Opinion: In South, BJP still has a tough road ahead

Kalyani Shankar

After pulling-off a win in the Bihar Assembly election this month, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJJP) is now focusing on South India where two states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and union territory Puducherry, are going for polls early next year.  Elections are scheduled for the states of West Bengal and Assam too. 

Will the BJP achieve its South India goal? Success has been eluding the saffron party as its penetration so far has been only in Karnataka, that too in the coastal area primarily. So far, it has failed in Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala because of historic, religious, social, and ideological reasons.

In Tamil Nadu, the BJP has firmed up its poll alliance with the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (AIADMK). Eyebrows were raised at this early announcement when Tamil Nadu deputy chief minister and party coordinator O. Pannerselvam announced it at a function attended by Union Home Minister Amit Shah. 

Though AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa had a good equation with Prime Minister Modi, she did not go for a tie-up with BJP in the 2016 state polls.  After her demise in 2019, the UPA (led by DMK 23, Congress 8, CPI 2, CPM 2, IUML 1, and VCK 1) won 37 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in the general elections. BJP then had contested with the AIADMK. 

The BJP now wants to piggyback a ride on the AIADMK just as the Congress did in 2019 with the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham), led by M. K. Stalin.  Smaller parties like the DMDK, PMK, VCK and others choose the DMK or AIADMK coalition according to the situation.

The BJP has strengthened its Tamil Nadu unit by appointing Murugan, a lawyer as its chief and has also activated its workers. There has been a recruitment spree in the state since 2014. It has brought to its fold celebrities, bureaucrats, and politicians from other parties. Recently, the actor-turned-politician and Congress spokesperson Khushbu joining the BJP was also a significant event. 

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Why is the BJP unable to make inroads in Tamil Nadu?

First of all the saffron party had no tall leaders to match iconic Dravidian leaders like M.Karunanidhi, J.Jayalalithaa, and M.G.Ramachandran. It is likely to be Modi versus Stalin now. 

Secondly, The BJP is perceived to be a North Indian Brahminical party and the name Brahmin is anathema to Dravidian parties. Third, Tamil Nadu also saw a huge anti-Hindi agitation in the 1960s. Dravidian parties have always opposed any imposition of Hindi and the Modi government is in favor of it. 

Fourth, influenced by the anti-Brahmin movement of the fifties and sixties many caste-based parties like the Vanniyars (dominant in northwest parts of Tamil Nadu), Thevars (dominant in southern Tamil Nadu, in the Madurai belt) and Gounders (in the western Tamil Nadu’s Kongu belt) have sprung up in the last three decades, resulting in the splintering of votes. 

Fifth, the BJP’s stand on conversion to Christianity and its hostility to Islam and religion have no takers in the south. Its polarising tactics won’t work in the South. Sixth, new parties have sprung up with two untested superstars – Kamal Hasan and Rajnikant on the horizon.

The DMK chief M.K. Stalin has been making poll preparations for some months and has already announced an alliance with the Congress. TN has always alternated between the DMK and AIADMK, and now, the former is likely to return to power. Only in 2016, the AIADMK got a second term. 

The neighbouring Puducherry often reflects Tamil Nadu politics. 

Puducherry is a small Union Territory and has just one seat in Lok Sabha, which is currently held by the Congress. 

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Kerala, a different story

Kerala is a different story altogether for the BJP. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led UDF alternate in power. The next turn to win is for the UDF. The BJP has not been able to penetrate much despite the good work done by the RSS. 

Further, Kerala’s electorate consists of a sizeable number of Christians and Muslims. This was a result of the social reform movement led by Narayana Guru. They remain non-BJP voters. In the 2019 general electons, the UDF posted a landslide victory winning 19 of the 20 seats while the LDF won just one seat and the BJP nil. The RSS tried to mobilize on the Sabarimala issue but the counter mobilization presented an effective alternative control.

With more literate voters, Kerala alternates between the communists or anti-communists, in its case the Congress. The BJP is seeing slow growth. While the minority communities in the state have successfully ensured the protection of their respective cultures, the Hindu community has relentlessly ceded its own cultural space. The BJP is taking advantage of it. 

Also, the BJP is facing factionalism in Kerala. The RSS has also cautioned the central leadership that the friction in the state unit could impact the performance in the polls. Kerala was also lauded in containing the spread of Covid. A few months ago it looked as if the LDF could return to power but that came to a screeching halt in July after the CM’s office’s alleged involvement in a gold smuggling scam. 

Kalyani Shankar is a seasoned journalist who has worked, among other organisations, with Hindustan Times. She is based in New Delhi. Views expressed are personal. 

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