Limits of 'Brand Modi' - BJP’s southern challenge

South India

If you read the national press, you would be forgiven for thinking that the coming election depends on whether Narendra Modi’s appeal as a strong Hindu nationalist leader can overcome the alliances forming to stop him in the Hindi heartland states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It’s as if the south of India doesn’t matter.

This narrative was reinforced following the military skirmishes with Pakistan, since anti-Islamabad sentiment is more intense in the north. Still, even with nationalist passions on the rise, the BJP would be hard pressed to surpass its 2014 showing in the Hindi heartland. Back then, it won nearly 90% of the seats in the northern states, but against a badly divided opposition, which is now coming together in some key states. In the south, meanwhile, the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana — where the BJP took just 21 of the 129 seats at stake in 2014 — alienation from Delhi simmers. Even if southern discomfort does not decide this election, it remains a solid obstacle to the BJP’s vision of a unitary India in the long run. 

The BJP’s appeals to Hindutva have not widened its base in the southern states. Outside a few pockets in Karnataka, even local BJP leaders distance themselves from the party’s hardline, northern strains of Hindutva. The BJP’s attempts to promote Hindi antagonizes many southerners, particularly in Tamil Nadu, where less than 5% of the population speaks Hindi and many hear it as an alien, unwelcome tongue. And the central government’s efforts to share revenues based on population sizes and consumption raises hackles in southern states, where population growth is much slower, wealth and productivity levels higher, and voters have long felt their tax payments were going to subsidize the poorer northern states.

I have been following Indian elections with a caravan of fellow writers since the late 1990s, and our first southern trip took us to Tamil Nadu in 2006. The Hindi speakers among us had often felt like outsiders, unable to understand Bengali in Bengal or even Bhojpuri in parts of Bihar, but the Tamils made it clear that the barrier went beyond language.

They heard Hindi the way some Frenchman react to English in the French countryside, as an offence to the ears. We relied on a couple of Tamil-speaking members of our caravan to translate and they sensed in voters a ‘Dravidian antagonism’ towards the BJP and its efforts to promote Hindi over local languages and English.

Ten years later, we returned for state elections and were struck again by the uniqueness of Tamil political culture, its insistence on posting street signs only in Tamil, its continued obsession with former film celebrities like Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. The national political parties were afterthoughts. 

Modi was now prime minister and the dominant name in Indian politics but when we asked Tamil voters about him, some shot back, only half in jest, “Modi who?” Meanwhile, the Congress was a rapidly shrinking force, and voters complained that the party’s Tamil leaders spent too much time in Delhi, too little building a local base.

Southern alienation will be hard to overcome for the BJP in a region where Modi’s charisma is lost in translation. We have seen Modi face language barriers even in the west, when we saw him address a rally in Maharashtra during our trip there in 2009, but never quite as dramatically as on our election trip last May to Karnataka. Support for the BJP ran high along the coast, but elsewhere in the state the party’s own leaders distanced themselves from the harsh conservatism of northern peers, including Yogi Adityanath, the controversial BJP chief minister of UP. He was invited to campaign in Karnataka, but only in a few coastal areas.

Once we turned inland, bound for Bengaluru, support for the BJP faded rapidly. At a rally in Tumakuru, two hours north of Bengaluru, the crowd chanted Modi’s name when he greeted them with a few words in Kannada. Then he switched to Hindi with a Kannada translator, and suddenly the energy evaporated. 

At a climactic moment in the speech, Modi demanded to know what the Congress had done over many decades in power to ease the debts driving poor farmers to suicide. The crowd was supposed to answer “Nothing!” but stayed silent, apparently not comprehending the question. 

It’s not just Modi. Any northern leader would have to overcome intense local loyalties in the south, where each state has distinct cultural traditions, and voters often feel an emotional connection to their regional leaders. 

On our subsequent election trips to the south, the biggest concern we heard about the BJP was not its conservative Hindu-centrism, but its perceived northern bias. Our 2018 trip featured a dinner party at the home of Bengaluru business legend and former Congress party candidate Nandan Nilekani. The guests included local political experts, scholars and writers, and the conversation shifted from grousing about the Delhi focus of national policy makers and media to the future of our host.

Emotions peaked when Ramachandra Guha, the famed historian from Bengaluru, stood up and announced, “You heard it here first. If the south were ever to separate from the north, the first prime minister of an independent south India will be Nandan Nilekani!” Though said in jest, the joke did expose the lingering southern resentment against the north.

Today, southern solidarity is hardening around the tax consequences of India’s shifting demographics. Southern leaders had long complained that for every Rs 100 in taxes, Delhi delivers up to Rs 200 in federal funding to populous northern states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, as little as Rs 30 to southern states like Karnataka or Tamil Nadu. And now, the central government is considering a new distribution of tax revenues, based on updated census figures, which is likely to end up channeling more revenue to the fast-growing populations of the north.

In the long run, the welter of southern resentments threatens to simmer along as a low level of clash of civilizations, diluted by the fact that like the north, the south rarely presents a united front. The current battle between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over water rights is just one example of myriad intra-southern disputes over commerce, caste, religion, culture, language and borders. But the south does share a gut suspicion of northern bias in Delhi, a deep loyalty to local cultures, and a growing concern that the north is angling to take more of the nation’s tax revenue. Given how different the regions are, it is almost impossible to cater to both the north and the south, which curbs the reach of any nationalist movement in India. 

(The writer is a global investor and bestselling author. This article has been adapted from his new book, Democracy on the Road: A 25-Year Journey Across India)

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Limits of 'Brand Modi' - BJP’s southern challenge

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