Southern States hold the firm conviction that self-confidence, jobs, GDP, and welfare do not require the violent, intolerant espousal of religion.
As early as 1967, the country saw the first hints of a very different political ideology finding wide favour when the Jana Sangh won 35 seats in the Lok Sabha and 268 seats across 12 State Assemblies. The Jana Sangh joined hands with Congress defectors and other parties such as the Swatantra Party, the Samyukta Socialist Party, and the Praja Socialist Party to create the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal alliance, which expectedly did not last long. Nor would these promising first buds of victory bloom into the expected fullness of a crushing majority until many decades later.
But, even then, it was the northern States—such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Haryana—where the Jana Sangh managed to make its first electoral inroads. In 1967, the realisation that it was consistently failing to make a dent in the south led the Jana Sangh to have its annual caucus in Calicut, Kerala. Even then, under the leadership of Deendayal Upadhyaya, the Sangh showed early signs of its shape-shifting skills when the young Atal Bihari Vajpayee stated at the Calicut meeting that Hindi would be expanded only on the basis of “voluntary acceptance” whereas up north the push to make Hindi the national language was much more aggressive.
The party, which has since evolved into a megalith in the form of the Bharatiya Janata Party, continues to steadily deal in doublespeak, changing the narrative depending on the audience it seeks to woo. Thus, the Prime Minister’s shrill denouncement of welfare measures as revdi even a year ago is no longer heard either from his podiums or his extended podiums, the television channels. Instead, the BJP and Modi dole out welfare lavishly.
Dialling down Hindi and dialling up welfare are just two prongs of a carefully calibrated political campaign that the BJP is using to expand its base in the South, a region that continues to elude it. A similar tempering is seen when the BJP treads carefully in Kerala and Tamil Nadu around the subject of beef (which features in local diets), aware that the vicious cow vigilantism it allows in north India cannot work here.
One could try to explain the sharp divide between northern and southern voting patterns as simply an outcome of geography or culture, but that might not be entirely accurate. It would not account for the BJP’s far easier coalition-led success in the north-eastern States. One must also factor in a certain history of non-communal coexistence in the South and its historical remoteness from the fevered Islamophobia that is easily fanned in the northern States. But more important are the superior development indices here, including a successful curb on population growth, that make southern voters arguably more interested in infrastructure, jobs, and schools.
This carefully stitched fabric of growth and harmony is now at risk, as the BJP strains every sinew to breach the South. Telangana (which along with Karnataka is an important petri dish for the Hindutva experiment) has seen a surge both in communal battles and in the vote share for the BJP, which won eight seats in the Assembly election last year, up from just one in 2018. In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, the saffron party has been far less successful, currently having no MPs or MLAs. But the groundwork continues unabated: through temples, schools, Hinduisation of Adivasis, and anti-Christian campaigns. Our reporter Ayesha Minhaz brings you an excellent breakdown of the BJP’s progress in these two States.
Karnataka is, of course, the BJP’s solo southern success. This is where it launched Operation Lotus in the 2008 Assembly election, its highly unethical strategy to evade the anti-defection law, to form the government twice. Its recent rout in the 2023 Assembly election notwithstanding, it continues to hold considerable sway here. While its primary crutch is caste, carefully balancing Lingayat and Vokkaliga groups, it also liberally sprinkles its classic brew of cow vigilantism, Muslim baiting, and moral policing here. Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed’s essay is extremely informative.
Kerala and Tamil Nadu, of course, present unique challenges that the Sangh Parivar and its extended family of trolls appear to take personally. There is an extra layer of rancour in these States, aided by two Governors who do not make much effort to hide their political bias despite their office. Being among the country’s two most developed States and sharing a history of communal amicability, a campaign based on welfarism and religious bigotry is unlikely to go very far. Propaganda is the preferred tool: fake news and provocative allegations are common. Governor Arif Mohammed Khan regularly clashes with Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, while Governor R.N. Ravi invariably promotes false history and tries to obstruct Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin. A second weapon is finance, with both States accusing the Centre of withholding the dues owed to them. In both States, the BJP’s chances are low despite, as senior journalist M.G. Radhakrishnan writes, Kerala having 5,000-plus shakhas, second only to Uttar Pradesh. And in Tamil Nadu, despite the BJP State leader’s high-decibel and frequently foul-mouthed presence, the limited aim is only to displace the AIADMK as the main opposition. Our writer R.K. Radhakrishnan brings you the details from here and Puducherry.
Tamil Nadu’s case is particularly interesting because of the State’s strong roots in Dravidian philosophy, which is possibly the only articulated political doctrine that can offer a real alternative to Hindutva, and with the same resonance. As Prof. Karthick Ram Manoharan writes in his superb piece here, the contest is ultimately between an “inclusive politics of social justice and the BJP’s exclusionary Hindutva politics”.
It is not as if the parties governing the southern States do not have their own set of problems, including corruption, inefficiencies, atrocities against Dalits, and administrative apathy. But their seven decades of rejection of the Hindutva ideology has given them social harmony that is in tandem with remarkable material progress. Equally, all the southern States enjoy visible religiosity of a high order, with Hindu temples, symbols, rites, and prayers given paramount importance. The difference is that it is not at the cost of anybody else.
The southern States take this for granted—that self-confidence, Hindu pride, jobs, GDP, and welfare do not come linked with a violent, intolerant espousal of religion. It is this that infuriates the Hindu Right.