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After Odisha, BJP sets sights on Andhra, Telangana, TN and Kerala, but will find South a tough nut to crack

Curtains came down on the 'Great BJP Show' in Bhubaneswar on Sunday. But the show will resume three months from now: The party’s next National Executive will be held in the coastal city of Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.

Why Visakhapatnam? No prizes for guessing. After what it deems a successful session of the National Executive in Odisha, the party will shift strategic meetings to the South, beginning with Andhra Pradesh in July.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

At the same time, the party continues to do everything it can to storm into Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, but finds that the challenge is tougher than it had imagined. In Andhra Pradesh, the BJP rides piggyback on its ally, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP).

The other Telugu-speaking state of Telangana is posing a different kind of challenge for the BJP. There, Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao, known as KCR, of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi claims to be more saffron than the BJP — he holds yagnas and the like and indulges temples like some Hindu maharajas of yore. He is now wooing Muslims too with 12 percent reservations and driving BJP leaders up the wall.

In Tamil Nadu, all will depend on how the drama over AIADMK (Amma) honcho TTV Dinakaran (also spelled as Dhinakaran), who is charged with a notes-for-votes scandal and also accused of attempting to bribe the Election Commission will unfold in the coming days. (Note: At the time of writing, Tamil Nadu finance minister D Jayakumar had announced the ouster of Dinakaran and his aunt Sasikala from the party). As for Kerala, where Muslims and Christians together form 45 percent of the population, the BJP gained a toehold in last year’s Assembly election and is not sure of how to turn it into at least a foothold.

But when the going is tough, the tough get going. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah are the toughest of them all, or at least they imagine they are. They know their toughest challenge lies in the two Telugu-speaking sibling states.

A reluctant ally of Telugu Desam

Continuing to ride pillion on an electoral horse will never give a party the reins. The BJP is aware of that. In Andhra Pradesh, the party is now grappling with the same conundrum it faced in the early 1980s in Karnataka when it joined forces with the Janata Dal. Its real growth began only after it went solo, and it took more than two decades for it to come to power in the state.

Andhra Pradesh chief minister and TDP leader Chandrababu Naidu backed NDA at the Centre in 1998 and broke away from it after the 2004 elections. Only a day before polling in 2014, he rejoined it, provoking protests from the cadres of both TDP and the BJP in the state. The same tension continues between local leaders of both parties even now over sundry issues, though TDP has two ministers at the Centre and the BJP has two in the Naidu team.

The BJP is also aware that, in 2014, the difference between the vote shares of TDP and the YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) was a mere 2.6 percent. It also knows that actor Pawan Kalyan, who supported the TDP-BJP alliance and who may have weaned away significant votes from his Kapu community to the combination in 2014, is now attacking both the parties via Twitter. YSRCP, led by YS Jaganmohan Reddy (known as Jagan) is, meanwhile, taking the liberty of spreading stories that the BJP will dump TDP and form an alliance with it. But for now, it is safe to presume that the BJP will continue with TDP and try to do the best it can.

The Andhra Pradesh Assembly will go to the polls in 2019 along with the Lok Sabha elections.

BJP banks on Hindu vote in Telangana

KCR supported the BJP in the 2008 elections, became cool to it later, then began to woo the party after 2014. Having failed in that most recent effort, the party is now taking on the BJP in full blast. Going out of his way to cultivate conservative Hindus by pampering temples and holding yagnas and the like and, at the same time, by indulging Muslims with a 12 percent reservation, the Telangana chief minister is confusing the hell out of the BJP. The BJP will be left with no choice other than to take on the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), which is strong in at least a score of constituencies, attempt to polarise the Hindu vote in its favour and wean away upper castes from KCR.

The Telangana Assembly will go to the polls in 2019 along with the Lok Sabha elections.

Tamil Nadu strategy depends on Dinakaran drama

The BJP is desperate to see a merger between the factions of Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswamy of AIADMK (Amma) and former chief minister O Panneerselvam of AIADMK (Puratchi Thalavi Amma), the latter backed by Sasikala and her nephew Dinakaran.

The BJP was wooing the united AIADMK led by Jayalalithaa for nearly ten years till her death in December 2016. After supporting the NDA and famously backing out in 1998, she was in and out of alliances with the BJP, Congress and Third Front, but remained non-aligned since the 2014 elections. The BJP warmed up to her even more after Modi became prime minister in 2014 and after her death in December 2016, cosied up to her friend Sasikala who seemed like her heiress-obvious.

The realisation that the popularity of scam-tainted Sasikala, who is now in a Bengaluru jail, was limited to some two dozen legislators and didn’t extend to people at large, followed by a split in the AIADMK, was an obvious cause of worry for the BJP. Then came the I-T raids on 7 April on a minister close to Dinakaran, which allegedly proved that he had distributed Rs 89 crore to voters in the run-up to the (later rescinded) RK Nagar by-election. The Delhi Police case against him on Monday added a new twist: He was accused of attempting to bribe the Election Commission to get the united AIADMK’s seized 'two-leaves' symbol for his faction.

All this could lead to a possible merger between the two factions. A reunited AIADMK, minus Sasikala and her family, would be ethically and electorally an ideal entity with which the BJP could align. And it would be naive to believe that the BJP is a mere spectator in his drama — it's a catalyst from outside, if not an agent provocateur from inside.

The Tamil Nadu Assembly went to the polls in May 2016.

Much could depend on Deve Gowda in Karnataka

Last week’s defeats in the Gundlupet and Nanjangud Assembly by-elections might not be a pointer to the outcome of the election to the 224-seat Karnataka Assembly next year, but they are a warning to the BJP that it can’t take a victory in 2018 for granted. Much will depend on, among other things, what Janata Dal (Secular) chief Deve Gowda is up to. Characteristically, he is giving out baffling signals as to whether he will join hands with the Congress.

Besides fathoming the unfathomable Gowda and dealing with him, BJP needs to get its own organisational act together in Karnataka, come up with a credible agenda as an alternative to the directionless administration of the Congress and get its caste matrix right before being reasonably sure about winning. It can’t depend on the Modi magic and defectors from the Congress alone.

On the hunt for partners in Kerala too

The BJP’s defeat in the Malappuram Lok Sabha by-election on Monday was a foregone conclusion. The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a constituent of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), which, in 2014, won the constituency where Muslims form 70 percent of voters, has retained it. But what is somewhat noteworthy is that the BJP’s votes rose by only about 1,000 compared to the 2014 figure. More importantly, its votes dropped by around 8,000 from its 2016 tally in the Assembly segments that come under Malappuram.

Any strategy by the BJP to expand its base in Kerala can’t ignore the backward Ezhavas (23 percent of the population), a good number of whom continue to support the CPM that leads the Left Democratic Front (LDF). The efforts to woo that community by joining forces with an Ezhava outfit last year having failed, the BJP must find other ways to wean them to its side. As in other states, the BJP is also trying desperately to woo some Congress leaders into the party. God’s Own Country will take a long while before it becomes BJP’s own, if it ever does.

The Kerala Assembly went to the polls in May 2016.

The author tweets @sprasadindia

Updated Date: Apr 19, 2017 08:47 AM

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