A Southern Accent To PM Modi In 2024?

Optics is an integral part of Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s persona and there is a southern focus to it, especially since the dawn of 2024.  Apart from the calibrated electoral objective of winning seats in the five southern states and union territories, the southern focus is also to win a more symbolic battle. 

Simply put, the question is, can present day India’s most powerful political personality decisively transcend the North-South linguistic divide? A nagging question for the party and the Prime Minister in states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, where they have had only marginal appeal.  

Having reiterated his grip over the Hindi heartland and drumming up fervour as the Ram Mandir consecration approaches at Ayodhya, PM Modi has made three trips to southern states, featuring temple visits in traditional local attire to roadshows, announcement of projects and even snorkelling in Lakshadweep. 

Embracing southern cultures has been a consistent theme, from the Sengol in parliament to events at the Kashi Tamil Sangam, and many other programmes. The test in 2024 is translating that into votes. This is not just about seats; this is as much about changing the southern narrative for the BJP and the PM’s persona. 

Historically, Hindutva has struggled to find a footing in southern states, which have been dominated by regional parties and strong linguistic identities born out of opposition to Hindi imposition. Even in Karnataka, the only southern state where the BJP has been in power, the party’s flavour is dominated by regional leaders, who have been able to assert themselves even in the changed equations within the party.  

Out of the 131 Lok Sabha seats in the southern region – Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Puducherry and Lakshadweep – the BJP won 29 in 2019. While this is one seat more than the 28 won by the Congress, the spread of seats is what defines the BJP’s and, perhaps, Prime Minister Modi’s southern predicament. 

Twenty-five of the 28 BJP seats came from Karnataka and four from Telangana. In the 65 seats of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the party had a negligible presence and was entirely dependent on a regional ally. In the 20 seats of Kerala, it drew a blank and but won a considerable vote share of 28, 27 and 30 percent only in Thrissur , Pathanamthitta and Thiruvananthapuram seats. 

The fact that the Congress has had decisive victories in the Karnataka and Telangana elections whereas the BJP has been decisively sweeping the Hindi heartland has only accentuated the southern predicament. 

Mr. Modi’s visits to the South have been carefully curated and calibrated, state-specific strategies are unfolding. The underlying theme is that the BJP will not abandon a fight in the south, even in states where it has struggled for relevance, like Tamil Nadu. 

Despite having lost the AIADMK as an ally here, the BJP has remained firm on the leadership of state BJP president K Annamalai. The AIADMK had categorically blamed Annamalai’s actions and statements challenging Dravidian ideology and icons of the movement for the break-up. The fact that the BJP has never won even significant vote shares in the state has not stopped it rallying behind its local leader and reiterating its ideological identity and leadership. 

There may still be last-minute patch ups or tacit understandings, but the overall approach is to build the party and make it relevant in the state, if not in seats, at least with vote shares.

There is speculation that the PM may contest from Tamil Nadu’s Ramanathapuram seat, with the temple town of Rameshwaram as a second seat. While the PM or a union minister contesting from Tamil Nadu is mere speculation, transforming the optics in Dravidian politics is a certain objective and a prestige issue.  

Again, in Kerala, the focus is on wresting seats like Thrissur, Pathanamthitta and Thiruvananthapuram, where the party won a fair vote share in 2019. Even if it is just one seat, the party wants to break into the Left versus Congress battlefield here. Here too, there is speculation that the BJP could field one of its top cabinet ministers to bolster the optics. The Hindu vote is a cornerstone in these seats, but there has been a reach-out to women voters during the PM’s visits. 

Having won four of the 19 seats in Telangana in 2019 and hitting its highest ever number of eight assembly seats in 2023, the BJP has been focused on the state. One of the reasons for the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) defeat in the recent polls has been attributed to the rise of the BJP in the state, and the party is keen to carry that momentum into the Lok Sabha polls. 

In the 25 loknsabha seats in Andhra Pradesh, which will have simultaneous assembly elections, the quest for an ally or an understanding seems open. It’s again fighting to paint over its irrelevance in electoral politics here, and while there is apparent proximity to Chief Minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSRCP, the opposition Telugu Desam too is yet to firm up an alliance.  

Finally, in its stronghold of Karnataka, where it has held sway since 2004, the BJP has tied up with the Janata Dal (Secular). The two parties represent a union of the Lingayat sect and the OBC Vokkaliga caste – the two dominant forces in Karnataka. This may be a long-term alliance with the possibility of HD Kumaraswamy eventually merging with the BJP, but for the moment, the categorical target for the BJP is to wrest 25 of 29 seats like it did last time. 

In terms of just seats, the fact that the party has already maxed out in Karnataka and the scope for incremental gains from the other states together is limited to single digits, may mean that the southern push is aimed more at changing narratives than adding numbers. And 2024 will be another test of whether the PM and his party can breach their final frontier. 

(TM Veeraraghav is Executive Editor, NDTV)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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