The four states – Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala – and two union territories (Puducherry and Lakshadweep) of south India that return 131 of the 543 members of the Lok Sabha have been crucial to the survival of India’s grand old ruling party. In four of the five general elections after Congress was first ejected from power in the extraordinary post-Emergency rule poll of 1977, the party won 70 per cent of southern seats, returning a majority of Congress MPs in both 1977 and again when it was defeated in 1989. In the event of a fourth defeat in 2014 will the party led by Rahul Gandhi be able to rely on the south to conserve Congress’ prospects for the future, as it was able to under both his father and grandmother?
On the face of it the auguries are not good. The final opinion poll completed for NDTV before the first phase of voting commenced on 7 April forecast a possible Congress tally of maybe 25 seats in the south which would mark the party’s worse ever performance in the region and a sharp drop from the 62 it managed in 2009. If this proves to be the outcome it would be the consequence of two miscalculations by the Congress leadership, one serious and the other potentially disastrous. The serious, albeit perhaps unavoidable mistake, is finding itself having to go it alone in Tamil Nadu following the withdrawal of its ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK), from the United Progressive Alliance a year ago. In the five decades since the state has been ruled by one or other of the two rival Dravidian parties (the DMK of 89-year-old five-time former chief minister M. Karunanidhi and the Anna DMK of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa) Congress has never succeeded electorally without being allied to either of them. However, what could prove more significant for the party’s future is its mishandling of Andhra Pradesh, the biggest state in the south.
Congress’ precipitous decline in its southern bulwark (it has returned the largest number of Andhra MPs in all but one of the seven elections since 1989) followed the death in a helicopter crash of Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy just months after leading the party to triumph in the state in the 2009 state assembly and Lok Sabha elections. The Congress high command’s refusal to accommodate the wish of Jaganmohan Reddy, the late chief minister’s son, to succeed his father led to him forming a breakaway YSR Congress that seriously undermined support for the party in the Reddy-dominated areas of Rayalaseema. In a clumsy attempt to respond to the surging support for the long simmering campaign for a separate state of Telangana in the relatively economically backward and historically distinct (it had formed part of the Muslim princely state of Hyderabad before integration into independent India in 1948) inland region of the state, at the end of 2009 Home Minister P. Chidambaram appeared to concede the demand. However, the move was ill-prepared and four years of bitter political struggle, popular protests and strikes for and against the bifurcation, and unseemly parliamentary machinations followed.
By the time the legislation to create the two new states of Telangana and Seemandhra (comprising coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema) was signed into law in February this year, Congress, bereft of local leadership, appeared to have lost much ground in aggrieved Seemandhra to the breakaway YSR Congress and an uneasy cobbled together revival of the former alliance between its main national opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the regional Telugu Desam (TDP) of former chief minister Chandrababu Naidu. Yet its prevarication also seemed to have cost it in Telangana where, despite Congress seeking to credit party president Sonia Gandhi for the creation of the new state, the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti led by K. Chandrasekhar Rao (popularly nicknamed KCR) that had spearheaded the movement for separation, looked likely to garner more seats.
In the two other southern states the 2014 election appears likely to follow a familiar pattern. In Kerala, where since the creation of the state in 1956, power has generally alternated between rival coalitions led by either Congress or the Communists and the incumbents have tended to suffer losses in parliamentary elections on their watch, the ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front looks set to lose seats to the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front. As in the 2011 state assembly elections the LDF’s campaign, despite the defection of one of its junior constituents, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, to the UDF, has been energised by the redoubtable 90-year-old former chief minister K. Achuthanandan.
Karnataka is the only state in the south where the Congress finds itself pitted against the BJP. Going against the national dip in its popularity, Congress succeeded in ousting the BJP, badly split and discredited by corruption allegations, from power in last year’s state assembly elections and the new chief minister, K. Siddaramaiah, still appears to be benefitting from a political honeymoon. While the BJP in the state is counting on a patch up of the differences within the state unit and the national presidential-style campaign of Narendra Modi to retain the two-third’s share of the state’s 28 seats that it garnered in the last two general elections, this may well prove beyond it.
Unlike across northern and western India, apart from in Karnataka, the BJP remains a marginal factor in politics in the south. Kerala is the only significant state in the country where it and its precursor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, has never won a Lok Sabha or state assembly seat. While the pre-poll alliances it has succeeded in forming with the TDP in Andhra and several secondary Tamil parties might garner it a few seats in these states that could prove useful for Modi’s hopes to form a government, more significant will be what the half a dozen or so southern regional parties that could hold upwards of 60 seats decide to do after the election. In contrast, for Congress how it fares in the south when the results are declared on 16 May could significantly shape its prospects of survival as a national force in the years to come.