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Modi's Challenge Of The South

March 25, 2024 10:30 IST
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It is early to make out which way the wind is blowing, but there is no denying that challenges for the BJP, far outweigh the advantages in this region, notes Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

IMAGE: Narendra Modi holds a roadshow in Coimbatore, March 18, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Narendra Modi has audaciously set his eyes on a target of 370 Lok Sabha seats for his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and at a 400-plus tally for the National Democratic Alliance.

This would not be possible unless it is successful in securing a significant number of seats from the five southern states and the lone Union Territory in the region, which collectively account for 130 seats.

For the BJP to win 370 seats out of the 413 seats from other regions in India, it would require a mammoth strike rate of more than 89.5 percent.

But this is easier said than done given the fact that the BJP, in its basic instinct remains an overzealous Hindi heartland plus western-India party.

Despite being a significant political force in the country for the past three-and-a-half decades, the concept of Bharat in the eyes of the Sangh Parivar, still remains essentially north, central and western India.

For instance, when the India Navy chose a new ensign two years ago, it incorporated elements from Shivaji's Rajmudra and not from the Chola maritime heritage.

While the former was known from a defensive naval operation which was strictly brown water, the Chola navy was noted for being both imperial and blue water.

Further, when the saffron clan contends that the last millennium was one of slavery, they disregard the fact that Islam made its advent in India first by the sea route peacefully in today's Kerala, several centuries prior to its arrival in north India.

The BJP's inability to 'think with' southern India and conceptualise a vision for India that addresses the region's sensitivities, is also partly reflected in the party's consistent southern shortfall.

The failure to make inroads into the region is paradoxical given that the BJP 'opened its account' in south India as back as 1991.

Back then, in the Lok Sabha polls, it bagged four seats in Karnataka with an impressive vote share of 28.78 percent.

While the party secured political power in the state in later years, the regimes were rarely secure and political instability and turbulence remained their principal characteristic.

In 2019, driven on the strength of the Modi/hyper-nationalistic juggernaut the party won 25 (plus one bagged by an independent candidate backed by the BJP) out of 28 seats in the state.

The party's performance in Karnataka, either for Lok Sabha or assembly polls, never influenced the party's showing in other southern states where they remained laggard.

In 2019, Telangana was the only other southern state, besides Karnataka, from where the party won any seat -- four, making it a tally of 29 out of 130 seats in the southern region, or a strike rate of just 22.3 percent.

Modi declared his intention to aim for 370 Lok Sabha seats, significantly more than the number required to give the BJP a two-third majority in the House, in February, but he had clearly made up his mind earlier.

This was evident in the manner on which he travelled through Tamil Nadu and other southern states in the run up the consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya on January 22.

Prior to reaching the temple town in Uttar Pradesh, Modi spent three days in Tamil Nadu where he did not try to push through the over-zealous character of Hindutva and instead presented its 'benign' or 'soft' face.

The most surprising feature of his visit was a two-night halt at a math in Rameswaram, renowned for being a noted Hindu pilgrimage destination.

IMAGE: Modi being felicitated by Kerala BJP Chief K Surendran in Thiruvananthapuram. Photograph: ANI Photo

Modi's entire 11-day long pilgrimage-hopping voyage prior to reaching Ayodhya for the consecration ceremony, during which performed rituals and prayed -- often conveying that he was seeking the blessings of the gods for the welfare of the nation, people and self, was aimed at projecting a compassionate face of Hindutva, as against its standard image of being representative of an aggressive ideology.

Although Modi embarked on this packed ritual-performing journey on January 12 from Nashik Dham in Maharashtra, he visited the Veerbhadra temple at Lepakshi in Andhra Pradesh.

That this was a southern reach out became evident when he sat in the audience to listen to Ranganatha Ramayanamu in Telugu besides watching the story of Jatayu performed by a shadow puppet team.

Modi also visited temples in Kerala before heading into Tamil Nadu.

Not just sleeping on the floor and having only coconut water for the 11-day trip, but his image managers also ensured that this was duly projected by the media.

It enabled projecting the benign image of Modi as the country's chief priest who was also the premier, besides being a leader of a nationalist and unifying clan of political organisations.

The primary purpose of the visit was to underscore that all the sites that he visited on this trip were undeniably an integral part of the Ram legend.

It was communicated that these were religious places from where the epic hero now considered god, drew his divine powers and they were as important for Hindus in other parts of the country.

The underlying political message was that despite the BJP's failure in securing support of an often stubborn electorate, the people in the southern states were no different from the Hindutva-endorsing several hundred millions in north, central and western India.

The trip also established the Ramayan connect throughout the country. The route was packed with destinations that were named in the epic, as important halts for the characters and/or important events and episodes.

Although no political messaging was done, it was implicit and the point conveyed was obvious -- if the people of these states are connected by religion and epics featuring common gods, then, why should they not share the same political culture?

IMAGE: Modi offers prayers at Sri Arulmigu Ramanathaswamy Temple in Rameswaram, January 20, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

The religio-cultural connection established, the Modi-BJP combine went about sewing up alliances in various states: With H D Deve Gowda's Janata Dal-S in Karnataka, with Nara Chandrababu Naidu's Telugu Desam Party and Pawan Kalyan's Jana Sena Party in Andhra Pradesh and Anbumani Ramadoss' Pattali Makkal Katchi and at least another four other smaller parties in Tamil Nadu.

Yet, barring Karnataka, the BJP challenge in these states does not look formidable at this stage of the campaign.

In Tamil Nadu, the BJP is clearly trying to emerge as a third force as after the ties with the AIADMK ended a few months ago, the BJP had little option but to team up with smaller players.

Barring a few seats in the state, the BJP will hope to improve its prospects in the state only in the long run, that too, if its allies decided to stick with it.

Likewise in Andhra Pradesh, its allies, the TDP and JSP, are going to be locked in a triangular contest with the incumbent, Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy's YSR.

The present ruling party will have to weather the challenge from the TDP-led NDA as well as from the Congress.

The big worry for the BJP and its allies is that there is likelihood of the anti-incumbent sentiment getting vertically divided between the two challengers.

IMAGE: BJP supporters at an election meeting addressed by Modi in Shivamogga, Karnataka, March 18, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

The BJP also faces the challenge in Telangana of retaining the four seats it won in 2019.

These elections are being held barely months after the electoral sweep by a resurgent Congress in last year's assembly elections and it is not going to easily let its stranglehold in the state get weakened.

The BJP will hope that the Modi factor will negate its other shortcomings.

But, the moot question is whether the BJP's markedly pro-Hindi and aggressive Hindutva politics will find favour with voters south of the Vindhyas.

It is early to make out which way the wind is blowing, but there is no denying that challenges for the BJP, far outweigh the advantages in this region.

The Madrasis, as the majority in north India still refer to its citizens south of the Vindhyas, remain, for the BJP, a tough nut to crack.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is an author and journalist based in Delhi-NCR. His latest book is The Demolition, The Verdict and The Temple: The Definitive Book on the Ram Mandir Project. He is also the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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