The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) failed to breach South India and it still remains unconquered, but the question is what are the reasons for the South voting differently and how long can it prolong this. Tamil Nadu and Kerala voted against the BJP along more visible ideological and political reasons. Tamil Nadu went through an early anti-Brahmin movement that brought the Dravidian parties representing the shudras and managed to implement affirmative action policies for the backward castes during the colonial times. Tamil Nadu remained an exception to the 50% cap on implementing reservations. The BJP`s attempts to malign Periyar as anti-Hindu and desecrating his statue created wide public resentment, including from the likes of actor Rajinikanth, who enjoyed proximity to the BJP.
Unlike Bengal, where desecration of Iswar Chand Vidyasagar’s statue was projected as anti-Hindu thereby polarising and bringing in a more robust Hindu identity; the same attempted strategy failed to yield results in Tamil Nadu. The BJP also got its alliance wrong in terms of occupying the space created with the untimely demise of All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader J Jayalalitha. Further, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief M.K.Stalin offered ideological resistance to the BJP in projecting it as anti-South and pro-Hindi, and a more open critique of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his role in withholding funds during the floods. In a sense, the BJP was caught without an effective narrative, the situation that much of the Opposition was in the rest of India.
Kerala also offered a stiff resistance under the leadership of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. The street mobilisation of the BJP-RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) combine around the issue of women’s entry to the Sabrimala shrine gained some initial traction, but counter-mobilisation presented an effective alternative, even if it was only in reinforcing a constitutionalist vision.
The RSS had made early inroads into Kerala under the watch of Golwalkar and effectively runs a large number of shakhas. Kasargod and Mallapuram were identified as the ‘hub’ of ISIS activities and it figured on the global map of terrorism with a few recruits to the ISIS.
The RSS also managed to create a controversy around its pet issue of conversion with the infamous Hadiya case. In spite of all these issues and narrative of a sense of hurt sentiment of the Hindus, the BJP found no traction. Alongside the role of the Left parties, this was possible because of the social character of Kerala that included common neighbourhoods belonging to different religions, which was possible due to the social reform movement carried out in the early colonial period by Narayana Guru. Kerala has remained high in literacy and is a robust welfare state with an effective public health system, education, and policies such as Kudumbashree for women. Kerala also has a sizeable middle and upper middle class constituted by Christians and Muslims, which makes it difficult to erase them from public presence and memory and ghettoise them. This makes spreading rumours and creating fake news all the more challenging.
Karnataka is one state that BJP could breach by combining the question of political representation to the Lingayats with communal polarisation. Congress managed to do well in countering this with the attempts to identify Lingayats as a separate religion, and projecting an OBC (Other Backward Class) leader Siddaramaiah, who is a known Lohiaite with socialist inclinations with an astute reading of the political situation. Independent and strong regional leadership in the Congress remains a prerequisite to contain the BJP.
Similarly, BJP could not open its account in the newly formed state of Andhra Pradesh. The strategy of the BJP to discredit Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader and then chief minister Chandrababu Naidu by not granting special status to the state and occupy the space, did not work. Similarly, though TDP lost very badly in the elections without winning a single seat, the focus on development and garnering more resources did not allow any space to the hyperbolic nationalism of BJP. Further, the Muslim population in Andhra Pradesh, which is less than 9%, is spread out without being concentrated in a few districts and the community is well integrated and speak fluent Telugu. The BJP-RSS are yet to find a foothold to target Muslims or raise the bogey of Hindus-under-threat in Andhra Pradesh.
The future of the BJP in the South has the best prospects in Telangana. They won four Lok Sabha seats in the recent general elections, and their vote percentage has also had a jumpstart. Telangana has the required social character for the BJP-RSS to find ground for its polarised narrative. It has a Muslim population close to 15%, concentrated in districts like Nizamabad, where the party won defeating Kavitha, the daughter of Telangana Rashtra Samithi leader and Chief Minister K Chandrasekhara Rao (KCR).
Telangana Muslims are represented by a Muslim party under Asaduddin Owaisi`s leadership, whose brother Akbaruddin is known to make fiery speeches against Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Socially, the Muslims of Telangana are not integrated, with the negligible middle class that declined in the state after Telugu was declared the official language replacing Urdu, and Muslims preferred Madrasa education in Urdu over formal education in Telugu.
The state also has a chequered history of communal riots, a popular memory of atrocities by the Nizam`s private militia called Razakars, though supported by the Reddy landlords during the heyday of the Telangana armed struggle. It was more about protecting the privileges of the Nizam and Reddy landlords but in popular memory, it is registered as Muslim atrocities against Hindu women.
With the decline of Left politics, withdrawal of Maoist politics from the plains, and depoliticisation of dalit politics, it is a matter of time before the BJP will storm to power and expand its base in Telangana. KCR did well to occupy the space of Hindu identity by performing yagyas and renovating religious places and temples. There is no wide-scale resentment as yet against the welfare policies for Muslims, including Shaadi Mubarak, and building separate social welfare hostels for Muslim students.
But, jobless growth, restless youth, continued agrarian distress, pending issues such as a temple sprouting attached to one of the pillars of the famous monument of Charminar, ascendance of the upper castes through the spread of the information technology sector who find their class interests protected by the project of Hinduisation, and long-time social ghettoisation of Muslims, provide for an ideal mushrooming ground for the BJP-RSS brand of politics. The TDP is facing a dead-end in Telangana, as the social base it had with the OBCs is now shifting to BJP. It has already become common place for youth to brandish trishuls (tridents) and a saffron flag, BJP was at the forefront of hijacking the issue of sub-division of reservations for the Scheduled Castes, and creating the bogey of terrorism with the appointment of Kishen Reddy as Minister of State for Home. KCR has bought time for himself by remaining close to BJP and is focused on disallowing space to the Congress. Telangana is likely to be the second stop for the saffron brigade in the South.
The writer is Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. The views are personal.