Supreme Court judgement on Sabarimala to gain ground. It has tried to create a majoritarian sentiment using the judgement that attempts to enhance women’s rights by permitting them to enter Sabarimala irrespective of their age. Before the judgement, women of menstruating age were not allowed to pray at the temple.

The Congress party’s last minute decision to field its president Rahul Gandhi as a candidate from Wayanad in Kerala seems to have blunted this effect. A higher voter turnout percentage in the two constituencies Pathanamthitta and Thiruvanathapuram which were affected by the anti-temple entry agitation indicates a certain shift in voter preferences. Once again, May 23 would give a confirmation.

In Tamil Nadu, the BJP has decided to be more realistic and fielded only five of its candidates as part of the AIADMK alliance, a tacit admission that it has not been able to increase its footprint. Since bypolls to 22 Assembly seats have become more important in the State politics as compared to parliamentary elections, the focus had clearly shifted.

BJP likely to get fewer seats in south

Therefore in southern states the BJP may end up performing poorer than it did in 2014. The five southern States together send 130 members to the Lok Sabha. In 2014 despite a sweeping Narendra Modi wave, it was almost a draw in the south where the BJP on its own could win only 20 seats, one more than 19 scored by its rival Congress party. It had TDP as any ally. In 2019 that cushion has gone and in Telangana K Chandrasekhar Rao of TRS has developed his own ambitions.

The issue of hyper-nationalism highlighted through national security issues, or the project Hindutva defined through cow vigilantism have had no serious impact in the south. The Ayodhya temple movement too had no resonance in the south, though the RSS-BJP combine took out a Rath Yatra throughout Tamil Nadu six months ago.

In fact regional and language issues, as well as sub-nationalism in these states seem to have triumphed over BJP’s hyper-nationalism pitch.  This perhaps made BJP turn its gaze towards the north where Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party president Amit Shah held a record number of election rallies.

A drive in Uttar Pradesh from Lucknow to Varanasi through Amethi and Rae Bareli obtained an interesting outcome. In the urban areas, clearly more than BJP, it was a clear and resounding yes for Narendra Modi. The voters were happy with the muscular nationalism being projected by the prime minister and therefore they concluded that he was the most powerful prime minister India ever had.

The Prime Minister’s initiatives such as Swachh Bharat and civic works such as building and lighting up roads, lesser corruption at lower levels of bureaucracy etc. seem to have mobilised urban voters in support of Modi. In Delhi, Uber and Ola Taxi drivers seemed much happier with the Centre as they need not pay bribes to traffic cops, transport department etc, which they said was very widespread during the Congress regime. Delhi is run by the AAP government but the police and land are administered by the central government. Though some of the drivers belonged to backward castes and were domiciles of villages in Uttar Pradesh they still preferred Modi.

The sentiments in semi-urban and rural areas were completely different. In Uttar Pradesh the message was that the SP-BSP combine were transferring votes to each another and ensuring that the ‘gatbandhan’ candidates win.

The caste equation, once known as the Mandal issue, had trumped Mandir (representing saffron surge) in the run up to VP Singh’s premiership in 1989. That flavour seems to be back in a different form. Caste equations are taking on the muscular slogan of nationalism.

Telugu leaders seek a national profile

The urgency shown by the southern leaders, especially KCR of TRS and Chandrababu Naidu of TDP, in trying to forge an alternative national alliance is indicative of the opportunity they sense in exploiting the north-south political divide. Local politics and the fallout of bitter separation between Telangana from Andhra Pradesh is driving the two leaders into a competitive environment. But that is only one part of the story. The alternate coalition or Federal Front is also seen as a chance by the two leaders to form an anti-Congress, anti-BJP front as a rearguard action to protect their own turfs.

Some southern regional parties have their origins in the Congress, therefore they may imagine it to be a convenient alliance. Besides they see a rising BJP as a bigger threat. Since at present the Congress party is weak the Federal Front may find it easier to dictate terms and seek support to form a government.

The rural vs urban fault line is playing out in the north in the form of forward-backward caste groupings. While the forwards, largely from urban India are rooting for Modi, the backwards largely in rural pockets are falling back on caste mobilisation.

Though the initiative for an alliance of regional parties is coming from the south it makes perfect sense for them to tie up with SP-BSP in Uttar Pradesh and Mamata Banjeree’s Trinamool Congress in West Bengal as they all draw their support from similar social bases.