BJP may need to rework strategy for south India, say analysts

The silver lining for BJP is that it managed to retain its vote share of 36 per cent from the previous election in Karnataka, with Congress getting 42.88 per cent.

Nirmala Ganapathy

Nirmala Ganapathy

The Straits Times


BJP workers and supporters waiting to see Indian PM Narendra Modi during a road rally in Bengaluru on May 6, ahead of the Karnataka assembly election. PHOTO: AFP

May 18, 2023

NEW DELHI – Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has lost its foothold in southern India following a loss in state elections in Karnataka last week, a setback to plans to expand its political influence deeper in the south, said analysts.

The Congress party swept the Karnataka assembly election, winning 135 of the 224 seats. BJP, which was in power, took just 66 seats, according to results announced on May 13. In 2018, Congress won 80 seats and BJP, 104.

Analysts noted that the party would likely have to tweak its strategy in the south of the country, which also includes the states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana, where its presence is weaker than in Karnataka.

“The reason for the loss of the BJP in Karnataka, which was considered a gateway to south India, is one, anti-incumbency because there were corruption allegations against the state government and people were dissatisfied with the slow progress of development,” said Dr S.Y. Surendra Kumar, a political science professor at Bangalore University.

“The second thing is overdependence on Prime Minister Modi, with the BJP depending on him to cover up anti-incumbency.”

Other factors were the lack of strong leadership and the ability of Congress to capitalise on BJP missteps.

“The BJP needs to revamp its strategy in the south,” added Dr Kumar.

In the south, BJP has come up against powerful provincial chiefs like Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) leader and Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin.

Linguistic and cultural differences are also hurdles. BJP’s effort to give pre-eminence to Hindi – commonly spoken in the country’s central belt and other parts – has resonated in the north but not in the south, which has its own languages such as Tamil, Kannada and Telugu.

“What works in the north doesn’t work in the south. One lesson is you need strong state leadership,” noted Dr Kumar.

Still, the silver lining for BJP is that it managed to retain its vote share of 36 per cent from the previous election in Karnataka, with Congress getting 42.88 per cent.

In the south, BJP next faces a tough election in Telangana against TRS at the end of 2023.

Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and national coordinator of research programme Lokniti Network, said: “It remains to be seen if the BJP is able to put up a credible fight in Telangana. This is their best bet in the south.”

India will also see a clutch of important state elections in the northern states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, apart from Telangana, ahead of the 2024 General Election.

Mr Modi will seek a third term in power after two landslide wins in 2014 and 2019.

The loss in Karnataka does not impact his popularity as a national leader, nor does it take away the edge BJP has in the run-up to the general election, noted analysts.

In India, voters are known to vote differently in state elections, where local issues matter, and general elections where national issues and national leaders take centre stage.

Mr Ashok Malik, a partner at strategic consultancy The Asia Group and chair of its India practice, said: “The Congress victory in the Karnataka election has made the upcoming state elections later this year very competitive.

“But voters often distinguish between national and state elections. Parliamentary elections tend to be influenced by larger factors, including leadership and national security, that motivate a pan-Indian, macroeconomic middle class. Here, Mr Modi and the BJP have an advantage for 2024.”

South India accounts for 129 of the 543 seats in the country’s Parliament, with BJP seeking newer areas of influence should anti-incumbency impact areas where it won in 2019. BJP won 29 seats in the 2019 parliamentary elections in the southern states.

One development in Karnataka that political watchers are looking at closely is the consolidation of Muslim votes behind Congress and whether this will be reflected elsewhere in the country.

Mr Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political scientist, wrote in The Indian Express newspaper: “But, at least in Karnataka, there is overwhelming evidence that the minorities, the socially and economically marginalised groups, supported Congress in far greater proportion.

“The big question is whether this divide portends a national fault line that can be exploited. Or rather, the question to be asked is, under what conditions and messaging can this become a national fault line?”

For instance, Karnataka’s Education Minister B.C. Nagesh, who was key in enforcing a hijab (Islamic headscarf) ban in the state’s educational institutes, did not win the assembly seat of Tiptur.

Congress, on the other hand, has got a boost from the Karnataka victory, which is expected to further fuel talks among opposition parties for an alliance in 2024.

“I hope all non-BJP parties come together and see that the BJP is defeated,” said former chief minister Siddaramaiah.

Meanwhile, Indian media, quoting sources, reported that Mr Siddaramaiah, 75, was set to be the next Karnataka chief minister. He has been in a tussle with Congress Karnataka chief D.K. Shivakumar, 61, for the top post. Both have taken credit for the party’s triumph.

BJP said it will identify reasons for the “disappointing result” but remains confident of a win in 2024.

Analysts said it remains to be seen if Congress can mount an effective campaign for the 2024 General Election as well. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been unable to take on Mr Modi either in the 2014 or 2019 elections.

Dr Kumar said: “Even in Karnataka, when it comes to general elections, national issues are important and Modi appeals to youngsters, backward classes and women.

“The BJP has an edge, but if Congress can keep up the momentum, then things might change.”

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