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BJP prepares for southern march

Telangana, AP, Kerala and Tamil Nadu remain untouched by the saffron wave so far

BJP prepares for southern march

New Delhi

Declining fortunes of the Congress, which even in its past bad runs retained solid presence in south India, weakening of traditionally strong regional parties and its continued national consolidation have given the BJP the hope that the next Lok Sabha election in 2024 can see it break new ground in the southern region similar to its show in West Bengal and Odisha in 2019.

The BJP top brass at the party's national executive in Hyderabad targeted south India, where barring Karnataka it won only four out of 101 seats of four states in 2019, as the region for its next round of growth. A few days later the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government picked four eminent persons from as many southern states as its choice of nominated Rajya Sabha MPs, leaving little to imagination about the politics behind this.

The BJP's back to back sweep of north and west India has powered its big win in the 2014 and 2019 polls, and the party has constantly tried to expand its footprint in east and south India to ensure that any drop in its tally in its strongholds does not mar its national ambition. It has broken new ground in eastern states like West Bengal and Odisha and swept the Northeast but the field beyond the Vindhyas has so far proved less fertile.

While Karnataka has remained a BJP stronghold, more so in Lok Sabha polls, the remaining four states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have been largely untouched by the saffron wave which rode on Modi's appeal to bring the party two back to back wins, a feat last achieved by the Congress in 1984.

Conditions for the BJP, its leaders believe, are more ripe than ever in the region, with traditionally strong parties like the TDP in Andhra Pradesh and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu left weakened and struggling to mount a strong challenge to the government headed by the YSR Congress and the DMK respectively. This coupled with the Congress being not in a position to offer a national alternative has also opened new possibilities for the BJP, including in the Left-ruled Kerala where the presence of around 45 per cent minorities had made the state a particularly tough nut to crack for the party.

The BJP's fresh push in peninsular India comes after it appeared for close to two decades that its southern march had failed to rise beyond the borders of Karnataka where it first came to power in 2008. Absence of strong state leaders and the tactic of deferring to regional allies instead of building on its base during the earlier phase of its ascent in the Vajpayee-Advani era of late 90s and early 2000s had stalled the BJP in the then undivided state of Andhra Pradesh, where it had won nine seats in 1999 in alliance with the TDP, and Tamil Nadu, where it bagged four members in the same year. This remains its best show in the two states.

Southern India, which fares better than most Indian states on socio-economic indicators, has been less receptive to the BJP's welfarism model so far while the party's another plank of Hindutva has also not worked as effectively there as in other regions. In its more aggressive and ambitious avatar, the BJP has been building up its state presidents Bandi Sanjay Kumar and K Annamalai in Telangana and Tamil Nadu respectively to take on its rivals.

It let go of the TDP as an ally in Andhra Pradesh and has worked to build itself in Telangana with constant campaign against the ruling TRS. It helps that the BJP is now in a much more comfortable position in Parliament than it was when then PM A B Vajpayee depended on allies. The BJP has improved on its low base. It had won only one seat in the 2018 assembly polls but in the last Lok Sabha polls won four of 17 seats and followed up with a win in a couple of high-stakes bypolls besides putting up a strong show in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation election.

"In each of the four states, there is a lot of vacant opposition space and we are in the best position to fill it," a BJP leader, who did not wish to be named, said. However, it will be a steep climb if the party has to make a serious mark in the region in 2024.

All the four Lok Sabha seats in these four states it won in 2019 came from Telangana and its tally was zilch in Andhra, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Political observers believe that ruling regional parties in states like Tamil Nadu and Telangana have begun cleverly playing up the regional identity and accusing the BJP of pushing its hegemonic religious and language agenda in their bid to touch a chord with voters. This was a strategy built around ethnic sub-nationalism the Trinamool Congress led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee used effectively to quell the saffron challenge in the 2021 assembly polls.

Absence of strong state leaders has been seen as a key reason behind the BJP's failure to turn its fortunes around in these states, and the party seems to have learnt its lessons. Kumar has been taking out 'Praja Sangrama Yatra', third phase of which will soon be launched, to rally support for the BJP. Both Kumar (50) and Annamalai (38), a former IPS officer, have a knack of being in news with their strong comments, deemed controversial at times. Of all the four states, Telangana appears to be best bet for the party as of now.

The win of former minister in the Rao government, Eatala Rajender, on a BJP ticket from Huzurabad seat against a massive campaign by the TRS last year following its surprise victory in Dubbak bypoll has given a significant momentum to the party's campaign. The decision to hold its national executive in Hyderabad followed by a big public meeting where its top brass was present with Modi being the key speaker indicated the BJP's all out efforts to unseat the TRS in the assembly elections scheduled for next year. And, unsurprisingly, it was the call for a "double engine" government, a reference to the same party ruling the state which is in power at the Centre, which rang loudest, including in Modi's speech at "Vijay Sankalp Sabha".

But defeating the TRS, which has had a virtual monopoly on the state politics since its birth, remains an uphill task. BJP chief spokesperson in Telangana K Krishna Sagar Rao told PTI that compared to other southern states, Telangana looks a more promising prospect for the party's electoral rise as the growth in its vote base and seat share in the last parliamentary elections was considerably high in comparison with Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. He acknowledged that it will be a huge ask for the BJP to increase its strength from three to 60 MLAs, the majority mark, but asserted people see his party as an alternative and it is sure of receiving the massive swing in popular mandate needed to end the TRS reign.

The BJP's efforts to gain some foothold in Tamil Nadu politics dominated by Dravidian parties met partial success in the the local body polls and Annamalai has now claimed that his party would win 25 Lok Sabha seats in 2024. Recently, the party held a state-wide hunger strike against the ruling DMK and Union Minister of State V K Singh chaired a meeting of its members in southern Tamil Nadu on July 6. After the DMK captured power in 2021, political watchers say the BJP has made efforts to take on the ruling party with the principal opposition AIADMK mired in internal differences and not taking on the state government effectively.

The BJP hopes that nomination of music maestro Ilaiyarajaa as a Rajya Sabha MP will help it strike a chord with Tamil voters. Early this year, the BJP, which fought the local polls alone, outperformed regional players and won 22 seats in municipal corporations, 56 in municipalities and 230 in town panchayats. In the 2021 Assembly election, as a junior partner of the AIADMK, the BJP had won four assembly seats.

The BJP's political push in Kerala had virtually stalled after it failed to win a single seat in the last assembly polls. It hopes the Rajya Sabha nomination of legendary athlete P T Usha will generate the political tailwind it needs to expand its footprint. BJP state general secretary George Kurian, however, played down its political import. "Do you think Usha has any politics? No. Her RS nomination is a message. It is true that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has always won the hearts of people through such positive messages," he said, adding whether the government's action would have any political impact in future is a different matter.

Kumar Rakesh
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