Barring Karnataka, Modi wave fails to conquer South India
There were signs that symbolised the resistance of the south to the electoral impulses of the north.
There were two men, in fact two archrivals, from the south crisscrossing India in the last 10 months to find alternatives to Narendra Modi and the BJP. One envisaged a front with the Congress and another without it.
After the Bharatiya Janata Party’s resounding victory in the general elections on May 23, these two men, N Chandrababu Naidu and K Chandrasekhar Rao, may appear to have counted falling stars in their national dreams. But in some sense, they symbolise the resistance of the south to the electoral impulses of the north.
The BJP has improved its seat tally and vote share in the south. But even in a state like Karnataka, where it pulverised the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance, and reduced the two parties to historic singles, the arguments that one would put forward for Modi’s repeat ascension in the north or west do not entirely hold in the south. The BJP has created a strong discourse on Hindutva and on the imperious cult of Modi, but not in the south. Not in this election.
Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Puducherry are stellar examples of this. Even Telangana, where the BJP raised its tally to four seats from one in 2014, refused to subscribe to the saffron logic.
Let us start with the BJP’s most successful southern state, Karnataka. Modi and Hindutva have a role to play in about 10% of the state, primarily in the coastal areas and urban centres. But in the rest, there is a fine arithmetic of caste at play. Lingayats and Brahmins, plus a big section of Dalits, scheduled tribes and the other backward classes propelled the party. This broad vote bank was forged by B S Yeddyurappa between 2006 and 2010.
It disintegrated when he quit the party, but was fused back as a grouping when he returned to the BJP in 2014. As is obvious, the BJP’s success formula pre-dates Modi. But this time, what pushed their seat tally of 17 in 2014 (it was 19 in 2009) to 25 was the anger against the Congress-JD(S) partnership — the partners have not stopped hating each other for a single day since they got together to rule the state.
The support base of the Congress and the JD(S) overlapped in south Karnataka. The workers never came together, and vote transfer remained a mirage from the very beginning.
The BJP tactically breached the fort here, which was anyway weakened by leaders like the Congress’ Siddaramaiah, who kept referring to the enmity with JDS and the Gowda family from his elephantine memory. Siddaramaiah wanted to defeat the JD(S) and the JD(S) wanted to have a go at him, and there were willing accomplices within the Congress to make this subterfuge a success.Finally, instead of an electoral battle of great national significance, it became a gang war in Karnataka.
There was another complication that stemmed from the persona of H D Deve Gowda. He has been looked at with suspicion in north Karnataka for decades. As a result, the Congress’ joining hands with the JD(S) made the party vulnerable in what is known as the Hyderabad- and Mumbai-Karnataka districts.
The JD(S) also bargained for seats in places where the Congress had a stronger base, like in Uttara Kannada, Udupi-Chikmagalur and Bijapur. Some suspect this to be a ploy by Gowda, who, in the run-up to the polls, lived in an astrological stupor of returning to the prime minister’s chair. It now appears like Stannis Baratheon’s dreams of becoming the king in the Game of Thrones, provoked by visions of the fire god.
For the BJP, Modi transcended the caste vote in northern and western India. But in Karnataka, it was a strategic accumulation of the caste vote.
In Telangana, the story behind the BJP winning four seats is even more intriguing. What was visible on the surface was a series of political moves by Rao since he swept the December assembly polls, which left the voter confused. The party and its leader looked ambitious, but the narrative he tried to push was neither convincing nor honest.
He had a short dalliance with Modi and cultivated a strident anti-Congress position. Therefore, when he floated the federal front idea, people thought he was doing it at the behest of Modi and the BJP.
He started meeting assorted chieftains of regional outfits with a zeal that surpassed that of Naidu, who was firmly in the anti-Modi camp. So, for a voter in the state, the BJP and the TRS looked like clandestine allies. This perhaps created some space for the BJP and helped it post an impressive vote share of nearly 20%. But still, it was not Hindutva or Modi that cleared the path for the BJP to get four seats, three up from 2014.
If one digs deeper in Telangana, a fascinating story of likely family sabotage emerges. Insiders point to two specific cases: Rao’s daughter K Kavitha, who was fighting to retain her seat from Nizamabad, lost to BJP’s Arvind Dharmapuri by a margin over 70,000 votes; similarly, in Karimnagar, B Vinod Kumar lost to the BJP by nearly 90,000 votes. KCR’s son K T Rama Rao’s Sircilla assembly constituency falls within the contours of the Karimnagar Lok Sabha seat.
Besides, the Congress, which was decimated in the December assembly polls, has picked up three seats. There were no signs of a revival for the party. In fact, nearly two-thirds of its 19 MLAs have defected to the TRS in the past few months.
What then gave the edge to the Congress? If there was a Hindu vote consolidation, how did the Congress gain? It is said the Congress and the BJP got some help in certain constituencies from within the KCR family. It is worth recalling that Naidu had plotted against his father-inlaw, N T Rama Rao, to ascend to power in the 1990s. The game is not unfamiliar to political families in the state. This plot will only thicken in the days to come.
