Lok Sabha polls: The hottest battle this election season is in south India

BJP wants to prove pan-India appeal

PTI04_10_2024_000100B Spreading saffron: Prime Minister Modi at a public meeting in Vellore, Tamil Nadu | PTI

With under a week remaining for the first phase of the Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the BJP’s manifesto at the party’s central office extension, a sleek new building opposite the multi-storey headquarters on Delhi’s Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Marg.

The Congress’s assessment is that if it has to win 100 seats overall, it will have to maximise its gains from the south. However, this is a double-edged sword.
While surveys predict a sweep for the INDIA bloc in Tamil Nadu, the BJP is aiming for generational change and victory in a few seats.

The Sankalp Patra moved beyond traditional ideological promises to embrace new objectives like infrastructure development and enhanced service delivery. There were cultural promises, too, including plans to establish centres across the world in the name of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar, promote the classical Tamil language, and organise Ramayan festivals globally. Notably absent was any mention of the controversial national register of citizens, though the party reiterated its commitment to implementing a uniform civil code and ‘one nation, one poll’.

Unlike the previous two Lok Sabha elections, where the focus was on north India, the hottest battle this season is in the south. Both the BJP and the Congress want to win more than 50 of the 130 seats from the region. It is an ideological battle. While the BJP accuses the Congress and its allies of insulting religious and cultural symbols, the opposition says it wants to save the Constitution and accuses the Centre of misusing investigating agencies.

To counter this, the BJP chose Ambedkar’s birth anniversary to release its manifesto. “Prime Minister Modi has given a commitment that the Constitution is our sacred book and we will safeguard it,” said BJP general secretary Tarun Chugh.

While the BJP’s manifesto promises to scale up existing schemes and push for infrastructure―a template that resonates more in the south―the Congress has taken a more populist route to woo the electorate. It has promised Rs1 lakh annually to all poor households, job reservation for women, an increase in health insurance to Rs25 lakh and a guarantee on minimum support price.

The battle for the south will also decide the contours of politics in years to come as many regional satraps and parties vie for a bigger piece of the national pie. They represent strong regional sentiments that both the Congress and the BJP find easier to ally with than breach.

The BJP, which won 29 seats from the south in 2019, is going all out to increase its tally in the region to reach its target of 400 seats. For this, Modi started early―he took Chinese president Xi Jinping to Mahabalipuram in 2019, spoke in Tamil at the United Nations, installed the Sengol in the new Parliament building, said that the Ram Mandir has architectural elements drawn from temples in the south, named the G20 venue Bharat Mandapam after the ancient Anubhava Mantapa cultural assembly of Karnataka, and also slammed the Congress government’s decision to hand over the island of Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974.

PTI04_15_2024_000089B Southern comfort: Rahul Gandhi campaigns in Wayanad, Kerala | PTI

A few days before the elections were announced, the home ministry designated September 17 as Hyderabad Liberation Day. It was the day the princely state integrated into India. The message was against the Nizam rule. Incidentally, September 17 is also Modi’s birthday.

As for the opposition, the Congress leads the grouping and wants to double its tally from the south to 56 this time. Rahul Gandhi, the key figure for the INDIA bloc in the region, had started his Bharat Jodo Yatra from Kanniyakumari in September 2022 to establish an emotional connect with the people. Also, his candidature from Wayanad in Kerala is aimed at retaining the 19 of 20 seats it had won from the state in 2019.

The INDIA bloc is harping on its claim that the BJP is against federalism and that this could be the last elections if it wins brute majority.

Southern India might not decide who occupies the treasury benches, but this election would signal whether the BJP has the pan-India appeal it claims to have. For all the big-ticket decisions it has taken, the NDA government had argued that the mandate empowered it to do so.

The Congress’s assessment is that if it has to win 100 seats overall, it will have to maximise its gains from the south. However, this is a double-edged sword as it could end up being seen as a party whose influence is limited to the south and one that has given up its claim on the north.

