The politics of the five states of South India are in significant ways distinctly different from each other and also at variance with trends across the country. While most analysts speak of the impact of the Balakot episode on the states of Northern and Western India, voter preferences in South India seem to be governed by different factors.
It is also important to highlight that save Karnataka and Kerala, state-based parties/alliances seem to drive political choices. In Kerala too, there seems to be a stable bipolar alliance system though the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is fast emerging as a visible third player. Karnataka clearly sees a competition between the BJP and the Congress-JD(S) coalition.
In Tamil Nadu, the political competition is between the two alliances, each led by a powerful state-based party. The Congress and BJP have reconciled themselves to playing a secondary role in each of the alliances.
In Andhra Pradesh, the two state-based parties, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and YSR Congress seem to be setting the agenda, with the BJP and Congress having limited impact in the state. Finally, Telangana sees the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) as the lead party, with the BJP and Congress fighting for the second position.
The situation has seen a significant shift compared to the 2014 polls. In Kerala, the BJP seems to be making a concerted effort to make a dent in the bipolar competition between the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Left Democratic Front (LDF). It had hoped to capitalise on the Sabarimala issue but the Congress was quick to seize the opportunity and seems to have left limited space to the BJP to make a splash.
In a January 2019 poll done by India Today TV in Kerala, it was seen that Rahul Gandhi had an advantage over Narendra Modi by more than 10 per cent in terms of Prime Ministerial choice. Net satisfaction with the central government at the start of this year was at -10 (satisfied minus dissatisfied). Issues which seem to occupy the mind space of voters in North and Western India seem to be of little consequence in Kerala.
Karnataka is one state where the two national parties are in a direct contest. This time around, the JD(S) has an alliance with the Congress and has thus made it a two-cornered contest. If one were to merely add up the vote share of JD(S) and Congress in the past elections, it looks as if arithmetic is in their favour.
Yet, one must concede that electoral politics is not merely about simplistic mathematical extrapolation but about ground level chemistry. One sees across the state, serious differences between workers of the Congress and JD(S). One wonders whether vote transfer between the two parties would be really possible.
Further, the 2014 Lok Sabha elections saw the strong impact of the Modi factor. The CSDS-Lokniti Post poll shows that six out of every ten BJP voters saying that they would not have voted for the party if Modi were not its Prime Ministerial candidate.
Would the Modi factor play out this time around? In the most recent poll done by Axis My India for India Today TV (March 2019), Modi is a clear 13 percentage points ahead of Rahul Gandhi and the net satisfaction with the central government is at 24 per cent (satisfied-dissatisfied). Thus, will alliance arithmetic trump leadership and political chemistry on the ground is the key question.
Tamil Nadu has witnessed a sea change since the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The two stalwarts of the state – Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa are no more. It appears as if Stalin has clearly inherited the legacy of Karunanidhi whereas there is no one in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) who can claim to be inheritor of Jayalilathaa’s legacy.
Further, there is sufficient evidence to prove that the only direction AIADMK can go is downwards. Rahul Gandhi seems to have close to 10 percentage points lead over Modi in Tamil Nadu in the March 2019 poll done by Axis My India on behalf of India Today TV.
This lead for Rahul Gandhi could well be on account of the endorsement of his leadership by Stalin. The BJP government at the Centre has a net satisfaction rate of -8 per cent (satisfied-dissatisfied). It is clear that the DMK-led alliance had a lead but it may not be a sweep like in the past elections.
Andhra Pradesh presents an interesting contrast. In 2014, the BJP had an alliance with the TDP but this time they are going alone. The state also has simultaneous state assembly polls. The fight clearly seems to be between the two state-based parties – the TDP and YSR Congress. The Axis My India poll showed Rahul Gandhi to be 13 percentage points ahead of Modi in terms of Prime Ministerial preference and the BJP government at the Centre has a net satisfaction rate of -6 per cent (satisfaction-dissatisfaction).
In Telangana, the TRS shrewdly delinked the Assembly poll with the Lok Sabha elections. The TRS seems clearly ahead of its rivals in the Lok Sabha polls too. There is not much difference between the popularity levels of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi and the net satisfaction with the central government is at 4 per cent (satisfaction-dissatisfaction).
Save Karnataka and Kerala, the southern states are going to witness the key role of state-based parties. In Kerala too, the BJP remains a marginal player and it’s only in Karnataka that the two major national players are in a direct competition. The South will clearly produce a distinctly different result as compared to the West and North of India.