The BJP stormed back into power in three Hindi belt states—but came in a distant third in Telangana. It proved the unassailable power of the Modi effect—but only north of the Vindhyas. So what does that portend for the 2024 elections—and the deepening North-South divide?
Editor’s note: This is part two of our series on the state election results. We looked at the numbers in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Telangana—and identified the main takeaways in part one.
‘24 Questions: This Big Story is one part of our election project called ‘24 Questions. In the months to come, we plan to upend the maddening template of election news—across multiple formats: text, audio and video. There are more deets here. If you’d like to support work like this series, please get a founding member subscription—which comes with free subs for you and your friends:)
First, how BJP won in 2019
There are 543 seats in the Lok Sabha. A party needs 272 for a simple majority. Until 2019, there was a long period where the two national parties had to build a coalition—NDA or UPA—to rule in Delhi. That changed when the BJP single-handedly won a staggering 303 seats in 2019—a jump from 282 in 2014. This time around, it is aiming for 350.
Hindi belt ka maharajah: The party scored its largest haul in the Hindi belt (including Gujarat)—185 out 230. This was lower than 2014—when it scored—197—but mostly because it did not contest as many seats in Bihar—making room for its NDA ally Janata Dal (United). Its share of the vote reached astronomical levels—jumping to a whopping 58% in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, 50.7% in Chhattisgarh and an eye-popping 60% in Haryana.
As for Congress: It won a pitiful five seats in these states. Rahul Gandhi even lost the family seat in Amethi. The performance of the BJP was especially remarkable in Uttar Pradesh—where Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party formed an alliance to take it down.
In the southern belt: In the five South Indian states plus Puducherry, the BJP won 29 out of 129 seats. But most of these seats came from Karnataka—where its tally went from 17 in 2014 to 25 in 2019. Congress’ number dropped to a single seat—from nine in 2014.
FYI: Congress’ showing in the south wasn’t all that stellar either. It only won 28 seats—UPA scored 51 thanks to MK Stalin’s sweep in Tamil Nadu.
Elsewhere in India: The BJP also gave Mamata Banerjee a real scare—increasing its total LS seats from two to 18. TMC managed to hold on to 22—while Congress scored only two seats. And it increased its total in Odisha from one to 8.
What about allies? In its second term, the BJP has shoved its allies to the side—or demolished them from the inside. It has now broken ties with Akali Dal in Punjab, JD(U) in Bihar, Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. Thanks to its staggering majority, the party didn't need them to rule.
But in 2019, Nitish Kumar scored 16 seats to BJP’s 17 in Bihar—while Shiv Sena won 18 seats to BJP’s 23 in Maharashtra. It remains to be seen if Kumar can dent BJP’s numbers this time around—and if Uddhav Thackeray can prove his electoral clout versus his nemesis Eknath Shinde.
The 2024 battleground: The vast North-South divide
The state elections held this year have shown that Modi’s hold over the Hindi belt is near absolute. But he has struggled to move the needle south of the Vindhyas. The 2024 elections could make the north-south divide starker than ever.
A magical Modi: As we noted yesterday, in each of the three Hindi belt states, PM Modi was the sole candidate. And a vote for him was directly tied to a vote for the BJP in 2024:
Admittedly, no election is won on a single issue but since it was the Prime Minister who led the campaign from the front, clearly, his popularity in these states remains undimmed. The party hitched its train to the PM engine… During the campaign, Amit Shah repeatedly told rallies that if people wanted Modi in 2024, they should vote for him in the state polls. This time, the assurance of Modi as PM was stronger than doubts over who will be the CM.
There is little doubt that the well-timed victories in these states will translate into a sweep come 2024—barring some unforeseen disaster.
