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Two years ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP, then under the leadership of Amit Shah, had prepared a South Mission blueprint to expand its base in southern India. The mission, which was to have ridden on the back of the RSS and the appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was prepared keeping in view the strong network built by the Sangh in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.
Five years down that road, much of its plans — which included importing established leaders from other parties, introducing its own leaders from other states, inducting popular film stars and managing splits in the local parties — are still incomplete.
With some of its strategies not yielding the desired results and as the party now seeks to expand to the south and script new electoral successes in the 2024 elections, the BJP’s South Mission has undergone some significant changes.
The party leadership had earlier admitted that the south was a different playground and it would have to sand down its divisive political image and its Hindutva plank — strategies that worked well in the Hindi belt. Also, in order to broaden its appeal beyond its loyal, yet limited, support base, the party realises that it would have to breach the boundaries between its ideological position and welfare politics.
With regional parties dominating the political space in three of the five southern states, the BJP has fallen back on its favourite theme — dynasty politics — to take on these regional parties.
While Congress-mukt Bharat and corruption-free India have been prominent BJP slogans since 2014, on the road to 2024, these will be subsumed into the ‘dyanast-mukt Bharat’ slogan, which the party hopes will have resonance especially considering that its anti-dynasty thrust has fired the imagination of the youth.
PM Modi has been frequently targeting family politics in his speeches, setting the tone in his address to the party cadre on the BJP’s 42nd Foundation Day earlier this year.
Referring to the Congress and regional parties, which, he said, follow “politics of family devotion” instead of patriotism, Modi had said, “These people may be in different states, but they remain connected by the strings of dynasty politics, covering each other’s corruption. At the national level and in some states, there are some political parties that work only for the interest of their families. In dynasty governments, the members of the family have control over everything from the local body right up to Parliament… Such family parties have never allowed the youth of this country to progress, they have always been betrayed by these parties.”
It’s a line that Modi and the BJP know would have traction in the southern states.
The recent Hyderabad conclave saw the party making an abrupt swerve from its usual tone by talking about going beyond its “Hindu support base”. When Prime Minister Modi urged state units to woo backward communities among Muslims and Christians, it was certainly with an eye on southern states.
Besides, the party has tweaked its approach in states that are still inaccessible to them electorally. Except in Karnataka, where the party is in power and where its organisation is robust, the party realises it needs a different approach elsewhere. So instead of focusing on an entire state, the party has picked up constituencies and made Union Ministers in charge of those. The ministers will be responsible for ensuring the presence of the central government in that constituency even if the party is not so strong. The ministers have to ensure that the welfare schemes of the central government are implemented effectively in those selected constituencies.
For example, Union Ministers S Jaishankar, Ashwini Kumar Choubey and Shobha Karandlaje have been put in charge of Lok Sabha constituencies in Kerala where BJP candidates performed relatively well in last year’s Assembly elections. Union Minister Pralhad Joshi has been given charge of constituencies in Telangana.
In Tamil Nadu, the party will continue its efforts to woo the dominant Vanniyars so that it can take advantage of the community’s influence in a few constituencies in the northern parts of the state.
The new strategy, rolled out along with the ‘pravas’ campaign that is targeted at around 150 weak constituencies, shows the party’s determination to expand itself and win more seats in these southern states.
The BJP’s revised South Mission was prepared after its earlier attempts at gaining a toehold failed to yield much results. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, the party’s attempt to rope in a popular star such as Rajnikanth failed or to piggyback on the AIADMK was a washout. Similarly, in Kerala, the BJP’s efforts to influence the OBC Ezhava community through the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) didn’t take off as desired.
But in Telangana, the BJP managed to win an Assembly seat — Huzurabad — by roping in Etela Rajendar, a former confidant of TRS chief and Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao.
While the BJP is focusing on a few constituencies in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Telangana is one state where the BJP sees a strong possibility for itself to emerge as an alternative force.
The government’s recent move to nominate to the Rajya Sabha celebrated athlete P T Usha (Kerala), music maestro Ilaiyaraaja (Tamil Nadu), philanthropist Veerendra Heggade, and screenwriter K V Vijayendra Prasad (Andhra Pradesh) is part of its new thrust on the southern states.
“BJP had to recognise people from the south. India should know that people from the south also contribute to the different fields,” pointed out a top BJP leader. While explaining that it was also part of the ruling party’s efforts to make the positions and honours (including Padma awards) accessible for common people and citizens from different parts of the country, the leader admitted that it could help the party become more acceptable for the people of the South.
With the BJP serious about its South Mission, the party is all set to reveal its grab-bag of events, personalities, schemes and programmes aimed at the region, especially women voters.