Imagine you are a contestant on a Kaun Banega Crorepati type of programme. The question to you is — which of these is a nationally popular BJP leader from the south. Your options are: a) Venkaiah Naidu b) Jagadish Shettar c) Neither of the two. If you chose c, chances are that you could move to the next level.
Venkaiah Naidu, by all accounts a good host and known for his tempting Andhra fare, is a genial sort, but not a politician who is either well-known or has the ability to make opponents run for cover. We would never have heard of Jagadish Shettar had he not by a curious turn of circumstances become chief minister of Karnataka, one more person on the carousel operated by the BJP leadership in Delhi.
Like a deer caught in the headlights, the BJP in Karnataka waited patiently in the middle of the road till it was run over. Now that it has been decimated, it can take cold comfort in the fact that this was actually not a vote in favour of the Congress but rather a vote against the BJP. Either way, the BJP is up the creek without a paddle. Now that it has lost its bastion in Karnataka, thanks entirely to its own gross corruption and misgovernance, it will have to start from scratch to make itself relevant in the south.
The BJP leadership, whether it likes this or not, it still largely dominated by the north. The RSS, which controls the levers of the party, is controlled by northerners. Quite simply, the BJP has no leader around whom the party can coalesce in the south. No doubt, high voltage leaders like Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi drew crowds, but people are wise to the fact that on the ground, the BJP has no one who can deliver the goods.
The BJP needs to get more than a foothold in the south if it hopes to come up trumps in the next general elections. If it does not, it must do extraordinarily well in the north, east and west to be able to make a claim to form the government. As of now, it must depend on allies to make a dent in the south. In Kerala, for example, a few of the top BJP leaders may find some resonance. But can you tell me one BJP leader from Kerala who would have some recall in other parts of the country? The Congress, by comparison, has several beginning with the less than articulate defence minister AK Antony to the ebullient minister of state for human resource development Shashi Tharoor to name but a very few.
Let us move on to Tamil Nadu then, a huge state which has a considerable number of MPs in Parliament. Do we see the BJP on the horizon? No, if it has to have any presence there, it must cosy up to seriously unpredictable allies like the AIADMK’s J Jayalalithaa or the less than stable DMK. In both scenarios, the BJP is not going to be in the driver’s seat. In Andhra Pradesh the BJP is not really sought after, rather the battlelines are drawn between the Congress and breakaways like the YSR Congress with the Telugu Desam Party circling the two. Again, the BJP’s fate lies in a propitious alliance. While people like the TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu, even a relative newcomer like Jaganmohan Reddy have some national brand value, all the BJP has is dear old Venkaiah which really does not amount to a hill of beans.
The BJP leadership has erred very badly, as I see it, in not building up leaders in the south. The BJP has been a party of governance at the Centre. It has relied far too much, to its detriment, on the dictates of the RSS, which is seemingly blind to the south. One of the BJP’s trump cards, which it pulls out whenever it is pushed to the wall, the Ram temple, has no takers in the south. So, really the party needs to reinvent its agenda to make itself relevant in the southern states. It was and still is perceived as a northern party comprising largely Hindi speakers. To her credit, Sushma Swaraj is said to have learnt Kannada when she once stood for election from Karnataka.
The BJP wasted a great deal of time under the unproductive leadership of Nitin Gadkari, who had a heck of time proving that he himself was relevant to the party until he was snowed under by the weight of allegations of corruption. In comparison, the Congress president seems to have control over her party and is a well-known figure across the country. Now the BJP has transitioned to Rajnath Singh, again a relative unknown beyond the Hindi belt. He did his best to save the situation in Karnataka but he neither had the stature nor the imagination to make things work. He too seemed to have fallen for the theory that the party could export its stars like Modi to stem the tide. This failed and will fail again.
The party is famous for its chintan baithaks. Perhaps, now would be good time for the leadership to mull over how to plug the very glaring loopholes in its presence across the country. This perhaps is also the time when the BJP will most miss someone like former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who was the last truly national leader the party had.