In the 2019 general election, Karnataka was the only state in the south where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) notched up more than half the vote share (51.4 per cent). The five states in the region send 129 members to Parliament, so it was no surprise that a concerted campaign was launched to enlarge the saffron footprint before 2024 and the next Lok Sabha election. The party also knew that for this to happen, leveraging the state assembly election was crucial like it did in Karnataka in 2018 (it polled 36.2 per cent of the vote and fell just nine short of the majority in the 224-seat house).
The BJP is not in a similar position in any other southern state but it is making deft moves to widen the support base and become a force in the state assemblies, all of which go to the polls before 2024 (except for Andhra Pradesh, where election is scheduled the same year as the general election). Long-term strategies differ, though, from one state to the next. Social engineering by winning over select disadvantaged groups, taking on board their issues and espousing their cause, and the tried-and-tested poll booth-level committees are common strategies. But to become a decisive presence, wooing and enlisting local political heavyweights and influencers is essential, and that depends on the ground realities in individual states.
In July 2019, soon after the Lok Sabha poll, the BJP appointed B.L. Santhosh as general secretary (organisation). Santhosh, a native of Udupi in Karnataka, had played a big role in the party’s rise in the state. He was now entrusted with ‘Mission Kamalam’, the saffron party’s big push into the south. The larger focus is, of course, 2024, but the build-up will use every poll leading up to the general election to build the cadre and enlarge the voter base. This means strengthening the cadre down to the polling booth level, and in many cases down to the level of panna pramukh or voter sheet in-charge (who is assigned pages of the voters’ lists). While Tamil Nadu and Kerala head for the assembly polls in April- May next, Karnataka and Telangana are set for April and November 2023, and Andhra Pradesh in April-May 2024.
THE DECISIVE EDGE
In Telangana, the only other southern state where the BJP won four Lok Sabha seats, besides the 26 in Karnataka in 2019, the recent Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation poll (GHMC) results seem to suggest that a shift is already happening. A high-decibel campaign by the BJP with several of its national leaders descending on Hyderabad hit the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) hard. In an election that drew less than half the electorate out on polling day, the TRS vote share (35.8 per cent) was only marginally better than the BJP’s (35.6 per cent). Significantly, the BJP’s vote share was up by an astounding 25.2 per cent from the previous election in 2016.
When the TRS advanced the last assembly election by about six months to 2018 and resorted to Machiavellian tactics like poaching leaders, notably from the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Congress, to cripple the opposition and stifle criticism, the BJP sensed that a space was opening up. It dispatched its cadre to the villages to enrol members and assigned them to distinct election booth panels. Local leaders were briefed to make common cause with the people on village- and district-level issues. Party flags were hoisted in the villages to register its presence.
Despite the stupendous efforts, the BJP won just one seat in the 119 assembly constituencies, Goshamahal, the smallest of them all and in urban Hyderabad, creating the perception that it was far from being a force. But even after the defeat, the party did not allow cadre enthusiasm to flag. Meanwhile, an opportunity presented itself when the death of a sitting TRS MLA forced a byelection to the Dubbaka seat in November 2019. The BJP again mounted an aggressive campaign, and this time, it edged out the TRS.
The cadre were on a high and the BJP realised that the win, even if by a narrow margin, would help it in the impending GHMC polls for which it had already identified candidates. So when a jittery TRS chief K. Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) advanced the polls by two months, the BJP knew they were on to something. Firebrand Bandi Sanjay Kumar, the party MP from KCR’s native Karimnagar, who was inducted as state party president earlier in the year, relied on his RSS background and the clout of his community cohort among the OBCs (he’s a Munnuru Kapu), to optimise party poll prospects.
It enabled the BJP to improve its tally from four to 48, and ensure that no party got a clear majority in the 150-seat GHMC. With the passing away of another TRS MLA even before the GHMC poll results came in, the combative BJP began instantly planning for the impending bypoll for the Nagarjunasagar seat, by trying to woo Raghuveer Reddy, the son of Congress leader Jana Reddy, who had lost to the TRS in the previous assembly poll.
While roping in influential leaders and celebrities from other parties is a time-tested tactic, the BJP is also sending out its state-level leaders on yatras to increase mass contact and attract the youth. In Telangana, the party’s target is to assume power after the next assembly poll, due in November 2022. To further its growth plans in the state, the RSS has posted Sunil Ambekar as the sah prachar pramukh based in Hyderabad. He was the ABVP’s national organisation secretary for over 15 years.