The main takeaway: There is no path to a majority in Parliament without regaining ground in the 270 northern seats. Congress’ prospects look as bleak as ever and there is no sign that regional parties can score points—except for Nitish Kumar in Bihar and AAP in Delhi. The INDIA alliance is very unlikely to make enough progress to form a government. But hey, never say never…
Limits of Modi magic: In two key elections in the south—Telangana and Karnataka—the BJP has failed to make a dent even though the PM campaigned with great fervour. In fact, it lost ground in Karnataka—where the Congress swept into power in May. And while the party has made some progress in Telangana, there is zero sign of a BJP wave. As for the rest, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh have long been immune to his charms. BJP won zero seats in these states in 2019.
The great wall of Vindhyas: Apart from Karnataka, the ‘South Wall’ held even in the midst of the 2019 Lok Sabha wave—as you can see in The Hindu map below:
The ‘South wall’ is writ even larger in this Scroll map charting the distribution of of State Assemblies four years later:
A historical map to note: This electoral map on the cover of an Illustrated Weekly issue shows the divide in 1977—when Congress was wiped out in the north but retained its base in the south. It looks uncannily similar:
The Karnataka question: As we noted, 25 of the 29 seats won by the BJP came from Karnataka. It is the only southern state where the party has enjoyed a significant presence. But that success is relatively recent—dating back to the rise of BS Yediyurappa—who emerged as the first strong BJP leader in the south. However, the Yeddy factor did little to help BJP’s fate in the May elections. And linking its fortunes to JD(S)—which has haemorrhaged Assembly seats—isn’t a surefire recipe for success.
Data point to note: A Print analysis that maps Lok Sabha constituencies onto Assembly seats shows that the BJP could be reduced to eight MPs—while the Congress scores 18 and Janata Dal (Secular) is limited to two. That’s a steep drop—which will make a significant dent in BJP’s southern belt tally.
The main takeaway: Using Assembly elections to predict Lok Sabha outcomes can very easily go wrong. But the data shows that Modi magic is not sufficient to replicate BJP’s 2019 success in Karnataka—when a toxic Congress/JD(S) alliance also made everything easier. Without big numbers in the state, the BJP’s southern haul is likely to be slim.
The BJP’s South India problem
What Modi effect? The party’s winning formula relies on an alchemical combination of welfarism, Hindutva and aspirational development—all of which is epitomised in a single person: Narendra Modi. He is no longer just a leader but a larger-than-life symbol—but only in the Hindi belt. Modi’s popularity numbers are consistently low across South India. In 2019—on the eve of BJP’s massive victory—he was the most unpopular in Tamil Nadu where only 2.2% approved of him. He did much better in Karnataka (38.4%) and Telangana (37.7%)—but it’s nowhere close to the national average. In comparison, Modi polled in the 60s across the north.
The problem of Hindutva: BJP supporters insist—much like their party—there is a singular Hindu identity and culture. But the south begs to differ—as a result of its very different history of anti-caste movements. Political scientist Sudha Pai says:
One of the primary differences between the two regions is in terms of Brahminical Hinduism. While in the Hindi heartland, it is still the dominant form, in the south, it doesn’t play a similar role, thanks to the various movements against the caste order and the cultural structures in these regions. This changes the way religion is perceived in the south versus the north and also, in a way, draws a geographical boundary for the Hindutva narrative.
This likely explains why no one in the south blinked an eye when DMK scion Udhayanidhi Stalin took aim at ‘sanatan dharma’—but it offended voters across the Hindi belt. Some experts claim it even lost Congress votes in Chhattisgarh. As even BJP leaders admit:
Our Hindutva ideology struggles to gain acceptance in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh, despite our persistent efforts. Hindutva has gained limited traction in Telangana as well. Therefore, our path is challenging.
The Karnataka exception: The coastal parts of the state are often referred to as BJP’s ‘Hindutva laboratory’—a foothold that shows the south’s vulnerability to its ideology. But the 2023 state election results decisively showed the limits of the appeal of hijab bans and anti-Tipu Sultan rhetoric:
Outside the coastal belt.. the Hindutva project finds the ground less hospitable. “No memories of Partition that are transmitted across generations, our experience of it is mostly textual. Second, no ruler who can be constantly castigated, no Aurangzeb-like figure”, says Assadi… Across the state, except the coastal region, therefore, Hindutva’s unifying vision bumps against diverse local cultures primarily shaped by caste, organised around local deities and powerful mathas.
