India elections 2024: Can Narendra Modi's BJP win in the south?

Bharatiya Janata Party has historically been rejected in south Indian states

A supporter of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holds cutouts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election campaign where Modi speaks, in Bengaluru. Reuters
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“People here will never vote for Narendra Modi, he can never win in South India,” said Mohammad Sarfaraz, a resident of Hyderabad, the joint capital of India's southern states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. "All he knows is to divide Hindus and Muslims."

The 55-year-old rickshaw driver was expressing his views on Mr Modi’s efforts to make inroads in the region that has historically rejected his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

“People want peace. Government must offer peace and not indulge in politics of religion,” Mr Sarfaraz told The National.

As India undertakes the world’s largest elections, Mr Modi has been on whirlwind rallies in the country’s south.

India’s southern region is made up of five states - Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

The states have a combined population of 253 million people, as per the last census. They send 131 parliamentarians out of the total 543 to the Lok Sabha, or the lower house of parliament.

Mr Modi has confidently predicted that his ruling BJP will win 400 seats in a historic landslide. If his prediction comes true, it would be only the second time that a party won more than 400 seats, after the Indian National Congress - the main opposition to the BJP since 2014 - won 404 seats in 1984.

But Mr Modi's goal relies on winning a significant number of seats in the southern states, away from the BJP's heartland in northern and Central India.

The south of India has a strong regional identity, with its own history, culture, and languages, and provides a different challenge for the BJP.

‘Politics of religion’

Mr Modi, who first came to power in 2014 and won again with an even bigger mandate in 2019, has his core base in Hindi-speaking economically poorer north India and Central India.

The BJP has used religious sentiments to consolidate its Hindi-speaking Hindu vote bank in a region rife with religious and caste fault lines.

But in the south, the BJP performed dismally in 2019. It won just 30 seats across all five southern states.

In the southernmost Tamil Nadu, a crucial state with 39 seats, the BJP failed to win even a single seat.

For his 2024 campaign, Mr Modi has made ten trips to Tamil Nadu. He has also used AI to translate his speeches from Hindi to the regional Tamil language.

But experts predict Mr Modi will still struggle to make inroads in the state, due to his government’s divisive politics based on religion.

In the last ten-year rule, the prime minister has espoused the cause of Hindutva or Hindu hegemony agenda.

The BJP government has banned beef, popular in Kerala, and objected to students wearing hijab in Karnataka.

Mr Modi has been accused of continuing to exploit religious tensions during his campaign, most recently when he described Muslims as "infiltrators".

While polarisation has worked in the Hindi heartland, in South India it has been less effective.

The multi-religious region is home to Hindus, Christians, and Muslims who have been living in relatively harmony for centuries.

Unlike in northern India, where Muslims arrived in invading armies, Islam made its way to coastal southern India through Arab merchants and traders in the 7th century.

Despite being a deeply religious region, with some of India's largest Hindu temples and the country’s oldest mosque, most southern Indians consider themselves part of a united Dravidian race and not divided along religious lines.

“BJP has a huge challenge. One of the reasons is that these are not the states with Hindutva-driven politics. There is no space for BJP’s ideology," V Narayanan, a Chennai-based political analyst, told The National.

"The factors which helped it in the north like religion, are not the issues here.

“The equation between the minorities, particularly Muslims and Hindus is far different here…they speak the local language and there is no big cultural divide,” he said.

Development politics

The five southern states contribute more than 30 per cent of India's GDP and are collectively more prosperous than the northern states.

They have a higher literacy rate, higher per capita income, better health, and higher living standards.

Leftist-ruled Kerala, for instance, has the highest literacy in all of India, at 94 per cent. It had the lowest infant mortality rate at six per 1,000 in 2020 - better than some states in the US.

Tamil Nadu has the fourth lowest poverty rate with 4.8 per cent, whereas Karnataka’s unemployment rate was at 2.4 per cent - compared to the national average rate of 8 per cent in January.

In stark contrast, north India, while politically influential, is marred by high rates of unemployment, poverty, and scores poorly on health indexes.

India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has an infant mortality rate of 38 per 1,000 births in 2020. The BJP-ruled state is seen as vital electorally, as it sends 80 parliamentarians to the Lok Sabha.

Bihar, another politically significant electoral state, had 33.7 per cent people living in poverty in 2023.

In Mr Modi’s home state of Gujarat, 11.66 per cent of people lived in multidimensional poverty in 2023, according to government think tank Niti Ayog.

Regional parties

The BJP must also take on popular regional parties with long histories of success in the south.

In Tamil Nadu, the ruling DMK has been in politics since 1949, and won 38 seats in 2019. In Andhra Pradesh, the state's ruling YSR Congress had won 22 out of 25 seats in 2019 elections.

Kerala has one of the oldest parties, the ruling Communist Party of India that was formed in 1964. There is also Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh formed in 1982.

The political analyst, Mr Narayanan, said that local parties tend to better understand the issues of in the region.

While the BJP has accused the DMK of corruption, Narayanan says that they have not been seen as a deal-breaker for elections in the south.

“South is not a traditional BJP bastion and different parties have been ruling and winning, some for more than 50 years. Corruption is the plank of which BJP but for Tamils, it is not an issue,” Mr Narayanan said.

“There is a huge level of corruption but at the same time, Tamil Nadu has also developed on the Human Development Index. People think it is inevitable for parties not to be corrupt and don’t mind as long as they are given an easy life to grow."

Updated: April 26, 2024, 4:29 AM