But before Telangana, there are the assembly elections in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, due in April-May 2021. After getting its first-ever MLA elected on a BJP ticket in Kerala in 2016, the party is bracing to become a reasonable force by cobbling together a coalition of smaller parties. But it’s still some distance away from breaking the see-saw control of the state which alternates between the Communists-steered Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front. The local body election results on December 16 will be of no help in this. The party made a few gains in the gram panchayats, but after a vitriolic social media campaign, did worse than expected even in RSS strongholds like Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur.
The BJP’s plan in the past few years has been to project itself as a third alternative, playing the Hindutva card and raking up sensitive issues like women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple. The NDA had in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll got a 15.6 per cent voteshare—the BJP 13 per cent, the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (a consolidation of the Hindu Ezhava community) 1.9 per cent and Kerala Congress (P.C. Thomas faction) 0.8 per cent by improving its vote tally in the Thrissur, Pathanamthitta, Attingal and Thiruvananthapuram constituencies. Having stunned Kerala by winning its first-ever assembly seat in 2016 (Nemom in Thiruvananthapuram district), the BJP will be hoping to build on this next summer.
Apart from the Hindu consolidation, the BJP is wooing the Christians and Muslims too. So it’s playing both sides in the Orthodox-Jacobite war over the ownership of churches among the Syrian Christian communities, while also trying to exploit the power struggle in the Syro-Malabar Church among the Roman Catholics. The RSS has also set up an affiliate, the Rashtriya Christian Manch, along with a reoriented Rashtriya Muslim Manch, to focus on new supporters. The BJP and its NDA constituents have committees set up in 30,450 of the 34,780 polling booths across the state. A constituency-wise micro plan has also been drawn up, with the party focus on Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Pathanamthitta, Alappuzha, Thrissur, Palakkad and Kasargod among the state’s 14 districts.
The BJP also wants to capitalise on the disenchantment among Christian leaders over the growing influence of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in the UDF in Kerala. To this end, Christian Rashtriya Manch chief and party spokesman Tom Vadakkan is rallying church leaders for a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to share their concerns about minority welfare benefits being cornered by the Muslims and the alleged rise in ‘love jihad’ cases. “Through the special outreach programme, we have also explained every detail of the Citizenship Amendment Act to religious leaders and cleared their apprehensions about the flow of international funds to NGOs and church affiliates. These are being reviewed by concerned agencies on a case to case basis,” says Vadakkan.
A DAUNTING TASK
In Tamil Nadu, the BJP is trying to make space between two well-entrenched Dravidian parties, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). It has an alliance with the AIADMK and also in the works is a plan to persuade superstar Rajinikanth to join hands with it. But it is also wary of Rajini, who is expected to announce the arrival of his new party on New Year’s eve, joining hands with actor-politician Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (see Upfront: The Promise of Change).
“We are watching their moves, but our focus is on building the party across caste lines. The BJP is committed to Hindutva, development and nationalismthat is how we explain it to voters,” says C.T. Ravi, party in-charge for organisational affairs in Tamil Nadu. To improve its presence, the BJP state president L. Murugan, a Dalit who was app-ointed earlier this year, embarked on a month-long
religious political roadshow, the Vetrivel Yatra. Though it was a damp squib, Murugan claims the BJP will possibly win 50 of the 234 assembly seats (ass-uming that many will be offered to the saffron party in the seat sharing).
With Murugan at the helm, the BJP also hopes to fend off flak from the DMK about it being a party of Brahmins. “In 2016, when we fought alone, we were second and third in 35 seats. Our votes made a difference to the results in 90 seats,” claims Murugan, though the party got only 2.9 per cent of the total vote. After evaluating the constituencies that could be conducive to its interests, the BJP is focusing on Coimbatore, Tirupur, Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli districts. Party president J.P. Nadda, after recovering from Covid, is expected to reach Chennai on New Year’s eve to launch a high octane campaign. This will be followed by visits of other national leaders, following the template used in Hyderabad ahead of the GHMC polls.
Riding high on the success in Hyderabad, BJP national general secretary and Andhra Pradesh in-charge Sunil Deodhar has begun consultations to find ways for the party to eat into the vote share of the regional heavyweights, N. Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the ruling Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress party of Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy. Deodhar claims the huge unemployment in Andhra Pradesh is due to the ‘failed’ schemes of the YSRC. “Their policies are harming the state’s economic growth,” he insists.
Currently, the BJP is soft on the YSRC, as it is a dependable ally in the Rajya Sabha, but the state unit is building its support by poaching from the TDP besides allying with the actor Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena party that enjoys the backing of the Kapu community cohort. Influential Rajya Sabha members Y.S. Chowdary and C.M. Ramesh have defected from the TDP to the BJP (they were being probed for financial irregularities by the Enforcement Directorate) and more are expected to desert the TDP ranks in a similar manner. The party is already eyeing its prospects as the main challenger (dislodging the TDP in Naidu’s home district Chittoor) in the upcoming Lok Sabha bypoll for the Tirupati seat caused by the death of the incumbent YSRC member.
