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Why Modi is hopeful of southern comfort this time

The south has not been a blind spot for the saffron party, but it has made little headway. BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi spent time and energy on cobbling up respectable alliances in the south and succeeded in all but Kerala.

india Updated: May 14, 2014 01:09 IST
Viju Cherian

For a long time now the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been considered a ‘Hindi heartland’ party with little electoral significance south of the Vindhyas, Karnataka being the odd exception.

Together, the four southern states — Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala — have 129 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats. The south has not been a blind spot for the saffron party, but it has made little headway.

The party and its prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi spent time and energy on cobbling up respectable alliances in the south and succeeded in all but Kerala.

Exit polls show this focus on the south will pay dividends for the BJP even as they project it as the runaway winner of the Lok Sabha polls.

Importance of going south

Looking at data (see table) since the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, it is evident that a good show in the four states has helped the Congress in forming a government in New Delhi.

In 1991, after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in Tamil Nadu (a day after the first round of polling), the Congress won 89 seats from the four states.

In 1996, 1998 and in 1999, however, it put up a poor show with 34, 39 and 33 seats and could not form the government.

In 2004, the tally rose to 47 and in 2009 it was 60, helping it form the UPA 1 and UPA 2.

For the BJP, on the contrary, its numbers from the south have not really helped its cause in New Delhi. This is also because the party has got its numbers from central and western India — and not much from the south.

In 1991 it won five of the 129 seats and notched one more in 1996.

In 1998, thanks to a good show in Karnataka, it won 20 seats from the four states. Till date, this remains its best tally.

In 1999 and 2004 it won 18 seats each and in 2009 it was 19. In the last two elections, the numbers have come entirely from Karnataka.

The BJP’s presence varies in these four states and the electoral returns too have been varied.

Andhra Pradesh (42 seats)

Andhra Pradesh used to be a Congress bastion until NT Rama Rao’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) arrived in 1983. Since then, both the parties have been dominating the political space between themselves.

In 1991, the BJP marked its entry into the state, with Bandaru Dattatreya winning the Secunderabad Lok Sabha seat.

While in the following election the BJP hit zilch, in 1998 it won four seats. In 1999 it won seven seats (in alliance with the TDP). However, in 2004 and 2009, the BJP could not win a seat and was not in alliance with the TDP, which cited the 2002 Godhra riots, to move away from the NDA.

The state’s political contours have changed with the decision to carve out Telangana. What’s more, TDP leader N Chandrababu Naidu has returned to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The alliance is tipped to make a mark in Seemandhra (a term used for jointly referring to coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema regions).

Tamil Nadu (39 seats)

The Dravidian politics of the DMK and the AIADMK and the anti-Hindi rhetoric of the regional parties have for long ensured that the BJP is relegated to the margins of the electoral spectrum in Tamil Nadu.

The BJP, by the mid-90s, realised the importance of striking alliances with the regional heavyweights. While parties such as the DMK, AIADMK, MDMK and the PMK continued with their anti-Hindi stand in the state, they found nothing wrong in joining hands with the BJP nationally.

The BJP opened its account in the state in 1998 in alliance with J Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK and won three seats. That year, the Congress was decimated in the state.

The following year, the saffron party formed an alliance with the DMK and won four seats.

This election, the BJP has formed a five-party alliance and is expecting to win a few seats.

Karnataka (28 seats)

The BJP has maintained a presence in the state since the 1991 elections. This is mainly because the saffron party occupied a political vacuum created by a declining Janata Dal and an infighting-ridden Congress.

Also, the implementation of the Mandal Commission report alienated the predominant upper castes, who veered towards the BJP.

While the JD (Secular) has managed to pull back much of its lost ground, the BJP is no longer a pushover. From the 1991 Lok Sabha polls, in which the BJP won four seats, the party has been a strong contender: six in 1996, 13 in 1998, seven in 1999, 18 in 2004 and 19 in 2009.

In the 2008 assembly polls the BJP formed its first government in the south. However, it lost the 2013 assembly elections to the Congress.

Now, the BJP has got its hopes high, going in for damage control and bringing back former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa and B Sriramulu.

Kerala (20 seats)

The Hindu nationalist Sangh parivar has had a presence in Kerala from the 1940s, but the BJP is yet to win a Lok Sabha seat in the state.

The state has a considerable percentage of Muslims and Christians, but the main reason for the BJP’s lack of footprint is seen to be its failure to unite Hindu groups.

O Rajagopal, who is contesting from Thiruvananthapuram, is the most prominent face of the party in Kerala. He is contesting against sitting MP and Union minister Shashi Tharoor.

It is to be seen if Rajagopal will be third time lucky (he contested in 1991 and 1999 from Thiruvananthapuram but lost).

Seeds for the future

The 2014 elections saw the BJP, like never before, focus on the four southern states. The party may not win many seats on its own, but there is a likelihood of its vote share going up.

The BJP, however, will still be a long way off from being a major party in the south, and in that sense, remain a ‘north Indian’ party. But the party has sown the seeds this election and its growth will depend on the nurturing ahead.