India’s political parties must focus on North-South convergence
Last week, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Puducherry came together to oppose the Terms of Reference (TOR) for the 15th Finance Commission. The TOR suggests that the Commission take into account the 2011 census, rather than the 1971 census, while framing its recommendations. Southern governments allege that this will end up penalising them for better governance and population control, reduce their share of the revenue, and thus reflects an ‘anti-federal’, pro-north bias of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre.
The fact that all the four finance ministers who met represented parties opposed to the Centre – the Congress in Puducherry and Karanataka, the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala - gives the move a distinct political flavour. And the fact that the two states, which did not send senior political representatives - Tamil Nadu and Telangana - are run by parties seen as friendly to BJP is further evidence that party politics is an important variable in this battle.
But it would be a mistake to see the churn in the South as merely dictated by tactical political compulsions.
In Karnataka, the Congress - in a rare move for a national party - has adopted a strong sub-national political platform, emphasising a distinct flag and strongly asserting and promoting the use of Kannada.
In Andhra Pradesh, the TDP may have walked out of the the NDA, but it has framed the split in the vocabulary of regional pride, the injustice that has been meted out to the state, the betrayal by the Delhi establishment and the entire political class. The other party in the state, YSR Congress, uses the same language and the competitive politics of Andhra Pradesh is about who can take a more radical position against the Centre.
In Kerala, there has been a strong resistance to what has been seen as a possible attempt to impose food norms of the North, particularly with regard to beef.
And, most sharply, in Tamil Nadu, there is a strong political discourse around the need to resist the North; protect the Tamil language; ensure that a northern party is not able to penetrate the state, with even suggestions by new political actors that the southern states unite under a unified Dravidian identity.
What’s going on?
The answer to what is happening in the South perhaps lies in the North - and the remarkable political expansion of the BJP. The BJP has been able to cross every barrier but one.
It was seen as a purely urban party - but it expanded and won over substantial rural areas in north, central and west India. It was seen a merely middle class party - but it has been able to win the vote of the poor in multiple elections and now its key political plank is welfare. It was seen as an upper caste party - but it has won the votes of backward and Dalits even though this remains fragile. It was perceived as merely as cow-belt or Hindi heartland party - but it has been successful in the most unlikely of regions, the northeast, winning election after election.
But the BJP has failed to make headway in the south - and it may have in fact contributed to the alienation of parts of the South.
Take the top leadership. Barring a few exceptions, the key decision-makers in both the party and the government - Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh - are not from the South. In terms of larger political representation, the fact that a majority of the Members of Parliament from the party are from northern, central and western states means that voices which could have alerted the leadership to the sensitivities in the South are missing. The fact that the party - barring Karnataka - does not have strong regional leaders means that the feedback from below is limited.
Take the larger ideological framework. It is to the BJP’s credit that it has adapted and been flexible and broken its exclusivist image in the North. But the party’s emphasis on uniformity - as a key of nationalism - often clouds the respect for diversity. And southern states, with their distinct traditions, languages, political history, social movements, tend to react to this push for uniformity strongly. There is a history to it. States like Tamil Nadu have seen a strong secessionist movement; the politics of Andhra Pradesh changed with the rise of NT Rama Rao purely on the plank of Andhra pride. Do remember the fragile compact on the language policy that was arrived at after much unrest and agitation in the early decades after Independence. Any push at uniformity will draw a backlash. And the BJP continues to carry the baggage of being seen as a party of Hindus and Hindi speakers even if this is not entirely true anymore. Insensitive comments by its leaders - like the claim that it would vandalise statues of Periyar - only confirm the worst suspicions.
Take imagery. The BJP’s icons (Syama Prasad Mookerjee or Deen Dayal Upadhyay), the ones it has sought to appropriate (be it a Sardar Patel or Babasaheb Ambedkar), its language (leaders speak entirely in Hindi even during state campaigns as we are seeing in Karnataka) do not reflect the richness of the South. And this often means that citizens cannot often relate to it.
So here we have a paradox.
There is an almost hegemonic party ruling the Centre and in power in 21 states. Yet, it is not in power in any of the five southern states and one Union territory - and we have to wait till the Karnataka elections to see if it changes. This is a party that has very strongly appropriated the nationalism platform. But it is facing a potentially strong sub- nationalist political reaction from south.
If the implications were just confined to the fortunes of one party or the other, it would not have mattered. But India cannot, and must not, forget how deep identity cleavages have often jeopardised its growth and stability. If the divide between the Centre and the South, or the North and South, grows, it will have implications for the federal structure, for the constitutional order, for political stability, for economic growth and for national unity. Instead of divergence, India’s parties across the divide must focus on convergence.