BJP Needs a Regional Tweak to Win in South India After Karnataka Setback

Puja Menon
The fall of BS Yeddyurappa’s two-day government in Karnataka has given bragging rights to BJP critics in south India. That the land below the Vindhyas remains BJP-mukt. The non-saffron colour of the stretch from Kerala to West Bengal will not amuse the Modi-Shah duo one bit.

By 1:30 pm on May 15, O Panneerselvam was ecstatic. Tamil Nadu's deputy chief minister shot off two letters — to Narendra Modi and Amit Shah — congratulating them on the “resounding victory” of the BJP in Karnataka. In his excitement, OPS was verbose, describing the win as “bellwethering a grand entry to South India” and “adding another feather in your cap of glory”.

OPS has subsequently been silent on the BJP's failure to cobble up the numbers. Panneerselvam would know the agony of not managing to poach. He went through similar angst in February 2017 when Sasikala and company locked up their AIADMK legislators at a resort outside Chennai, ensuring OPS even with the backing of the BJP, could not manage the numbers.

The fall of BS Yeddyurappa’s two-day government in Karnataka has given bragging rights to BJP critics in south India. That the land below the Vindhyas remains BJP-mukt. The non-saffron colour of the stretch from Kerala to West Bengal will not amuse the Modi-Shah duo one bit.

On the other hand, their political rivals in the Deccan would like to believe these 130 Lok Sabha seats will halt the Modi juggernaut in 2019.

On Wednesday, when HD Kumaraswamy takes oath as Chief Minister, many regional satraps and chief ministers from south India will be in attendance. Among them Chandrababu Naidu, K Chandrashekar Rao, MK Stalin, Pinarayi Vijayan, V Narayanasamy. The biggest takeaway of the Karnataka election is that 2019 in south India will be largely led by regional satraps with the Congress forced to play a supporting role except in pockets.

But it is not as if all is lost for the BJP in south India. It needs to tweak its strategy because it no longer will be able to make 2019 into a presidential contest between Modi and Rahul Gandhi because the Congress president will not be the main player in these parts. South India then will be about several regional and local elections under the umbrella of a national election.

What will be the BJP's strategy going forward? One, to admit that their popularity has taken a nosedive in many states in the south. In Andhra, for the manner in which it did not honour the promise to give special category status despite a personal assurance by Modi. In Tamil Nadu, for the way it has remote controlled the AIADMK, using agencies to keep the regional outfit under check. In Kerala, for unleashing leaders from north India taunting the state and asking it to learn from an Uttar Pradesh on how to manage its hospitals. In Puducherry for encouraging a Kiran Bedi to put roadblocks for the Narayanasamy regime. And in Karnataka for believing that it was okay to “buy or intimidate” a few MLAs to get a clear majority, denting its zero tolerance to corruption slogan.

Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are going to be two key states for the BJP where it can hope to win a few Lok Sabha seats. But for that, it will need to respect the Tamilian sentiment. The manner in which it delayed submitting the draft scheme to the Supreme Court over Cauvery, showed that the BJP was interested only in securing Karnataka. By denying an audience to the state over Cauvery — be it the elected representatives or the protesting farmers — the BJP has only demonstrated its scant disregard for what Tamil Nadu thinks. It reflected in the RK Nagar bypoll result where the BJP polled less votes than NOTA.

What makes it worse is BJP leader H Raja’s hypocrisy. He points out that Kumaraswamy has promised not to form the Cauvery Management Board in his party manifesto and Stalin's congratulations to him shows the anti-Tamil stand on Cauvery issue. Now that Karnataka is done with, expect the BJP to veer towards Tamil Nadu with 2019 on the radar but such crocodile tears are unlikely to help its cause.

In addition to an alliance with the AIADMK, the Rajinikanth option exists for the BJP given his friendship with Modi. But the superstar cannot be a full-time politician while being a full-time actor. His call sheet approach to politics will not help the BJP, more so when like Prakash Raj in Karnataka, an articulate Kamal Haasan will be punching holes in the BJP's narrative in Tamil Nadu.

In Karnataka, the BJP will expect that in a year from now, the honeymoon between the JD(S) and the Congress will be over, allowing them to exploit their differences. The BJP apparatus is strong in Karnataka and its karyakartas would be licking their wounds at being cheated of their chance to be in power. Expect them to put their best foot forward in 2019.

The situation is complicated in Andhra. But it is pretty evident a tacit understanding is being worked out with Jaganmohan Reddy's YSR Congress. Jagan cannot ally openly with the BJP thanks to the latter's unpopularity but expect him to put up a feeble fight in a few Lok Sabha seats in order to help the BJP wrest them.

Naidu played a part in ensuring the BJP did not cross the 112 mark by making his Telugu Desam cadre canvass among the Telugu population in Karnataka, asking them not to vote for the saffron party. But his holier-than-thou tweets, castigating the Karnataka governor and the BJP and claiming he is “a firm believer in democracy'” reeked of hypocrisy. Because in his backyard, Naidu finds nothing wrong in poaching 21 YSR Congress legislators, even making four of them ministers, in complete violation of the anti-defection law. The Karnataka developments has shown many of the politicians as having feet of clay.

(Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)