Home / Politics / News /  How the Modi wave bypassed southern states

NEW DELHI/ MUMBAI : Shortly after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the 2019 elections, one trending Twitter topic was “#TNrejectsBJP" as Tamilians celebrated their rejection of the national consensus. Apart from Karnataka, the south remained largely untouched by the Modi wave in an election where the BJP swept Lok Sabha constituencies with big margins across the country. The southern resistance is, however, in keeping with history. In several previous wave elections, voters in the south have preferred to choose either home-grown parties or the one that was being rejected elsewhere.

The first instance of this came 52 years ago when in 1967, amid a nationwide Congress sweep, Tamil Nadu voted for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and Kerala voted for the Communist Party of India (Marxist). A decade later, in the post-Emergency 1977 elections, as the rest of India unanimously rejected the Congress, the south continued to vote for India’s Grand Old Party, helping it secure the most seats in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. As the rest of the country voted in large numbers for the BJP in 2014 and 2019, the south has charted its own path.

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The BJP’s vote share across the five southern states was 17.6%, well below its national vote share of 38%. The party could only secure 29 seats (25 of which were in Karnataka) of the 88 constituencies it contested, a 33% success rate and half the success rate it registered in the rest of the country (66%).

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One big reason for this is the historical dominance of regional parties in the south. Tamil Nadu’s politics has been dominated by the battle between the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, who since 1996, have secured at least 60% of the vote share between them. Even in Andhra Pradesh, where the Congress has historically been a key player, its influence has waned following the formation of the YSR Congress Party, which swept both the state assembly and Lok Sabha elections this time. Consequently, BJP has been restricted to alliances in both states.

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The BJP’s only big success in the south this time came from Karnataka, which it has swept, winning 25 of 28 Lok Sabha constituencies. The BJP’s dominance is particularly strong in north-west Karnataka, where it is establishing a stronghold. In this region of Karnataka, the party has now secured 15 seats consecutively over the last three elections.

According to the Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) post-poll survey, support for Modi and dissatisfaction with the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) government have driven the BJP’s surge in Karnataka. The BJP is extremely popular among the Lingayat community, the dominant group in north Karnataka, and secured 87% of the Lingayat vote in these elections, according to data from the Lokniti-CSDS survey.

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Kerala has been for the Congress what Karnataka has been for the BJP in the 2019 elections, with the party managing to win only a few constituencies (winning eight constituencies in Tamil Nadu and three in Telangana) outside Kerala. Within Kerala, the party, along with its allies, won 19 out of 20 constituencies. According to Lokniti-CSDS, in Kerala, the Congress was able to tap into anti-BJP sentiments and dissatisfaction with the previous government.

Although the Congress’ performance in the south has not really been stellar, given its overall low count of Lok Sabha seats, its Lok Sabha contingent has heavy representation from the south (52% of MPs) in contrast to the BJP ( 9.6%).

The north-south political divide could have important repercussions on India’s polity and economy in the years to come.

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The past few years have witnessed growing friction among states on revenue sharing and devolution of resources, with politicians in the south demanding that they should not be burdened because of the north’s poverty. Politicians from the south have raised concerns about the south contributing more to the central exchequer, but receiving less in return compared to the northern states.

These concerns are not entirely backed by facts, as a previous Plain Facts column by Tadit Kundu had pointed out. While the five southern states together received far less than what they contributed to the central exchequer in 2016-17, several states across northern and western India were also in the same club. The divide is really one between poorer and northern states. Nonetheless, the claim that the south pays more than what it gets from the Union has resonance in a region where growing migration and a shared history of anti-Hindi agitations have bred distrust of the north.

These complaints are getting louder because of the goods and services tax (GST) and demographic changes. One complaint about GST is that it reduces state financial autonomy and increases dependence on central transfers. The formula used for central transfers is also proving contentious. The Fifteenth Finance Commission is mandated to use 2011 population data as a parameter when calculating central transfers.

Southern governments, having successfully contained population growth, claim that using 2011 population data would penalize them for their progress. The south’s slower population growth will also affect the nation’s politics.

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The Constitution of India mandates the number of parliamentary seats to be proportional to population. Currently, the state-wise seat distribution is as per the 1971 population census with further revisions postponed to the first census after 2026. By then, though, there could be a significant difference in the south’s population compared to the rest of India. According to political scientist Milan Vaishnav, the southern states would lose 26 seats to northern states. If that happens, then the BJP’s relative lack of success in the south would no longer even matter for national politics.

This is the first of a five-part series on the Lok Sabha election verdict.

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