All BJP needs to enter the South is a political vacuum
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders and activists must be proud on seeing the saffron-splashed map of India. But party president Amit Shah is bound to look at the areas which are not all saffron, namely the south.
The BJP’s vote share has indeed gone up. But, the three states of Tamil Naidu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have been represented strongly by regional parties rooted in a combination of linguistic pride and sub-nationalism, a sense of an evolved culture, distinct movies and a uniquely local flavour of social justice and welfare governance. These factors, in conjunction, proved to be difficult for the BJP to surmount. In these states, the party is still seen as a Hindi party. And being perceived as an upper caste Brahminical party is not an advantage in a Dravidian culture.
Kerala’s leftist orientation and secular outlook have proved to be a deterrence. Karnataka had given the BJP a chance, but the leadership the party provided and the governance it offered left much to be desired.
When Tamil Nadu reeled under protests against a Supreme Court verdict on jallikattu, the BJP was nowhere to be seen. When the Cauvery water disputes erupt, the party was unable to take a position. When a separate Telangana was demanded or when Andhra Pradesh demanded special category status, the BJP did not know how to respond.
It was elated when it found a foothold through the Sabarimala issue in Kerala, and was hoping this, along with its strong Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) network in the state, would lead to it gaining some parliamentary seats. This did not happen, but this was the first real emotive issue which gained the BJP some public traction.
Leaders are created by movements. And it takes smart local leaders to identify potential issues — the BJP has not had a surfeit of these.
Unlike in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, where there are socioeconomic problems which political parties can cash in on, the southern states are relatively well managed.
The various governments here, despite the corruption and caste-riddled sociopolitical contexts, have delivered sound economic growth, jobs opportunities, better infrastructure and welfare that actually reaches people. This has meant that there has never been a strong political vacuum for the BJP to fill.
In the south, leaders like MG Ramachandran, M Karunanidhi, J Jayalalithaa, NT Rama Rao and YS Rajasekhara Reddy held sway over the political narrative, their party and governance; they were in touch with the masses and had a grip on the media giving little scope for a party like the BJP to grow.
The ability of regional parties to support governments at the Centre over the last 25 years has meant that national parties needed them.
For example, when the BJP became the first party to support the cause of Telangana, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) was not even born, but the alliance with N Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) meant it could never push for it locally as long as the central government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee needed the support of the TDP.
A second straight majority for a single party with the hunger, ambition, meticulousness and focus of an Amit Shah, with an icon like Narendra Modi to propel the narrative, offers the BJP a historic opportunity in the south.
MK Stalin and YS Jaganmohan Reddy have both tasted success but are not invulnerable. If Karnataka sees a change of power, it will give the BJP a base camp to expand further south. It will focus on Telangana where it won four seats. In Andhra Pradesh, the TDP’s defeat creates a vacancy for an opposition party.
Despite registering a huge surge in Telangana, with four wins and coming second in several other seats, the BJP is yet to become even the principal opposition to the TRS, and has only one legislator in the 119-seat Assembly. Unless they find a leader to match the stature of K Chandrasekhara Rao in Telangana, or YS Jaganmohan Reddy in Andhra, the party will not be able to make further inroads. The lack of leaders remains a concern even in Tamil Nadu, where MK Stalin has emerged as an undisputed leader in the state. In Karnataka, where it has built a strong cadre, leader base and worked on relevant issues, it has seen a surge in its presence.
It now has a clear opening to move ahead in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh and create a stronger party in Tamil Nadu. It can try to build on its existing vote base in Kerala. The rise of the BJP in the south has been slow, but Amit Shah will welcome the challenge of hastening the pace.
Sriram Karri is an author and columnist
The views expressed are personal