The BJP is eyeing the South as well as Odisha and West Bengal in a bid to offset possible losses in the Hindi belt, where its performance in the last general elections in 2014 was stunning. The lotus party not only got an emphatic majority in the 543-member Lok Sabha on its own for the first time, it also crossed the Rubicon of 300 with its allies, finishing with a mind boggling 340-odd seats.
This was the magic of Narendra Modi whose charisma has waned in the last five years with the multitude of pledges having fallen flat. Tamil Nadu (39), Karnataka (28), Andhra Pradesh (25), Kerala (20), Telangana (17) and the Union Territory of Puducherry (one) account for a sizeable 130 seats from the South in the House of the People.
The BJP had mustered only 21 seats in 2014 with the major chunk —17 —coming from Karnataka; this was coupled with the slight of drawing a blank in Kerala and Puducherry. Regional parties by and large have held sway in this region, while national parties have found it difficult to make inroads.
The BJP made a breakthrough across the Vindhyas with B S Yeddyurappa holding the chief minister’s office thrice in Karnataka. In 2007, he ruled for seven days and the government came a cropper when the JD (S) withdrew support. The next year, in 2008, he again became the chief minister and lasted for three years and three days, before being arrested on charges of corruption. He was subsequently absolved of the charges.
The present JD (S)-Congress coalition government with H D Kumaraswamy as the chief minister was formed on May 23 last year when the saffron brigade fell just short of a majority. The elections in the southern states essentially revolve around state and regional issues rather than focussing on who has the best chance of becoming the Prime Minister, as there is none in their ranks.
This time around, the BJP seems to be losing its hold in Karnataka. In these circumstances the focus is on Tamil Nadu, which has the maximum number of 39 seats in the South. Clubbed with the lone seat from the Union Territory of Puducherry, the tally is 40.
It is in this context, the lotus party’s alliance with the AIADMK assumes importance. Both the Dravidian parties are without their stalwarts — “Amma” J Jayalalithaa (AIADMK) and DMK’s M Karunanidhi. While the latter is represented by his son M K Stalin, the AIADMK has to make do with those within its ranks.
In this matrix, the DMK-Congress combine appears to have a definite edge. This is AIADMK’s s second consecutive term and it is facing cumulative anti-incumbency. Stalin faces his first test in the second phase of polling scheduled for April 18. There are five more phases remaining with the counting fixed for May 23.
Matinee idol Kamala Hasan has launched his Makkal Needhi Maiam party and fielded candidates in all the 40 seats. It has not created any ripples so far. Another superhero Rajnikanth whose much hyped political party is yet to fructify, has offered support to the BJP if it promise interlinking of rivers.
As an ally of the DMK, the Congress is contesting ten seats while the BJP is contesting only five, having aligned with the AIADMK. The late Amma’s traditional vote bank has splintered because of TTV Dhinakaran, son of Jayalalithaa’s friend V K Sasikala, breaking free.
The DMK alliance is expectedly leading all the pre-poll surveys. The AIADMK also faces the prospect of losing power in Tamil Nadu with by-elections to 17 assemblies being held simultaneously. It is believed the going is tough for the BJP in at least four of the five constituencies. These include Kankayakumari where the Union minister of state Pon Radhakrishnan is seeking re-election against Congress nominee H Vasanthakumar.
In Sivaganga, represented earlier by former Union Finance minister P Chidamabaram of the Congress, controversial H Raja is pitted against Karti Chidambaram. The ten candidates of the Congress seem to be sitting pretty, rallying behind the chant Modi”.
The DMK cadres are playing their part in trying to ensure the victory of their candidates. On the other hand, the AIADMK is likely to lose a major chunk of votes to the Amma Makkal Munetra Kazhagam (AMMK) of T T V Dinakaran, a nephew of Sasikala, who has fielded candidates in the all the 40 Lok Sabha seats and all the assembly segments.
DMK heavyweights and former ministers are expectedly in the fray. Local issues have dominated the campaigning. These pertained to the expressway project, shooting of innocent protesters at the Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi and scrapping of NEET, the All India Medical Entrance exam which has become an emotional issue in Tamil Nadu.
On its part, the Congress has pledged to change the system. On the other hand, the BJP manifesto has been criticised for laying stress on issues unconnected with Tamil Nadu like construction of the Ram temple, withdrawing the special category status of J&K and the like.
It may be recalled that people walked away from a rally to be addressed by BJP president Amit Shah because he was two hours late. On the other hand, Congress president Rahul Gandhi appears to have made a positive impact. On his part, Stalin has criss-crossed all parts of Tamil Nadu, asking people to vote for every candidate in their alliance.
T R Ramachandran is a senior journalist and commentator.