Narendra Modi’s Southern Discomfort

Narendra Modi’s Southern Discomfort 

Narendra Modi’s Southern Discomfort

If you go by the media, both Indian and international, the Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory in the yet to happen parliamentary elections in India is already baked in, which is to say that it is a conclusion that has preceded the actual event. With a degree of certainty that view does not vary much, as most political sages, whether in the media or in the wise environment of every Indian living room, are sanguine that Modi and his party will win a third term in government when the elections are held and the results come out in mid-May this year.

They are probably right. Modi himself has been quoted as saying that he could “gauge the mood of the nation”, and that voters “will definitely give the NDA (the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance) more than 400 seats and the BJP at least 370 seats.” In 2019, the NDA won 353 seats, 303 of them won by the BJP on its own. That is an impressive tally but still not as massive as the 404 seats that the Congress party, led by Rajiv Gandhi, won back in 1984, after the assassination of his mother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Can the BJP and its allies match that feat in this year’s elections? Modi’s regime enjoys very high approval ratings. He himself is among the most popular leaders that post-Independent India has had. In fact, according to one global survey, he continues to hold the title of the world’s most popular leader, with an impressive approval rating of 76%. His regime will obviously benefit from a number of factors at this year’s polls, which are expected to begin in April.

For one, the Indian economy’s performance has been outstanding, at least in terms of macroeconomic numbers. Not only has India been the fastest growing among the world’s largest economies (its GDP of $3.2 trillion makes it the world’s fifth-largest economy), according to official figures released last week, its GDP surged 8.4% in the last three months of 2023 compared with the previous year, up from a growth of 7.6% in the June-to-September period. India has overtaken countries such as the UK, France, Italy, Canada, and Brazil, and despite challenges like demonetisation, GST reforms, and the COVID pandemic, the economy has shown remarkable resilience. Inequality and job creation remain problematic but overall the Indian economy has fared well.

Besides, the Modi government has accelerated infrastructure projects, such as impressive new highways. On average, 36 km of highways are built daily, more than triple the earlier pace. It has also doubled the capacity of solar and wind-powered energy in the past five years. The average Indian citizen has also benefited from initiatives such as Swachh Bharat (a cleanliness drive), digitisation of subsidy and social welfare benefits, as also housing for the poor, and piped water supply. The Modi regime’s foreign policy stance has improved India’s global standing and its rising stature has rubbed off on people’s national pride. 

BJP also finds support among large proportions of India’s majority community of Hindus, and actions such as the recent lavish inauguration of a temple in Ayodhya on a site where a mosque was demolished three decades ago have only strengthened that support. 

Discordant notes from the South

Still, such positive factors for the Modi government could be dampened by some disharmony. In southern India, the BJP has not fared well. Continued efforts by the BJP and its allies to increase their influence in the south have not been successful. In southern states, the BJP faces strong opposition from regional parties and the opposition’s Congress party.

In Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana, the BJP’s attempts to make political inroads have not worked out. In Tamil Nadu, the ruling party is the regional All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK); in Kerala, it is the Left Democratic Front (LDF); in Andhra Pradesh, the government is led by the regional Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP); and in Telangana, it is a Congress-led government that is in power since December 2023. In Karnataka, the only southern state where the BJP made significant inroads and ruled during 2018-2023 (save a short interruption by the Janata Party), it was dislodged last year by the Congress. 

Let’s do a bit of math. The BJP’s tally from the south in national elections has not been heartening for it either. Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala, Karnataka, and Puducherry together have 130 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha. In the 2019 elections, while BJP and its allies swept the northern states, in the southern states, they managed to win only 30 seats, 25 of them from Karnataka. In contrast, of the 91 seats that the Congress-led UPA won in 2019 Lok Sabha, 58 were from the southern states. The BJP’s foothold in the south is clearly weak.

There are non-political disparities between India’s northern and southern states as well. Data shows that southern Indian states consistently outperform the rest of the country in health, education, and economic opportunities. There is enough evidence to suggest that a child born in southern India is more likely to live a healthier, wealthier, and more socially impactful life compared to a child born in the north. 

Interestingly, at India’s independence in 1947, southern states (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh) were mostly in the middle or bottom in terms of development. However, since the 1980s, southern states have diverged positively compared to the rest of India, with accelerated progress.

The combined population of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Puducherry is estimated at 250 million, representing approximately 18% of India’s population, but Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, alone has an estimated population of more than 240 million. A lower population has its advantages.

The progressiveness of the southern states and their economic performance is demonstrated by their per capita GDPs and how those stack up with the rest of India’s states and Union Territories. While, small states such as Goa, Sikkim and Delhi understandably top the list of per capita GDP rankings in India, it is significant that some of the southern states such as Telangana (at the fifth spot), Karnataka (at the sixth), Tamil Nadu (at the ninth), and Kerala (at the 11th) are way higher than, say, northern states such as Uttar Pradesh (at 32), Bihar at (33), and Madhya Pradesh (at 25).

India is likely one of the most complex countries in the world with a degree of heterogeneity across regions that is unparalleled elsewhere. The differences are sharpest between the north and the south. Besides linguistic, cultural, and traditional differences with the north, the southern states have never really accepted some aspects of the BJP’s nationalistic stance. The party is still viewed as a northern party from the Hindi belt and Hindi has never really become a part of linguistic array in the south. Not surprisingly, the BJP’s efforts to spread its influence in the southern states have largely failed.

So if we come back to the math and consider the BJP’s aim of getting 400 plus seats in the elections this year, the numbers, as the idiom says, might just not add up.

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