Elections 2019: Can the BJP make inroads into South India?

The BJP’s prospects in the southern states, save Karnataka, will remain limited in Elections 2019, suggest data from previous polls

New Delhi: Traditionally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been perceived as a North Indian party, with limited influence beyond the Hindi-speaking states. While the party has done much to change this perception, notching up a host of victories in the country’s North-East, the South Indian states remain its Achilles heel. Even in 2014, when the BJP swept the Lok Sabha elections, it won a mere 21 seats in the five southern states, or 19% of the 112 seats on offer. By contrast, in the rest of the country, the BJP won 60% of seats on offer.

Not only has the number of southern seats won by the BJP remained constant, the party has also failed to expand beyond its traditional strongholds in Karnataka. A comparison between the 1998 and 2014 elections shows that the BJP’s victories are mostly confined to coastal and north Karnataka.

In 2014, the BJP, acknowledging its shortcomings in the southern states, competed only in 67 seats (out of 112). It secured a vote share of 31% across these seats and won in 21 (31% of contested seats). While this was lower than the BJP’s national performance where it secured 40% vote share and 66% seats in the seats it contested, it was still an improvement over the BJP’s previous performance in the South. In the 2009 elections when the BJP was more ambitious, competing in 106 seats, it won only 19 seats (18%). In the forthcoming elections, the BJP is expected to follow a targeted strategy, focusing on fewer constituencies, and relying on allies in other constituencies.

In Karnataka, the only southern state where the BJP is a force to reckon with, it will be hoping to build on previous electoral successes.

The BJP has been the best performing party in terms of total seats won in the state over the past three general elections (since 2004). In the 2018 state assembly elections, the BJP won in constituencies beyond its traditional strongholds along the coast. All this suggests that the BJP should perform well in the state. However, the pre-poll alliance announced by the Congress and the JD(S) (Janata Dal Secular) could hurt its prospects. Had the Congress-JD(S) alliance existed in 2014, it would have secured 13 seats and brought down the BJP total to 15 (from 17).

The rest of South India, however, presents a far greater challenge for the BJP. Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are bastions of regional parties, where the BJP has struggled historically. These regional parties hold sway by appealing to local sensibilities, pride, culture and language, thereby denting the BJP’s nationalist appeal. The BJP, therefore, remains a fringe player, heavily reliant on alliances with regional parties.

Also read: Elections 2019: How Delhi is making inroads into the Dravidian heartland

In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, on the two occasions when the BJP performed reasonably well (1999 and 2014), it did so in alliance with the TDP (Telugu Desam Party). In 2009, when the TDP withdrew from the NDA (National Democratic Alliance), the BJP suffered a humiliating defeat, winning no seats. Similarly, in Tamil Nadu, the last time it won a meaningful number of seats (four) was in 1999, when it was in alliance with the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and Vaiko’s MDMK (Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam). Since then, the party has been blanked out completely, winning only a solitary seat in 2014 in Kanyakumari.

In these elections, the party so far remains without allies in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, leaving K. Chandrasekhar Rao and Chandrababu Naidu as potentially decisive kingmakers in the overall verdict. A reported potential alliance with Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSRCP (Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party), which won eight seats in the 2014 elections, could boost the BJP’s prospects in Andhra Pradesh. However, the BJP can be more optimistic about its prospects in Tamil Nadu, where it has secured a pre-poll deal with the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), the current ruling party in the state assembly and the winner of 37 seats in 2014.

This combined with the BJP itself competing in five seats could mean a marked improvement for the party in Tamil Nadu. But even these potential gains could be hindered by the potential Congress-DMK alliance.

The one state where the BJP is unlikely to make any inroads is Kerala. Despite competing in a large number of seats historically against the Congress and the coalition of Left parties, the BJP is yet to win a single seat in the state.

Given this, even the recent polarization around the Sabarimala issue is unlikely to help the BJP secure a foothold in its last frontier in the country.

Save for a miracle then, historical data suggests that there is unlikely to be a dramatic turnaround in the BJP’s fortunes in South India in the forthcoming elections.

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