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BJP Gains In South India But Faces Guards At The Gateway

Though the BJP has increased its presence in Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, significant hurdles remain in its way

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Beats of Victory: BJP supporters celebrating in Bengaluru on June 4 Photo: Getty Images
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Up until the 2024 Lok Sabha election, the land beyond the Vindhyas was perceived as a region far from the reach of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). With 25 seats in Karnataka and four in Telangana, the saffron party’s aggressive politics faced sharp resistance in the five southern states, which account for roughly 20 per cent of the country’s population and 30 per cent of its economy. But by the late evening on June 4, the electoral map of south India looked quite different.

The BJP won 17 seats in Karnataka, eight in Telangana, three in Andhra Pradesh (AP) and one in Kerala. The party won the same number of seats, 29, even in the last general election. But this time, the BJP managed to open its account in AP and Kerala. Meanwhile, its allies too helped the BJP: Janata Dal (Secular) (JD-S) won two seats in Karnataka, the Telugu Desam Party won 16 and the Jana Sena won two in AP.

Groundbreaking

Dubbed nationally as the BJP’s gateway to south India, Karnataka has historically been a breeding ground for Hindutva and polarisation politics since the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the 1980s and even before that. When the saffron party was ousted in the state assembly elections last year, many wondered if this was the first step towards the gateway closing for the party. But observers say that the party and its ideology remain dominant in the state in many ways.

Firstly, the BJP has continued to retain power in the coastal regions of the state—whether in the Lok Sabha elections or the state assembly elections—for almost 33 years now. “That trend seems to be continuing,” observes K P Suresh, an independent activist and political commentator from Mangalore. The BJP retained all three coastal Parliamentary seats—Dakshina Kannada, Udupi Chikmagalur and Uttara Kannada—albeit by decreased margins in comparison to the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Not just that, for the first time in three decades, the BJP and the JD(S) managed to consolidate both the Vokkaliga and Lingayat vote banks, the dominant land-owning communities in south and north Karnataka, says Suresh. The last time this happened was under the united Janata Dal government in 1996 when H D Deve Gowda went on to become prime minister.

Lingayats and Vokkaligas were earlier considered to be on the opposite end of the political camps—with the former backing the BJP owing to former Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa’s influence and the latter siding with the JD(S), primarily a Vokkaliga-dominated party. But with their alliance for the Lok Sabha election, the transfer of votes seems to have worked. Academic and political analyst K Nageshwar notes in his election analysis that the BJP and the JD(S) coming together is a “complementary alliance”—their support bases don’t overlap one another, rather it works to each other’s benefit.

“But when this consolidation happened in the 1990s, it was purely for the strategic purpose of elections,” says Suresh. This time, however, it appears ideological too with the Vokkaligas swaying towards the BJP’s politics, he adds.

The southern states contributed a bulk of the seats that aided the NDA’s win. But the BJP is still neither the single largest party in the south nor has it increased its seats from last time.

Although the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won a majority of the seats in the state, the grand old party bettered its tally from just one seat in 2019 to nine seats this time—most of them in the Kalyana-Karnataka region (also known as Hyderabad-Karnataka). The Congress ran a spirited campaign on the success of its ‘guarantees’ and welfare schemes that were implemented after their win in the assembly elections. Party workers credit these schemes for their improved seat share, but it wasn’t enough, say analysts. “The Congress party cadre did not have a counter to the strong ideological campaign run by the BJP cadres on the ground for decades,” says Suresh. People now believe that the guarantees are their right and hence do not feel the need to be loyal to the Congress, he adds.

History bears witness to the fact that Karnataka has never voted in a similar manner in assembly elections and Lok Sabha elections. That trend seems to be continuing now as well, say analysts.

Telugu States

In Telangana, where K Chandrashekar Rao’s (KCR) Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) once dominated the electoral scene, the regional party has now been decimated. Earlier, the party was routed in the state assembly elections as well. From winning nine of the 17 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, the party did not manage to win even one seat this time. Both the BJP and the Congress, which have improved their seat share, did so while eating into the vote share of the BRS.

Along with the BJP’s strong local leadership in Telangana—Bandi Sanjay Kumar and Etela Rajender—political analysts point to a stream of defections from the BRS to both the BJP and the Congress after the regional party’s defeat last year. Of the 17 candidates the BJP fielded in this election, nine were earlier with the BRS, explains E Venkatesu, professor of political science, University of Hyderabad. “As a result, the BRS’ vote bank virtually shifted to both the Congress and the BJP this time,” he says. Further, the saffron party also gave more tickets to OBC (Other Backward Classes) candidates as compared to the grand old party, he adds.

Renaming the party from Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) to BRS and the anti-incumbency factor, among other reasons, cost KCR dearly, who was once a formidable force in the region owing to his role in the statehood movement. Now that the BRS has drawn a blank in this election, is it the end for the regional party? “Its revival will depend on whether they are willing to make changes to their leadership style, accommodation of social groups and policy agenda,” adds Venkatesu.

Other analysts have cautioned against writing off the BRS. “The party will make a comeback in local body elections… their ground-level cadre is very strong in villages,” says a member of Hyderabad-based People’s Pulse, a group comprising politically engaged individuals working to understand ground-level dynamics. The announcement for local body and panchayat polls is likely to be made soon.

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Meanwhile, in AP, anti-incumbency and failure to create job opportunities seemed to have gone against the Jagan Mohan Reddy-led YSRCP, and in favour of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the BJP alliance. This was the same alliance that won the 2014 election, the first after the bifurcation of AP. But knowing that the go-to “religious sentiment” doesn’t work in AP, the saffron party relied on local issues—delay in the implementation of the administrative decentralisation plan, the land titling act and promises related to industry investments.

While in two states, regional parties aided the NDA’s win, in the other, the BJP’s gains came at the cost of a regional party. Naidu and senior JD(S) leaders, including H D Kumaraswamy, will be looking for bigger roles at the national level and fulfilment of other demands for their states.

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The southern states did contribute a bulk of the seats that aided the NDA’s win, but the BJP is still not the single largest party in the south and neither has its seats increased from last time; the Congress emerged as the single largest party with 42 seats. So while the saffron party has breached more gateways to the south, capturing it completely is still a distant dream.

(This appeared in the print as 'Guards At The Gateway')

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