A colleague travelling to Mandya constituency in south Karnataka found minimal poster-presence of the BJP or that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. No doubt the party is not contesting directly in this constituency and is instead backing Sumalatha, a well known actor, wife of the late Kannada film star Ambareesh. Yet, for someone in Delhi or in a BJP–dominated northern state the absence of Modi or the BJP in campaign mode, in any form, is something that may be hard to digest.
But this is the reality in many parts of South India where the party in recent years has been sweating it out to make its presence felt. Karnataka has comparatively been a success story for the BJP but the rest of the south has been a continuing struggle.
Probably for the first time in many years the BJP sniffs a chance to inch forward in the electoral stakes in some constituencies of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. But, mind you, it is just a sniff.
As in the past, the BJP is banking on Karnataka. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, buoyed by the anti-Congress mood, the BJP won 17 of the 28 constituencies. The Congress managed nine while the Janata Dal (Secular) got two. Since the twist in the May 2018 Assembly elections, when the Congress and the JD(S) allied unexpectedly, the BJP’s prospects don’t seem to be on the rise as the rival combination is potent enough. Unless the Congress-JD(S) alliance turns out be such an unmitigated disaster, the BJP’s numbers will not go up.
In most of the south, the BJP is still largely seen as a north Indian party. But, in Karnataka, the BJP benefited from the decades-old presence of the RSS with several of its top leaders coming from this state- like Seshadri, earlier, and Dattatreya Hosabale, now. Also, when Deve Gowda and his erstwhile partner Ramakrishna Hegde broke up in 1996, the BJP capitalised on it.
This is not the case in Kerala where BJP central leadership including Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath messed up their chances. Not surprisingly, Kerala has remained a puzzle for the monochrome, single-track perspective of these leaders.
Here is a state which is so cosmopolitan, with Hindus, Muslims and Christians so well integrated with hardly any communal tension, it just blows up the ideological edifice of the Hindutva project. Undaunted, the party led by Amit Shah, decided that the popular Onam festival need to be fitted into the Hindutva straitjacket.
So, without even attempting to gauge the nuances of Onam, its history and how important it is to the people, Shah in one Sanskritised sweep renamed it as “Vamana Jayanti”. The angry and indignant blowback to this attempt is yet to die down. But, in one move, whatever chance of the BJP integrating into the state’s ethos simply evaporated. And, then there was the BJP project to make beef a dirty word. It expected “Hindus” in Kerala to docilely follow the diktat like a cow on leash. The fierce reaction from all communities hit the BJP so hard it lost another opportunity to endear itself.
And then the Sabarimala controversy happened. Initially the party went with the Supreme Court’s order lifting restrictions on women’s entry into the temple. But, in an overnight change of heart, the BJP changed its stand and opposed the order. In its eagerness to get a foothold, the BJP did not care that the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights were invoked by the court as opposed to some ancient, archaic and discredited practice discriminating against menstruating women. It went for the kill. And, today it is this issue that the party hopes will bring it some seats, in the Lok Sabha elections, from the state.
As for Telangana and a cut-to-size Andhra the BJP does not seem to have any clue how to make itself counted. If the TRS’s K Chandrasekhar Rao has cornered power in Telangana, Chandrababu Naidu of the TDP has dominated the new-look Andhra. Whatever space there was for the BJP to squeeze through as at least an opposition party has been snuffed out by the emergence of Jagan Reddy, son of the late Congress chief minister Y S Rajashekhara Reddy. Consequently, today the fight for the Lok Sabha seats is between Jagan and Naidu.
The BJP never really had a chance to make it in Andhra and Telangana. What this implies is that the BJP’s highly successful politics of Hindutva, Ram Temple construction at Ayodhya, the Uniform Civil Code or the abrogation of Kashmir’s Article 370 cut no ice with voters of the Telugu-speaking states. Since the BJP is pretty much committed to all these issues, it is difficult to foresee how it can become a force in these once-united states.
In Tamil Nadu too, the BJP faces a similar problem. The hugely dominating presence of the DMK and the AIADMK for years left no space for the BJP to grow. The first real chance of making it came when the AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa died in December 2016 as it left a sudden vacuum in the state’s leadership. Its hopes went up when super popular film star Rajinikanth indicated he would either join the BJP or support it in elections. To its dismay, Rajinikanth has never made good his promise of debuting in politics. And, he has effectively gone into hibernation.
Historically, Tamils considered the BJP to be a north Indian-centric, Brahmin-dominated and Hindi-fixated party, all of which are anathema in Tamil Nadu. But the space created by the exit of Jayalalithaa and the other stalwart M Karunanidhi is being seen in the BJP as the next big chance to win some seats in this state. If reports quoting opinion polls are to be believed, the DMK-Congress is expected to sweep most of the 39 Lok Sabha seats in the state. The BJP will then be left again in the cold.
Overall, what the BJP can expect is what it gets in Karnataka out of the total 28. Seats from the other southern states will be a bonus. In the long term if votes are a consideration, the BJP leadership would need to reinvent itself with a southern-friendly face, speak at least one of the languages of the south and shed the image of a party that stands for North Indian domination, something that does not seem to be on its agenda yet.