In Naidu's Andhra Pradesh, YS Jaganmohan Reddy¡¦s YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) swept both the LS and Assembly polls. Reddy has a Congress legacy, belongs to a minority community and fought on the agenda of improving the lives of backward castes. His principal opponent was Naidu. Actor Pawan Kalyan's Jana Sena had the CPI, CPI(M) and the BSP as alliance partners. This demonstrates that willy-nilly, all of them were in the anti-BJP front. They worked to eliminate the BJP and Modi as a choice for the voter. This is reflected in the statistics. The BJP, with 0.96% vote share, had less than that of none of the above (Nota), at 1.49%.
The story in Tamil Nadu is much simpler. The BJP, which fought as part of the AIADMK alliance, did not win a single seat. This was the first election in the absence of the two Dravidian titans, J Jayalalithaa and K Karunanidhi. In a state given to hero worship, one had assumed that the Modi cult would fill their absence. But that did not happen. Clearly, Modi's image in the north has not percolated to Tamil Nadu, or for that matter, most of the south.
Although actor-politician Kamal Haasan's comment on Nathuram Godse came a tad late for the Sangh Parivar to take advantage of in the Lok Sabha election, the trumpeting of the Hindutva cause has fallen on deaf ears in the state. In fact, some of the leading Hindutva polemicists in India are from the state, but they have remained a fringe electoral force. This meant voters with an exposure to Periyar's Dravidian ideology would generally keep away from the BJP.
There is another interesting detail in the Tamil Nadu results. MK Stalin's Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-Congress alliance, which picked up all seats but one, is such a diverse gathering that it is a perfect ideological counter to Modi's BJP. The alliance has a Dravidian torchbearer in the DMK, a centrist and centre-left national party in the Congress, two Communist parties, the Indian Union Muslim League as well as the Dalit party Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, social democrats and Tamil nationalists. This is far more ideologically diverse than any other secular coalition that was put together, be it in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Maharashtra. This makes Stalin look like India's true opposition thalapathi (commander), as he is called by his followers.
Finally, Kerala. Here the BJP, despite its sustained ideological investment, has not been able to win a seat. In Thiruvananthapuram, Palakkad, Pathanamthitta and Attingal, the party created a reasonable dividend in terms of vote share. But a victory remained a far cry. In the Ernakulam seat, Alphons Kannanthanam, a minister in Modi's cabinet, even lost his deposit.
Of course, the bigger story in Kerala was the decline of the Left Democratic Front. If one were to explain this through the prism of the Sabarimala temple issue, then it was about the "cultural Hindu" a category that Shashi Tharoor has brandished - who usually swings between the LDF and the Congress-led United Democratic Front. In this election, that group chose the latter. Perhaps they were uncomfortable with the Left's strident position on tradition and faith.
The Left viewed the issue of women's entry to the temple through the lens of gender politics, and thought it would be rewarded by women's votes. But that does not seem to have happened. It was apparent that upper caste, educated women too had reservations about the Supreme Court's intervention. Therefore, the presumption is that the cultural Hindu - including a good size of Ezhavas, Dalits and minorities - trusted the Congress to keep the status quo they desired. The BJP got down to consolidating the Hindu vote, without realising that Nairs and Ezhavas cannot be on the same side of the divide. By default, the party's move became an upper-caste project.
It is often said that there is no countervailing narrative to equal the regression and insularity of what has now become a global nativism project. The idea of Hindu nationalism that surged with the 2019 vote is an extension of this. But ironically, if the south has mostly escaped or resisted this surge, then that is because it has its own multiple nativist projects, like linguistic nationalism, entrenched caste identities, unspoken Dravidian ethnicity, and other sub-plots.
MPs to watch out for-
Karti Chidambaram, 47
CONSTITUENCY: Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu
VICTORY MARGIN: 3.32 lakh In an election which saw the fall of many scions, the son of ex-finance minister P Chidambaram wrested the seat he had lost in 2014. As the CBI probe in Aircel-Maxis and INX Media cases against him continues, many would be looking to see whether he will take the fight against the Modi government to the Lower House.
Pradyut Bordoloi, 59
CONSTITUENCY: Nowgong, Assam
VICTORY MARGIN: 16,752 During Tarun Gogoi’s years as Assam CM (2001-2016), two ministers saw a meteoric rise. One was Himanta Biswa Sarma, who joined the BJP. The other was Bordoloi, who continued to back Gogoi. A JNU alumnus and former power minister, Bordoloi is a rare combination of being suave and astute, and is considered Mr Dependable..
Babul Supriyo, 48
CONSTITUENCY: Asansol, West Bengal
VICTORY MARGIN: 1.98 lakh The playback singer has become BJP’s face in West Bengal where the party has made an astounding headway with 18 seats. The former junior minister may continue to be part of the new Modi government. He is on song right now.
Gautam Gambhir, 37
CONSTITUENCY: East Delhi
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