A meme of a young man giving a friend circuitous directions to his home on the phone, stubbornly refusing to mention the exact district, emerged shortly after India’s election results were announced on June 4. The protagonist in the Instagram story was embarrassed to admit that he hails from Thrissur, the first-ever Parliament seat the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has managed to win in Malayalam-speaking Kerala state in south India.


Until now, the highly literate and liberal Kerala state had turned its nose up at the BJP, which was regarded as too north Indian, too Hindu nationalist and not progressive enough. But third time’s the charm for former actor Suresh Gopi. After being routed in two elections, he finally won in
2024.


The win in Thrissur and some gains in Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh and Telangana helped the BJP break new ground in southern India, where Indian languages other than Hindi are more pervasive.
The BJP’s gentle entry in the south is not an aberration, but a beginning, said Dr D. Dhanuraj,
chairman of Kochi-based think-tank Centre for Public Policy Research.


There are signs the BJP has made some inroads with voters in south India, even though the net loss of seats in Karnataka and a failure to pierce through the dominance of regional parties in Tamil Nadu meant the BJP garnered only 29 out of the 129 seats collectively in the five southern India states, while the Congress won 40. South India’s sheer diversity and greater wealth have historically presented a more difficult proposition for caretaker Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP, with its brand of Hindu nationalism. Each south Indian state is a veritable country, with its own core issues, strong local parties and unique political traditions. Analysts said the 2024 General Election results show that the BJP is learning to adapt in the south, like the affable Mr Gopi, who wooed the Christian voters in his constituency by quoting Bible verses and citing his Catholic school background.


In Kerala, candidates from the Congress-led Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (India) won 18 of 20 seats, but the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) raised its vote share from 15.6 per cent in 2019 to 17 per cent in 2024. Kerala, with its communist history and large populations of influential Christians and Muslims, has long resisted the BJP, although the party’s ideological parent and Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has been active in the state since the 1940s.


“The BJP is now on the threshold of creating a triangular contest in Kerala that has had a two-party fight (between the Left and Congress alliance) for decades. It is pulling traditional Hindu votes from the Left alliance as there is dissatisfaction with the ruling state government,” said Mr Dhanuraj.

In Tamil Nadu, the BJP did not win any seats despite a high decibel campaign by the BJP state president K. Annamalai. Still, the party increased its vote share from 3.6 per cent in 2019 to 10.7 per cent in 2024. The India bloc, powered by the state’s ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, swept the election, winning all 39 seats. The losses in Karnataka, the southern state friendliest to the BJP, were most worrisome for the party. The state’s urban voters in the tech and start-up hub of Bengaluru embraced the p e party, but the BJP won only 17 seats in 2024, compared with the 25 out of 28 seats it won in 2019. BJP also saw its vote share fall to 46 per cent in 2024 from 51.3 per cent in 2019, while its winning margins fell in 13 seats.
State BJP spokesman M. G. Mahesh attributed the setbacks to “our mistakes in selection of candidates”.
In Telangana, the BJP has been making substantial gains in the past decade, as the strongest local party Bharat Rashtra Samiti (BRS) implodes with corruption allegations and nepotism, said analysts.


In 2024, the BJP won eight of the 17 Parliament seats in the state, in a tie with the Congress Party. BJP’s vote share increased from 19 per cent in 2019 to 35 per cent in 2024. “The BJP simply replaced the vacuum created by the BRS, at whom voters are very angry. It was the BRS that helped the BJP grow in the state, to kill the Congress, but now it has become irrelevant,” said political analyst Vanaja C., founder of Mahua Media, an online Telugu channel. Meanwhile, loyal caste affiliations in Andhra Pradesh make it near impossible for national parties to make a mark without regional satraps. The BJP reaped the dividends of an alliance with Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Telugu actor Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party, helping the NDA win 21 of 25 seats in the state.


“The TDP might turn out to be the NDA’s most complicated ally because its leader Chandrababu Naidu aligns with Mr Modi’s development and foreign investment agenda, but is quite socially liberal and secular,” said Ms Padmaja Shaw, retired professor of journalism at Osmania University. The BJP lost its Lok Sahba majority after many north Indian strongholds abandoned the party at this election. Its haul of 240 seats fell short of the 272 needed to form. government on its own. Mr Modi looks set for a third term, though in partnership with NDA coalition partners.


“When in a national coalition with secular regional parties like the TDP, the BJP will be forced to moderate its hardline religious politics. A soft Hindu nationalism and development agenda will help make the BJP more appealing to southern voters going forward,” Mr Dhanuraj said.


News Published in The Straits Times

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.

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