South side up: Why southern states could hold the balance of power in the general election

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Ever since Australian Stuart McArthur published his universal upside-down “universal corrective” map of the world in 1979, depicting the southern countries of the world on top and the north below them, it has served as a useful reminder of how geographic representations subliminally also shape our political perceptions.

The northern Hindi heartland dominates the national political narrative. The road to Delhi often passes through Lucknow, as the old political adage goes. But turn the map of India upside down and the electoral battle looks very different from the rhetoric of “Ali-Bajrang Bali”, the debate on “Hindu terror” and the “national-anti-national” fault lines that so animate political conversations above the Vindhyas.

How India’s southern states vote has often tilted the balance of power in Delhi ever since the era of coalition government started in 1989. BJP, for example, lost power in 2004 largely because its then allies south of the Vindhyas, AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and TDP in Andhra Pradesh, were routed. The 2014 election bucked the historical pattern because the Narendra Modi wave, over-riding traditional caste-based political arithmetic in the Hindi heartland and in west India, upended the usual framework of Indian politics. BJP’s 2014 landslide masked the fact that it was predicated on its electoral advances in just 12 (10 in the Hindi heartland and 2 in the west) of India’s 29 states – which accounted for 85% of all its seats.

In 2019, though, if BJP does not repeat the scale of its Hindi heartland victories, the big southern states will regain their traditional role as a fulcrum of power in Delhi. The result in the southern states will then have a huge bearing on government formation in Delhi and matter far beyond local interests alone.

Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala, Karnataka and the Union territory of Puducherry account for 130 seats in southern India – over one-fifth of Lok Sabha’s 543 seats. In 2014, in sharp contrast to the north, BJP won only 15% (21) of these south India seats and they accounted for only 7% of its total tally. How much can it hope to gain in 2019?

Tamil Nadu, where AIADMK won 37 of 39 seats in 2014, has voted in a watershed election, the first in the post- Jayalalithaa/Karunanidhi era. AIADMK has only contested 20 seats this time, with its 7 other NDA partners fighting on the rest (including 5 where BJP is contesting). In a state where power normally alternates and Dravidian self-pride has always been central to identity, NDA has two big problems. First, DMK’s meta-narrative that charges AIADMK with having turned into a puppet of Delhi. IT raids on DMK’s Kanimozhi less than two days before the polls did not help.

Second, AIADMK faces the serious challenge of a vote split by TTV Dhinakaran’s breakaway AMMK, which has put up rebel candidates in 38 seats, confusing traditional party voters. NDA, though, is banking on its caste arithmetic working, particularly in northern Tamil Nadu where its ally PMK has a strong Vanniyar vote – seats like Dharmapuri, Villuparam, Vellore, Cuddalore and Tiruvannamali – and in a couple of BJP’s 5 seats: Kanyakumari, which it won in 2014, Tuticorin, Sivaganga, Coimbatore and Ramanathapuram.

Karnataka is the only BJP flagpole state in the south, where it has consistently won a majority of parliamentary seats in the last three elections. Of 28 Lok Sabha seats here, BJP won 18 in 2004, 19 in 2009 and 17 in 2014. It also emerged as the single-largest party in the 2018 state assembly election.

Ground reports indicate BJP support remains high in the state’s north-western Mumbai-Karnataka region. Its core base in over 10 seats, in areas stretching from Belgaum and Uttar Kannada to Shimoga remains strong. However, combined Congress-JD(S) vote shares in the Hyderabad Karnataka region are higher than BJP’s in some seats it won in 2014. In traditional JD(S) bastions in the Mysore-Karnataka region, the UPA alliance has a mathematical edge on combined vote shares. It translates into closely fought contests in at least 6 of the 17 seats BJP won in 2014: Ballari, Koppal, Davangare, Mysore, Bidar and Haveri.

In Telangana and Andhra, the absence of both Congress and BJP as strong players is striking. The last two Congress regimes in Delhi, in 2004 and 2009, were both enabled by strong performances by the party in this region. If current trends hold, Jagan Reddy’s YSR-Congress Party in Andhra and K Chandrashekhar Rao’s TRS, which recently swept the 2018 Telangana assembly, are betting on having a strong play in the post-poll game of thrones in Delhi.

In Kerala, Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s candidature from Wayanad reflects his party’s southern revival gambit. More than any other state, Kerala also illustrates the challenges of wider opposition unity. Congress is head-to-head with CPM here in as many as 12 of 20 Lok Sabha seats. BJP is eyeing at least three seats: Pathanamthitta, home of the Sabarimala shrine, Thiruvananthapuram where it won 32% of the vote in 2014 to finish behind Congress’s Shashi Tharoor; and Chalakudy.

BJP had 21 seats in south India in 2014. Overall, marginal gains for it in the south now would only partly compensate for its possible relative losses in the Hindi heartland. Unlike in the north, UPA may have an advantage over NDA, but without clear dominance after losing ground in its old bastions of Andhra and Telangana. In case of a hung house, expect regional parties from the south to exert a strong influence in government formation in Delhi and return to their traditional national role as coalition power players.

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