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How the South will help the BJP and keep out the Congress

March 24, 2014 12:41 IST

BJP rally in Chennai

'Come May 16, the BJP-led NDA will have more seats from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh than any formation mustered by the Congress,' notes T V R Shenoy.

I was in Chennai on May 3, 2006. I have visited the city more times than I can recall over the past seven decades but the time and the place are etched in my memory because it was the day that Pramod Mahajan died.

It was a schizophrenic experience. Watching the English news channels gave the feeling that all of India was mourning the murdered BJP leader. Talking to people in Chennai gave the impression that they were totally unconcerned.

One friend put it bluntly: "We are not as interested in the former communications minister as we are in the present communications minister." This was when Dayanidhi Maran held that office; Chennai was abuzz with allegations of corruption as well as rumours of a rift between M Karunanidhi and his grand-nephews.

I drew two conclusions that day. First, the electronic media, based largely in Delhi and Mumbai, focuses too much on those two. Second, the BJP had not made a mark in Tamil Nadu.

The first statement is still probably correct. The second may need to be amended.

Watch the talking heads on the idiot box debate the BJP's electoral prospects, and someone is all but guaranteed to affirm that the party does not exist in southern and eastern India. This is silly; 'South' includes Karnataka and 'East' includes Bihar, states where the BJP has a significant presence.

But we need to look beyond those two, specifically to the Bay of Bengal states, namely Tamil Nadu (and Puducherry), Andhra Pradesh (still united, at least for this general election), Odisha, and West Bengal.

In 2009 the BJP performed miserably; it won zero seats from Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Andhra Pradesh, and Odisha, and a single seat in West Bengal (Darjeeling, where Jaswant Singh promised to support the creation of Gorkhaland).

One seat out of 145 constituencies is pathetic.

Could the sixteenth general election be a game changer? Let me put forward a radical thought: The National Democratic Alliance will have more Lok Sabha MPs from southern and eastern India than any formation where the Congress is a part.

To enter the inevitable caveat: I speak of the 'NDA.' (whatever shape it assumes after the polls), not of the BJP itself.

Why am I so confident? Not because of any opinion polls but because of something much more indicative -- the behaviour of politicians.

Call it political opportunism or call it cold calculation, they are gravitating toward Narendra Modi.

Specifically, look at Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. These two made all the difference to the fortunes of the Congress and the BJP, in three successive general elections, those of 1999, 2004, and 2009. (They also happen to the first states on my personal tour.)

In 1999 the pre-poll alliance between the BJP and the Telugu Desam swept Andhra Pradesh, winning 36 of the state's 42 seats. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK joined hands with the BJP and a group of smaller parties -- the PMK, the MDMK, and the MADMK -- to win 26 of the state's 39 seats. The NDA went on to form the government.

In 2004 the Congress made the fateful decision to ally with the Telangana Rashtra Samithi in Andhra Pradesh; the new allies scooped up 34 seats. Meanwhile, the DMK and its smaller parties chose to go with the Congress; the new alliance won all the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu. The United Progressive Alliance went on to form the government.

2009 repeated the results of 2004, except with the BJP being abandoned by the Telugu Desam too. 2014 could not be more different from 2004 and 2009.

There are three major regional players in Andhra Pradesh, namely the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, Jaganmohan Reddy's YSR Congress, and the Telugu Desam. There are two new parties, namely actor Pawan Kalyan's Jana Sena and the Jai Samaikyandhra Party of former chief minister Kiran Kumar Reddy.

Once upon a time Digvijay Singh boasted that the Telangana Rashtra Samithi would merge with the Congress after the creation of Telangana. What actually happened?

Parliament passed the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act on February 20, 2014. That evening K T Rama Rao, party founder K Chandrashekar Rao's son, refused to commit to a merger.

The next morning, his party colleagues pointed out that the Bill would not have passed without the BJP's support. On March 3, 2014 -- two days after the Act received the President's assent -- the Telangana Rashtra Samithi refused even a pre-poll alliance with the Congress, leave alone a merger.

How about the YSR Congress?

In 2012 Jaganmohan Reddy said he would no have no truck with 'communal' forces.

In 2013 he said he would cooperate with the BJP if it would prevent the division of Andhra Pradesh.

In 2014 Jaganmohan Reddy says he will work with Narendra Modi.

The Telugu Desam is more honest than the Telangana Rashtra Samithi and the YSR Congress. N Chandrababu Naidu is reportedly open to a pre-poll alliance. I have no idea where Kiran Kumar Reddy stands, but Pawan Kalyan made the Jana Sena's stand crystal clear when he flew to Ahmedabad to meet the chief minister of Gujarat.

Across the state border, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu has always enjoyed a cordial relationship with her counterpart in Gandhinagar, whom she once described as a 'good friend'. To the extent that ideology matters, their views largely converge.

The DMK's attitude is more telling. 'Modi is my good friend too,' M Karunanidhi said in an echo of J Jayalaithaa, adding, 'My personal opinion is that Modi is a good person and has taken much care about the development of his state.'

While the two larger Kazhagams play coy, five smaller parties -- Captain' Vijaykanth's DMDK, the PMK of the Ramadoss family, Vaiko's MDMK, the IJK, and the KMDK -- decided that they could not afford such luxuries. They have already joined the BJP in a pre-poll alliance.

How many seats will the BJP win after all this? Perhaps not even one.

Yet the long term implication is that the BJP will increase its vote share. In the short run, the BJP will be spoiled for choice to make the numbers in the Lok Sabha.

Equally clearly, even the tiniest or the newest of parties in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are spurning the Congress. Complementing their attitude is the behaviour of Congress leaders themselves.

D Purandeswari, the legendary N T Rama Rao's daughter, was minister of state for commerce and industry in the Manmohan Singh regime; she joined the BJP on March 7, 2014.

Nobody knows where other ministers from Andhra Pradesh stand; the disarray in the Congress ranks is so great that with voting barely one month away -- April 30 in Telangana, May 7 in Seemandhra -- there is no list of candidates.

What of Tamil Nadu?

Finance Minister P Chidambaram is not contesting. The former environment minister, Jayanthi Natarajan, is all agog to work for the party -- as long as she does not have to contest.

Union Shipping Minister G K Vasan's Rajya Sabha term expires in June, but he too is not contesting a Lok Sabha seat.

Forget winning new allies, forget keeping old partners, the Nehru-Gandhis are finding it difficult to get their own partymen to stand for election in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

We have lived in a coalition era from 1989 up. Judging by the actions of parties in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the Congress does not have a hope of winning allies from the two states that propelled it to power in 2004 and kept it in power in 2009.

Come May 16, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance will have more seats from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh than any formation mustered by the Congress. And yes, having just returned from the state, the BJP now indeed figures in the political chatter of Tamil Nadu.

Image: A BJP rally being addressed by Narendra Modi in Chennai. Photograph: Babu/Reuters.

T V R Shenoy