The trajectory and tenor of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s southward push is going to be a striking subtext of the party’s journey over the next few years. But this isn’t because of its national executive meeting in Telangana last year, or because of its resolution on the party’s growth.
Instead, it flows from a stage in the BJP’s evolution where its tenacious search for further spread has pointed towards the challenge of making serious inroads into the southern parts of the country.
In competitive politics, the party’s political mobilisation in the south is a significant part of its ongoing and long-term expansion – even if it’s an emerging theme in the BJP’s regional and national roadmap. This could have electoral and ideological implications, and also entails adjustments made on both counts as the BJP sets eyes on the south.
More significantly, the years to come will see how the party will respond to regional variants, how it will weave that response into its national tapestry, and perhaps an interplay between the two.
The five states – Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu – pose different challenges for the BJP. But the party knows how to sniff out a chance to extend its sway in each one of them. Apart from consolidating its support base in Karnataka, where it made a successful foray and became important enough to be in power, the BJP has been working on different ways to become a force to reckon with in the politics of other southern states, where it’s electorally a marginal player. With limited political presence, the BJP knows it has to play a long game to extend its political turf.
By recalibrating its ideological offerings and strategic outlook for the region, however, the BJP will also figure out how specificities fit into the larger frame of Hindutva politics. It will also see how a configuration of social caste groups might leave the door open for new social alliances and power equations.
These aspects were important in shaping the BJP’s strong political presence in Karnataka – an outlier in terms of the party’s heft in southern India. But state-specific politics in the region limit the replication of what political analyst Nalin Mehta calls the party’s “Karnataka formula” in his book The New BJP. In its current approach to the region, the party has grasped this with patience while, at the same time, being alert to broad signals that allow its Hindutva pitch in a southern context.
Last year, scholar Hilal Ahmed had that enthuse the party in its southward spread. Some of these indicators, as registered in a study by the Pew Research Centre, give clues to the BJP’s tenacity in crafting an ideological alignment in the light of identity markers in the region. In a way, they show how Hindutva’s overarching ideological fold can accommodate its southern variant, a form of ideological customisation.
As Ahmed wrote, the BJP is “keen to redefine Hindutva in the specific context of southern Indian Hindu religiosity. Unlike north India, the party seems to evoke a region-specific Hindu identity to accommodate linguistic plurality in its fold”.
For a regional alignment with a Hindutva vision, the party might use cultural symbols and historical memory. For example, Ahmed recounts how prime minister Narendra Modi addressed Hyderabad as “Bhagyanagar” at the national executive meet held there.
Moreover, the party is hopeful of leveraging Hindu identity politics in the long run as that space has been unattended. The Pew study said 42 percent of respondents from south India believe being Hindu is crucial to the idea of being Indian. This figure is significant even though it’s lower than the 69 percent support from north India. Additionally, the study found 27 percent approval among south Indian respondents for speaking Hindi as a marker of national identity. It’s a modest figure but it shows a softening of the rigid faultline of Hindi in the north-south divide. Significantly, while pitching itself in this space, the BJP will not find many organised political forces in the region that are willing to build on such attitudes.
But that by no means chips away from the fact that the electoral challenge facing the BJP is daunting. The five states and Puducherry account for 130 Lok Sabha seats – almost one-fifth of the Lok Sabha’s strength. In 2014, the party won only 21 seats in these areas, just 16.1 percent of seats in the region. In 2019, this went up marginally to 29 seats or 22.3 percent. At the same time, the BJP is aware that to extend its ideological footprint, a better electoral showing in the south will help it cut possible losses in the northern, western and eastern parts of the country.
In fact, in the pre-2014 scenario, the BJPs allies in the south – TDP in undivided Andhra Pradesh, and DMK and AIADMK at different points of time in Tamil Nadu – were crucial to its road to power in the late 1990s. Their defeat in their home states also contributed to the BJP’s loss of power in the centre in 2004. That, however, was an alliance era. Depending on allies might have made things simpler for a less ambitious BJP but it also slowed down its growth in the region.
As Mehta points out, the BJP’s alliance with the TDP may have held back its expansion in Andhra and what is now Telangana. Far from ceding a lot of space to political allies, theBJP now seems to want to play a longer waiting game to chart its own course.
In the south, its serious electoral forays began as late as the Nineties, even its mobilisation efforts can be traced back earlier. In Karnataka, the party won a majority of Lok Sabha seats in the last four parliamentary polls. Karnataka is also the only state where the BJP has done well enough in state polls to come to power. In his study of the party’s rise to power in Karnataka, Mehta points out that reconfiguring the support base among electorally significant caste groups and new social equations played a crucial role, and the BJP could build on it.
It was further helped by the emergence of pan-state leaders like YS Yediyurappa and Anant Kumar, who helped political mobilisation and strategic consolidation, even if their rivalry caused inner party rifts. Moreover, linguistic identity rigidities were not a big roadblock for the BJP in Karnataka – a state that is more bilingual than other southern states and which is more accommodating of people not speaking the native tongue. The last decades also saw flashpoints like the Idgah maidan issue in Hubli that helped the party pitch its ideological view for political mobilisation.
It’s a tough ask to replicate this combination of specific factors in other states, and the BJP is well aware of this divergence. It may have missed a chance to politically leverage the reordering of power equations among caste groups in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. But its late efforts saw it win four Lok Sabha seats in Telangana in 2019, and it has been contesting all polls in the state – from civic to assembly – with renewed vigour.
In Tamil Nadu, the bipartisan power equations among the two Dravidian parties and the political strands of Dravidian ideology has left a small opening for an ideological counter and an effective opposition space. This is accentuated by perceptions on the stagnation of Dravidian politics in the state. Of course, that doesn’t imply that the BJP has an immediate opportunity to make a dent or challenge the “Periyar consensus” in the state. But the BJP’s gains in Tamil Nadu’s municipal and panchayat polls will reinforce its efforts to play a tenacious, long game.
In Kerala, while the party has negligible electoral heft, it has an organisational base working on mobilisation. As a counter to the LDF-UDF bipartisan politics of the state, the BJP sees an opportunity to rework the power channels of the state’s social configuration as well as offer a model beyond the fatigue of the Left’s transformative claims.
The BJP’s southward push is as much an ambitious effort to enlarge its ideological catchment as much as its need to extend its electoral penetration. In a marked difference from the past, the party now seems more inclined to wait it out rather than rely solely on allies in crafting state-specific, strategic, ideological adjustments. In the process, it faces different challenges in each state, except Karnataka, such as entrenched regional parties, rigid linguistic identities, and its lack of towering state leadership. This decade will be witness to the party’s gradual grind in making serious inroads into the southern frontier of its nationalist project.
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