29-The-INDIA-bloc-is-relying-on-Stalin Guarding his ground: The INDIA bloc is relying on Stalin’s popularity to win Tamil Nadu.

Unlike the Congress, the BJP does have the tag of a north Indian party. And though is has been able to remove the label of being a Brahmin-Bania party by suturing rainbow alliances in the north, it desperately needs to expand in the south. “Contrary to the narrative created by opposition parties that the BJP is a Hindi-belt party, it is already the single-largest party in south India with 29 MPs. This time our party has set a target of 50 seats from the southern states and will create history on June 4,” said K. Sudhakar, former Karnataka health minister and BJP candidate from Chikkaballapur.

For the two main national parties, Karnataka is central to their numbers game. According to the Congress’s internal calculations, it can increase its tally in the state from one to 12-15 as it two commanders―Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and his deputy D.K. Shivakumar―are holding fort against the BJP’s onslaught and are armed with their welfarist guarantees. The Congress had won 135 of 224 seats in last year’s assembly elections, and hopes the Lok Sabha polls turn out the same.

The BJP, having learnt from that campaign, has dropped three of its firebrand MPs―Pratap Simha, Nalin Kumar Kateel and Anantkumar Hegde―who are known for their hindutva rhetoric. Hegde had remarked that the NDA needed more than 400 seats to change the Constitution. It was a statement that cost him dearly.

Also, unlike in the assembly elections, this is a direct contest between the Congress and the BJP. The JD(S) is an NDA ally; it was with the Congress in 2019. A BJP-JD(S) alliance makes sense as both lost in their traditional bastions―the BJP in north Karnataka (Lingayat belt) and JD(S) in Old Mysuru (Vokkaliga belt). To supplement Modi’s charisma, former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda and former chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa could help consolidate the numerically strong Vokkaliga and Lingayat votes.

Among all five states in the south, the gladiatorial contest is in Tamil Nadu. The DMK-led opposition alliance had won 38 of the 39 seats in 2019. On the face of it, this time it is a four-cornered contest between the INDIA bloc, the AIADMK alliance with the SDPI and DMDK, the BJP-led NDA and Seeman’s Naam Tamilar Katchi.

Here, the BJP has pitted nationalistic sentiment against Dravidian sub-nationalism. The party has backed its state president K. Annamalai, a former IPS officer, as he opposed both Dravidian parties and even forced a breakup with the AIADMK.

The BJP’s strategy here draws from states like Punjab, and even Maharashtra, where it let go of senior partners in the alliance to increase its base in the states. In 2019, the BJP contested five seats in Tamil Nadu; this time it is doing so in 23 seats. It is Modi’s boldest move in a state where he started by establishing cultural links through Kashi-Tamil and Saurashtra-Tamil Sangamams to help the BJP get into Tamil minds.

While surveys predict a sweep for the INDIA bloc, the BJP is aiming for generational change and victory in a few seats. The party has taken up social engineering, as it is allied with the Pattali Makkal Katchi and factions of the AIADMK led by T.T.V. Dhinakaran and O. Panneerselvam. The party is trying to woo the Vanniyar community in the northern districts and the Thevar community in the southern ones.

On the ground, it has always been a bipolar contest between the DMK and the AIADMK. The DMK alliance, which includes the Congress, the left parties, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and the Vaiko-led MDMK, is trying to whip up anti-BJP and anti-Modi sentiments. The DMK and Congress have allied for the past three elections. On April 11, Rahul bought Mysore pak and gulab jamun for Stalin, signalling the ‘sweet’ equation between the two.

“Our ministers and party cadres are working on the ground. We will win all 40 seats (39 in Tamil Nadu and one in Puducherry),” Stalin told THE WEEK. Stalin’s campaign has turned the tide in the INDIA bloc’s favour in tough seats.

The AIADMK, though, has gone all guns blazing against the DMK and its allies, and will go into the polls with former chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami as its general secretary, for the first time.

