It is not that the 14 February tragedy at Pulwama and the subsequent air strikes do not electorally matter in the southern states. It certainly does evoke emotions, but the language of jingoistic Hindu nationalism is lost in translation in large parts of south India, and hence it is not as potent an electoral weapon for the BJP as it is north India.
The presence of strong regional parties that have thrived on powerful linguistic identities makes for a stronger barrier to the BJP’s Hindu nationalist narrative, and the idea of India falls into a uniquely state-specific regional prism, in each of the five southern states and one union territory.
Given that Prime Minister Modi and the BJP itself have only a limited appeal, the elections will boil down to arithmetic, alliances and economic and social issues in the 130 parliamentary seats that are spread over Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry.
In 2014, the BJP won 21 of the 130, and 17 of those came from Karnataka, the only state in south India where the BJP has a dominant presence, and wins seats on its own without an ally. Among the rest, the party won 3 from an undivided Andhra Pradesh – 2 from Andhra and 1 from the Telangana region – where it had an alliance with the TDP – and 1 in Tamil Nadu.
Tamil Nadu: BJP Not Likely to Make Any Gains
This is the only southern state in which the BJP is part of an alliance. Its hopes here hinge on the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK).
In 2014, the BJP went with the PMK and DMDK and a couple of other regional parties, but seemed to have had the tacit backing of the AIADMK in the lone seat that it won – Kanyakumari. While it has the AIADMK openly in 2019, the late Jayalalithaa’s party is only a shadow of its former self after her demise.
BJP by itself will contest in just 5 seats. Given that there is severe anti-incumbency against the AIADMK and the party is split into two factions, it may not be able to bolster the BJP even in the Kanyakumari seat.
Further, opinion polls have shown that Tamil Nadu has had the strongest anti-Modi sentiment in the country and that makes the going tougher for it.
It certainly doesn’t seem to be in a position to make any gains in Tamil Nadu, but its lone seat from the state is certainly under threat.
Kerala: Tough Fight for BJP Amid Left & Congress-Led Fronts
Given that Kerala is firmly polarised between the Left and Congress-led fronts, the BJP has managed to put up a show only in the Thiruvananthapuram parliamentary seat. In 2014, BJP’s candidate O Rajagopal fought hard but lost the seat by a narrow 15,000-vote margin to Congress’s Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor.
The party will give it its best shot here, but it remains a difficult battle, especially as the Left and the Congress now seem to have an understanding to defeat the BJP at the national level, and they may have a tacit understanding at the local level.
Andhra & Telangana: BJP Has Never Won a Seat Sans TDP Alliance
In both these states the BJP has never won a seat without an alliance with the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), and in 2019 it has lost the most dependable southern ally it had. However, unlike in the past, the TDP is restricted only to the 25 seats in Andhra Pradesh, and seems to have lost all relevance in 17 seats of Telangana, where the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) holds sway.
Firstly, the main opponent to the TDP in Andhra, YSR Congress leader Jagan Mohan Reddy, has stayed away from any open alliance with the BJP. Though he may be seen as a possible BJP ally in a post poll scenario, the fact that it has no ally in Andhra means the BJP is out of the race and may not have a chance in the 2 seats it won in 2014.
In Telangana, the BJP’s Bandaru Dattatreya has won the Secunderabad constituency four times in the past, but only as a TDP ally. While the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti is seen to have a tacit understanding with the BJP, there is no open alliance and that could mean that the lone seat may be under threat.
Karnataka: BJP to Face Cong-JDS Duo in Its Bastion For the First Time
In the last three parliamentary elections, the BJP has been the dominant party by a huge margin in the state, and won 18, 19 and 17 of the 28 seats in 2004, 09 and 14 respectively. However, it will, for the first time, face a Congress-JD(S) alliance and this is why the grassroots arithmetic is shaky for the BJP.
Firstly, the BJP has won by a margin of close to a lakh or more votes in 10 of the 28 constituencies in 2014, and these seats are seen as “safe” BJP seats. A majority of the remaining 18 were a Congress versus BJP battle with the JD(S) in third place, and in the rest it was a Congress versus JD(S) battle, with the BJP as a distant third.
In effect, while the Congress is spread out across the state, the BJP is confined to less than 25 seats, and in the remaining seats, like Mandya, Hassan or Kolar in the old Mysuru region, the Congress fights the JD(S) with the BJP at a distant third. This why the Congress vote shares may be close to the BJP and sometimes even more, but in terms of number of seats, the Congress has been stuck with single digits.
In Karnataka, Cong-JDS Could Seriously Dent BJP’s Numbers
As a regional party with a concentrated caste base, the JD(S) had only polled around 11 to 13 percent vote in the last three parliamentary elections and ended up with a maximum of 3 seats. It won only 2 seats in 2014. However, in successive assembly elections, the JD(S) has polled 18 percent votes or above.
This suggests that the JD(S) has shown weaker appeal in a national election where, as a small regional party, it doesn’t have high stakes. However, as a part of a Congress alliance, it could well get a boost in 2019 and galvanize its caste base to improve its parliamentary poll vote shares, and take it closer to its assembly poll performances.
Even if it maintains its 2014 vote shares, the combined vote of the JD(S) and Congress could well be daunting for the BJP in about 18 seats. The recent by-elections, when the Congress wrested the Ballari seat from the BJP, is an example of the power that a JD(S)-Congress alliance has on the ground.
If the arithmetic works out on the ground like it does on paper then the BJP may stay ahead only in its stronghold, by a smaller margin, and the Congress and JD(S) can make a serious dent to the BJP numbers.
In the final analysis, the BJP, by itself, is on a weak southern wicket and may well end up with less than half what it won in 2014. However, it could have potential post poll allies from regional forces, especially from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
(The writer is an independent journalist. He can be reached @TMVRaghav . This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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