“The BJP strategy is to try and drain the TDP cadre even as the middle class vote shifts to it while also identifying a young leader like the firebrand Bandi Sanjay Kumar in Telangana to take the battle to the established parties,” says analyst Dr D. Balasubrahmanyam. The RSS is working on other challenges too. “It is building support for the BJP through propaganda besides raising heat on issues such as the alleged rise in Christian proselytisation since the YSRC took over,” says Ravi Komarraju, former professor of political science, Andhra University.
In Karnataka, where the BJP is in office, the challenge is one of consolidation and expansion. It wants to end the reliance on Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa in the next two years and make way for a new leadership. However, it has to be wary because taking on Yediyurappa in the absence of a suitable successor could be detrimental to the party’s interests. At the same time, it is expanding its base, especially in the south Karnataka districts (Cauvery river belt) where it has yet to make inroads into the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S) bastions.
“The BJP owes its rise in Karnataka to the JD(S) because of its blunder in not handing over the reins to
Yediyurappa as agreed in 2007. This was considered a betrayal by the state’s dominant community, the Lingayats, who stood with him and voted him to power in 2008. Since then, the BJP has become a formidable force that has eclipsed the Congress and the JD(S) in the state,” says political historian Dr A. Veerappa.
While it hasn’t been discussed in public, internally there is clarity that Yediyurappa will step down 18 months before his tenure as chief minister expires in May 2023. BJP sources say he does not want another Lingayat, deputy CM Lakshman Savadi had been proposed as an alternative, to be his successor. In order to placate Yediyurappa, the BJP has proposed a ‘powerful position’ for his son B.Y. Vijayendra (already the state BJP vice-president) and will appoint deputy chief minister M. Govind Karjol, a Dalit leader, as the CM for the remaining 18 months. The problem is, the RSS isn’t keen on elevating Karjol. Yediyurappa, say the sources, has now promised a new succession plan in 2021, provided the BJP permits him to expand the cabinet to reward the erstwhile Congress and JD(S) MLAs who jumped ship and helped him become chief minister.
For now, then, the BJP is focusing only on strengthening its grassroots operations which includes joining forces with the JD(S) discreetly to make inroads into south Karnataka. While the JD(S) clearly will not let go of its advantage, they are power-hungry and are also seeing an erosion of their base with many stalwarts leaving the party. JD(S) chief and ex-CM H.D. Kumaraswamy has already said that he would be happy to share power with the BJP. The party has also supported the BJP on the farm reforms but stopped short on the saffron party’s pet anti-cow slaughter bill fearing a revolt by its farmer constituency.
The BJP’s aim is to win from 150-plus assembly constituencies next time and Yediyurappa will be integral to this. The BJP still wants to fight the next elections under the “great leader” who honorably led the party to victory in Karnataka. For there is no other leader who is as popular as Yediyurappa, and the party is fearful of alienating the Lingayats. The strategy is to consolidate the Lingayat vote bank in central and north Karnataka districts, appoint a new minister from among the Vokkaligas for south Karnataka besides enlarging the portfolio of Dr C.N. Ashwath Narayan, the deputy chief minister from the community. It also plans to give 20 per cent of the party tickets in the next assembly polls to first-timer youth leaders.
Among the BJP’s recent initiatives is a membership drive across Karnataka through 600 virtual rallies in the past three months; inviting OBCs and Dalits from the hinterland to RSS camps and providing them skill development training; and appointing youth leaders from Karnataka for national roles in the party. So Bengaluru South MP Tejasvi Surya is the now the Yuva Morcha president and C.T. Ravi is national general secretary.
The national team of the BJP has many more faces from the south. Besides Santhosh, there is D. Purandeswari (Andhra Pradesh), D.K. Aruna (Telangana) and A.P. Abdullakutty (Kerala), all familiar faces picked to build the party progressively. Nadda also has three leaders from the south head three of the party organisation’s seven verticals. So Vanathi Srinivasan (Tamil Nadu) heads the party’s women’s wing, ex-Telangana party chief Dr K. Laxman heads the OBC wing and Tejasvi Surya steers the youth wing. The coming years will see if these moves have been enough for the BJP to make inroads in the south. Tamil Nadu and Kerala in 2021 will be the first test case. If it does cause an upset, the BJP will be on the road to displace several regional parties from the reckoning in the 2024 parliamentary polls.
with Aravind Gowda and Jeemon Jacob