A seat in the south for Modi

Will it be Kanyakumari, Ramanathapuram or Thiruvananthapuram?

Is the BJP going south? A hackneyed news headline, you’d say. All of us in the print and visual media, and our wayward younger brothers on the social media, have been headlining so for the past nine years.

Apologies! I didn’t mean the line literally, but figuratively. ‘Going south’ also means ‘being on the decline’.

Before brigades of bhakts pounce on me, allow me a bit of linguistic indulgence. No one is sure of how the usage began. A few tongue-tracers say, it started from some Red Indian mumbo-jumbo by which ‘going south’ meant facing death or misfortune.

Why Red Indians? We brown Indians, too, have similar beliefs about the dakshina disha in lakshana sastras. In Agastya’s Ramayan, when Khara asks Shurpanakha as to what had happened to the 14 demons whom he had sent to slay Ram and Lakshman, she says the brothers had packed them off to the south.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

My hunch about the idiom is more prosaic, and many linguists would agree—that it had its origins in the modern world of cartography and corporate governance. Since the south is shown at the bottom in maps, and since profit charts were hung like maps in boardrooms, falling fortunes came to be described as going south.

Let’s leave linguistics, lakshana sastras, cartography and corporate affairs; let’s talk politics.

The BJP is going strong in the north, the northeast, and the west, but its leaders feel the party had peaked in these regions long ago. All the seats that are available and possible are already in the bag, save perhaps a few in the east. So, if the party doesn’t go southward literally and geographically, it may go southward figuratively.

But where in the south? Much of the marches stretching from the Vindhyas till the shrine of the Virgin Goddess at land’s end is virgin territory for the BJP. Indeed it has 25 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats from Karnataka and four of the 17 from Telangana, but the recent assembly polls have hinted that those can’t be taken for granted. The rest of the south, where Stalin, Jagan and Vijayan are ruling the roost, is to the BJP what Mount Rishyamooka was to Vali—forbidden territory. No curse from any rishi, but there seems to be a bad spell that the party has to break.

The party has been trying to break the spell with Gangajal—stressing on the cultural and political motifs that point to civilisational links and shared heritage. Thus we saw a month-long Kashi-Tamil Sangamam last November in Narendra Modi’s own Varanasi, followed by a Saurashtra-Tamil Sangamam, then a Kashi-Telugu Sangamam, and finally a re-enactment of the sceptre ritual of 1947 as a state ceremony of 2023.

But even those don’t seem to be enough. The latest thinking is said to be to field Modi, the party’s champion vote-catcher, somewhere in the south. But where?

Bets are on three seats—Ramanathapuram and Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, and Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. All three have the right religio-cultural elements for a Modi to work his electoral magic. Ramanathapuram hosts one of the 12 jyotirlingas at Rameswaram, and overlooks the fabled Ram Setu. The Kanyakumari seat is at Bharat Mata’s feet, where the Virgin Goddess is enshrined guarding the southern frontiers of Bharat Varsha, and is sanctified with a rock where another Narendra performed a tapasya for India’s redemption. Thiruvananthapuram hosts the great Vishnu shrine, whose untouched riches speak of a line of selfless rulers who ruled as servants of the divine.

Think of the spell of electoral eloquence that a leader like Modi can cast all around the region.