In neighbouring Telangana, wounded and out of power, the Bharat Rashtra Samithi appears to be fighting a losing battle. Its popularity has plummeted further after the arrest of K. Kavitha, former chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao’s daughter, in the Delhi liquor scam case. This has opened up space for both the Congress and the BJP, which were restricted to three and four seats in 2019. With Chief Minister Revanth Reddy at the helm, the Congress aims to re-establish itself as the numero uno party, a status it enjoyed for a decade between 2004 and 2014 in united Andhra Pradesh.

The Congress campaign seeks to build on its fulfilled poll promises and also its decentralised administration, which was a rarity during the BRS rule. The BJP, on the other hand, is banking on Modi’s charisma and the Ram Mandir. Northern Telangana, where the BJP has won a considerable number of assembly seats, is turning out to be a stronghold of the party.

Across the border, Andhra Pradesh presents a contrasting picture. Both the BJP and the Congress are marginal players as they failed to win a single assembly or Lok Sabha seat in the last elections. The state and national elections are being held together, and the primary fight is between Jagan Mohan Reddy and Chandrababu Naidu. The BJP, which found it hard to counter Jagan’s appeal, swallowed its pride to take back Naidu. The two had split on a bitter note in 2018. With Naidu back and with Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party, the NDA could hope for additional seats from Andhra.

For the Congress, which has been on ventilator since bifurcation and is now being led by Jagan’s sister Y.S. Sharmila, the biggest sign of a revival would be an increase in vote share or wins in a seat or two.

This is not the case in Kerala, though. The Congress-led United Democratic Front had won 19 of 20 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, defying the national trend. Rahul’s candidature from Wayanad had brought zing to the Congress campaign. Also, the “mishandling” of the Sabarimala women-entry issue by the Left Democratic Front government alienated many Hindu voters, and the prevailing anti-BJP sentiment led to the consolidation of minority votes. Five years later, that sentiment has ebbed. The UDF, which has fielded incumbents in most seats, holds a definite edge. It hopes that the minorities and liberal, non-partisan voters will consolidate in its favour, as it presents itself as the main bulwark against the BJP.

According to its internal surveys, the Congress expects to win all 16 seats it is contesting, but it has the Pinarayi Vijayan-led left to contend with. The left parties and the Congress are allies in other states, but not so in Kerala. “The left parties are trying to defeat Rahul Gandhi and myself from Kerala,” said Congress general secretary K.C. Venugopal. “Rahul Gandhi is not contesting as a new candidate. He is the sitting MP. Except for 2019, I have continuously represented Alappuzha in Parliament. Every party wants to increase its numbers in the Lok Sabha. What is the problem in that? If they are so concerned about Rahul Gandhi, they should have withdrawn their candidate and supported him. They are using his posters in Tamil Nadu. They are contesting with us in Rajasthan. If they had some sort of comradeship, they would have done that. Unnecessary blame game is not good for coordination.”

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) hopes that in addition to its solid cadre votes, the left front’s firm stance against ethnic violence in Manipur, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, triple talaq and the Uniform Civil Code will attract more votes from the minorities and liberals. The left parties are emphasising their stance on issues such as electoral bonds, while countering corruption allegations against their party leaders, including the chief minister. The BJP-led NDA anticipates a better performance with each passing election. In 2014, it got more than 15 per cent of votes in four constituencies; in 2019, this went up to eight. Modi asserts that the BJP would win 10 or more seats this time, but that will be a herculean task. The spotlight is on Thrissur and Thiruvananthapuram, where the BJP has fielded actor Suresh Gopi and Union Minister of State Rajeev Chandrasekhar. The NDA expects to expand its base to include a section of the Christian community―which traditionally votes UDF―and the Hindu Ezhava community―which traditionally aligns with the left parties―through the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena, the political wing of the Ezhava organisation SNDP.

As of now it seems Modi, with his intense campaign, has taken the lead. But the key would be the actual number of seats the BJP can add to its kitty. For the Congress and the regional parties, the high-stakes battles are personal. More seats for the Congress would add to the aura of Rahul and the satraps. The battle for the Delhi throne has begun from the south.