After performing well in three Northeast Indian states that went to polls last months, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is now turning its focus to South.
The five southern states have a total of 129 Lok Sabha seats but the BJP holds just 29 of them, most of them in BJP-ruled Karnataka.
Of the five states, Kerala and Bharat Rashtra Samiti (BRS)-ruled Telangana are set to have polls this year. These polls might just indicate if the political weather is conducive for the Lotus to bloom in the south. Overall, the year 2023 has nine state elections that would set the tone for 2024 general elections.
Bolstered by its excellent electoral show in the northeast and a changed scenario in some of the southern states during 2019-24, the BJP is looking at more voters from the south to give thumbs up in its bid to form the third NDA government in a row in 2024 under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
BJP as a challenger in Telangana
The BJP has risen as a challenger to K Chandrasekhar Rao-led BRS in Telangana, as demonstrated in a couple of assembly bypolls where it emerged victorious. Also, an impressive performance in the Hyderabad civic polls in 2020 has given the BJP the much needed impetus to take on the might of the ruling BRS in 2024.
Incidentally, KCR, as Rao is known, has thrown his hat into the ring in the efforts to dislodge the BJP government at the Centre next year, even as DMK President and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin is also being projected as a leader who could galvanise the anti-BJP forces to challenge the incumbent.
Besides Karnataka where the BJP is currently in power, Telangana is the only state where the BJP has some presence as it has four MPs there. There is no presence of BJP in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala.
Are things changing for BJP in South?
While the BJP has no electoral presence there, party workers believe things have started looking up for the BJP in Tamil Nadu, the Dravidian heartland.
For instance, they point out that BJP won four Assembly seats in the state in the elections held in 2021, overcoming the DMK wave in constituencies, including one in Erode district, the birthplace of Dravidian stalwart and rationalist leader EV Ramasamy Periyar.
The BJP's Tamil Nadu unit has now set its eyes on winning 15 LS seats from Tamil Nadu in 2024 and insists it even has a strategy to take on the Dravidian major DMK, whose led alliance won the just concluded Erode East bypoll. NDA constituent AIADMK was defeated by Congress by a massive margin of over 66,000 votes.
The BJP feels that the 2024 Lok Sabha election in Tamil Nadu will be different from what it was in the past.
"This time we may contest 15 seats on the Lotus symbol after apportioning the remaining 24 Lok Sabha constituencies to our allies. We have already identified the winnable seats and selected those constituencies where we finished second in the previous elections," said M Chakravarthy, BJP state vice president.
In the months to come, several central ministers would visit the State to gear up the party for the poll. They would help in strengthening the BJP at the booth level, he said.
Asked if the infighting in the AIADMK would affect the NDA's prospects at the hustings, Chakravarthy replied, "The outcome of the Erode East Assembly by-poll is a lesson for the AIADMK to ponder if the party symbol (Two Leaves) alone is sufficient to win the election."
"We already have a strategy in place to take on the DMK. We are waiting for the nod from the party high command to launch the campaign," another senior leader in the party said.
The party won one seat in the 2014 parliamentary elections.
What can help BJP in Tamil Nadu?
The fundamental shift in political dynamics in Tamil Nadu will prove advantageous to the BJP and on its own performance the BJP has made itself relevant, says K Annamalai, IPS turned politician who has been mandated by the party high command to send more MPs from the State this time.
He said, "There is no social justice in the DMK. People have realised that the BJP alone can accommodate all sections and as a result, we have been gaining ground. We are going everywhere, as it is our duty to embrace all. I boldly tell my party men to perform....all those parties which accept Modi's leadership are welcome to join our alliance."
BJP's eyes on Telangana, Andhra Pradesh
Elsewhere, BJP sees Telangana as the next state in the south, after Karnataka, where it stands a chance of coming to power.
Though the party could win only a single seat out of the total 119 in the last Assembly elections in 2018, its strength grew to three subsequently following morale-boosting win in two bypolls. It had also pulled off a stunning performance in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) election held in 2020.
With Congress, the original main opposition to BRS, failing to hold ground amid allegations of disunity in the party, the BJP has been making a determined effort since the last couple of years to emerge as the alternative to BRS in the Assembly elections scheduled to be held later this year.
However, dislodging the BRS is easier said than done in view of the ruling party's vast network across the state and other strengths.
KCR has made an ambitious foray into national politics after changing the name of his Telangana Rashtra Samiti as Bharat Rashtra Samiti.
In the neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, also a Telugu-speaking state, the BJP is aspiring to put up a good show, but has its task cut out as the political space is dominated by two regional players — CM Jagan Mohan Reddy-led YSRCP and N Chandrababu Naidu's TDP.
Observers point out at the recent high profile ship-jumping from the BJP, with former state chief Kanna Lakshminarayan joining the Telugu Desam Party.
The saffron party is in alliance with actor-politician Pawan Kalyan's Jana Sena who has also floated the idea of tying up with TDP, an idea the BJP is not favourably disposed to.
Not an easy road for BJP in Kerala
BJP may not have it easy in Kerala. Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said people in the state are politically enlightened and due to this reason it would be difficult for the BJP to fulfill Modi's dream of capturing power in the southern state.
When pointed out that the BJP has managed to form governments in many states including Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Goa and Arunachal Pradesh where the Congress or its allies had been major political players, Ramesh said it is difficult to say if such tactics would help BJP to make changes in Kerala's political landscape too.
CPI(M) state secretariat member M Swaraj said the BJP's politics is based on the communal agenda of the RSS.
(With PTI inputs)