In other words, a great part of Karnataka is like the rest of the south—driven by its complex history of caste dynamics.
The problem of the ‘Hindu voter’: This isn’t to say South India is not casteist or communal—but it doesn’t respond to the specific RSS brand of Hinduism. Take, for instance, a 2021 Pew survey that shows 49% of all Hindu voters supported the BJP. In northern and central parts, the number soars to 68% and 65%, respectively. But come down south and that electoral bastion disappears. Only 19% of Hindu voters said they support the BJP.
More importantly this: Being Hindu is less important to the South Indian voter: “Nationally, 64% of Hindus in India say being a Hindu is very important to being truly Indian. But while this share is as high as 83% in the Central region, it falls to 42% in the south.”
The problem of welfarism: Welfare schemes have always been an important electoral weapon for the BJP. The so-called ‘double engine sarkar’ promises the generous patronage of the union government—rather, of the Prime Minister Modi himself. But regional parties in the south have been notoriously lavish in wooing voters with welfare benefits—making it difficult for the BJP to differentiate itself.
Point to note: Every economic indicator shows that “different governments in different States of South India have delivered better growth, job opportunities, better infrastructure and welfare.” In fact, South Indian voters now view such schemes as their rightful due—and they offer little guarantee of success. For example: Telangana–where BRS lost the election despite creating a multitude of cash transfer schemes.
Making things complicated: The patronage model doesn’t work the same way in South India—because it has a long history of caste mobilisation. Regional parties were born of these movements. The north did not experience these uprisings. As a result, marginalised or backward castes have been forced to rely on political parties to advocate for them:
The primary distinction is that in the south, we had movements first and then electoral politics, whereas in the north, it was primarily only electoral politics. In the south, the groups which led the movements have to be courted and accommodated within the mainstream political parties. In contrast, in the north, in the absence of movements, political parties often have taken up issues and concerns.
In other words, the power balance between a party and its caste constituency is very different in the south.
The problem of language: No, we’re not talking about Hindi—though that remains a perennial thorn in South India’s side. Politics in the south is about difference—not homogeneity:
The language of politics in south and north India are distinct; the issues, the concerns, and even their articulation is different. And there is a degree of commonality between different southern States, which began during the period of Congress dominance. The Congress was seen as the “other.” This gave birth to regional parties on the premise that the Congress was not representing the specific interests of the State. They also argued that they were better protectors of regional identity, which the Congress did not care about.
It is hardly surprising that they’re even more hostile to a BJP ideology aimed at unifying and homogenising Indians under a common Hindu rashtra identity. This worldview works well in the Hindu belt—“because of the relative homogeneity of the region in terms of language, culture, history, etc.” But it’s dead-on-arrival in the south.
The bottomline: It’s a fool’s game to predict the outcome of an election this early in the season. But the gap between the BJP’s North India and South India numbers is likely to be vast—even if it wins the election by a large margin. The consequences of that lopsided victory will play out over the coming decade—as the gap between South India and North India continues to widen. One is far poorer but far greater in numbers—which will provoke a war over representation, wealth distribution and more. All of which the winning party will have to resolve.
The Hindu is excellent on the South Wall, South India’s historical encounter with Muslims—and offers this eye-opening interview with two experts on the North-South political divide. Indian Express and The Wire look at the limits of Hindutva in Karnataka—while The Print looks at the bigger battle for the BJP in the south. Indian Express offers broader takeaways for 2024 elections—based on yesterday’s results. You can also check out the Pew survey of Hindu voters. Shoaib Daniyal in Scroll looks ahead to what a BJP victory will mean for future battles between the north and south.