Narendra Modi: The key to the BJP's fortunes in south India?

Speaking at a function in Kochi a few months back, Congress minister Shashi Tharoor threw a question at the BJP which the Opposition party cannot dismiss as vanity of a Twitter celebrity. Not yet at least.

He asked his audience, "From where does the BJP hope to get votes from South India?"

Basking in the glow of his party's win in the Karnataka state election, which officially routed the BJP from all the southern states of India, Tharoor couldn't be accused of exaggeration on this occasion.

The southern states of India have always been BJP's problem area leaving the party to seek not entirely successful partnerships with AIADMK  and the DMK in Tamil Nadu, and the TDP in Andhra Pradesh and banking on their performance. In fact, realising that votes in the southern states will be a challenge for the party, the BJP has even decided to hold more rallies in south India.

As this article in the South Asia Analysis group observes, the BJP's Hindutva ideology failed to find a place in the aggressive, caste and language-specific politics of the Dravidian heartland, especially Tamil Nadu.

The 'Tamil cultural nationalism' propagated by the DMK made it impossible for the BJP to find a toe-hold in the state by itself.

Was Modi's rally in Trichy just a sign of impending rise of BJP? PTI

Was Modi's rally in Trichy just a sign of impending rise of BJP? PTI

However, eventually the party managed to forge not-very-long lasting associations with DMK and also its arch rival AIADMK in the past for state and national polls.

Very recently, the BJP has no stated alliance with any party in Tamil Nadu and the DMK, even after its split from the Congress, is yet to warm up to the idea of an alliance with BJP. Jayalalithaa and the AIADMK has been cosying up to the BJP and the party chief isn't as averse to Modi as many other leaders, but she hasn't committed to anything yet.

Andhra Pradesh had traditionally been a stronghold of the Congress till the TDP managed to make a dent in the party's voter base. Latching on to the TDP, the BJP had increased its presence in the state minimally. Kerala, on the other hand, has remained resistant to the party despite the RSS' having some degree of strength in the state.

The SAA article notes:

Even though the Sangh Parivar floated over two dozen social, cultural and educational organisations from mid sixties, it is yet to make a dent in the electoral politics.

Karnataka, however, was a state that the BJP had managed to wrench out of the Congress' grasp with BS Yedyurappa leading the charge. However, with Yedyurappa's exit, allegations of poor governance, factionalism, rampant corruption and the urban mess that Bangalore turned out to be, the BJP recently was demolished in the state, handing the state over to Congress again.

However, there seems to be some semblance of hope before the upcoming Lok Sabha elections for the BJP. And that is, as expected, Narendra Modi.

An article on the Hindustan Times notes that the only time BJP had some definitive sway on the southern states, despite the language issues, was under the leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee. The article notes:

For a Hindi-speaking BJP, the south has always been a big challenge. Atal Bihari Vajpayee came closest to cracking the problem because he held some appeal for educated middle class non-Hindi speakers.

Interestingly, Modi too has a fair amount of connect already with the same section of voters that Vajpayee had clout over - the educated middle class who were willing to, and could afford, to look beyond the deep seated language and cultural biases of the southern states.

On the other hand, what might play a bigger role in galvanising support for Modi in some parts of the south like Andhra Pradesh is the division of voters in soon-to-be-split state. While Kiran Kumar Reddy, the Congress chief minister is immensely disgruntled by the party high command's decision, the party's MPs joined hands with the TDP in Parliament to protest against the split. As India's political history suggests, party switches in such cases is not an unfamiliar phenomenon.

The YSR Congress, formed by YSR Reddy's family after failing to get their desired share of power within the Congress, has already sounded out their support for Modi. Jagan Reddy has said that he appreciate Modi's developmental agenda though he refused to hint at the possibility of an alliance.

On the other hand, TDP is reportedly in the process of signing an alliance with the BJP in Andhra Pradesh. The last time the TDP and BJP joined hands for the general elections, the NDA came to power in 1999. The TDP had won 29 seats and BJP 7, while the Congress was reduced to a mere 5 seats. The BJP didn't do spectacularly well in any of the south states, except in Karnataka by itself.

What works for Modi probably is the the kind of support that is already there for him among the educated middle class and working professionals in southern states and from southern states, working all over India and abroad.

With a section of the voters already backing Modi boisterously, it will probably be not too difficult for the BJP to make regional bigwigs see potential in alliances with the BJP. The same state parties will help Modi overcome the language hiccup and take his development-for-all poll plank reach the crucial masses who hold the reins of any party's political fortunes.

However, all of this runs the risk of turning out to be all-bluster and no result too for the BJP. Like Firstpost senior editor G Pramod Kumar noted in his piece, the BJP's vote share is negligible in the southern states and will continue to do so.

He says about the Trichy rally:

Unfortunately, this rally and show of strength won’t matter much in terms of alliances or vote-share (in 2011, BJP polled a negligible two per cent) because the party leaders in the state, except a strategy-less Vijayakanth, are veterans of real-politick and last minute camp-changes.

Also, unlike in most other states, Modi's popular rhetoric which has thrown up gems like 'sardar-asardar' and 'damaad ka karobaar' will be struggling to find an audience and win them over.

In the 2004 polls, like this map shows, the BJP was literally erased from the southern states, except Karnataka. BJP will be hoping that the Modi effect has enough power to stop a rerun of the same and more importantly Congress' choice of allies comes a cropper.

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