Opinion: The Polarising North-South Divide Narrative

The north versus south controversy has deepened after the BJP's win in three north Indian states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh and the Congress' win in Telangana, a south Indian state, in the assembly elections. The debate was further fuelled by DMK MP DNV Senthil Kumar's remark on Hindi heartland states in Lok Sabha on December 5. Mr Kumar's controversial remarks on the heartland states were expunged from parliament records but only after a huge uproar.

On social media, the controversy started with provocative tweets from Congress leaders Praveen Chakravarty and Karti Chidambaram on counting day. Two posts - Mr Chakravarty's 'The South-North boundary line getting thicker and clearer!' and Mr Chidambaram's: 'the South' - received a severe backlash. There were also posts scorning north Indians for voting for the BJP and then migrating to southern states for jobs. Then Prime Minister Narendra Modi criticised the opposition parties and their supporters in an emoji-filled post.

The north vs south binary or the regional parties' confrontational politics against so-called 'outsiders' has defined the politics of the cities and the states in India. It is not the first time that the south and north voted differently. In 1977, the entire north voted against the Congress and the south voted for the Congress. Nobody said anything then. Conversely, in the 1980s, the south had non-Congress governments while the north was with the Congress. Nobody said anything then too. So why now?

"This north-south talk by the so-called liberals is absurd. They want us to believe that the north is Hindu conservative, illiterate and backward-thinking, whereas the south is progressive and secular. Basically, it is an anti-Modi political construct, bereft of any merit. It is simply rooted in hatred," says a political analyst from the south who didn't want to be named.

Earlier too, DMK leaders in Tamil Nadu have consistently made derogatory remarks against people from the Hindi heartland. In Karnataka, Congress minister Priyank Kharge, who happens to be the son of Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, made negative comments against people from Hindi-speaking states migrating to the state for job opportunities.

Electorally speaking, it is the Congress party which is confined to two south Indian states: Karnataka and now Telangana. The same people of Karnataka were ruled by the BJP till May 2023, after which the Congress came to power promising freebies. Despite losing the election, the BJP retained its total vote share of 36 per cent in the state, the same as in the 2018 assembly elections.

In Telangana, though the Congress won the assembly elections this time, the BJP's vote share has grown significantly. The party doubled its vote share from 7 per cent in 2018 to 14 per cent and managed to win eight seats. In the 2018 Telangana assembly elections, the BJP had managed just one seat.

In Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, if the BJP doesn't stand a chance to win elections on its own, the same goes for the Congress party. In fact, the Congress has bitter relations with its INDIA alliance partners DMK in Tamil Nadu and the LDF in Kerala. Insiders say that the DMK won't cede more seats to the Congress in 2024 parliamentary elections after its recent defeat. The Congress was looking to bargain for 15 seats from the DMK this time. In 2019, the DMK-led alliance won 38 of the 39 seats from Tamil Nadu. The DMK won all the 20 seats it contested while the Congress won eight of the nine seats it contested.

The ruling LDF (Left Democratic Front) in Kerala has always fought elections against the Congress-led UDF (United Democratic Front). Kerala is the lone state where the CPI(M) has an opportunity to make its presence felt in the next Lok Sabha. So, any alliance with the Congress is ruled out.

After its electoral success in Telangana, Congress may hope for its revival in Andhra Pradesh. The elections to the state assembly and the Lok Sabha will be held together. As of today, the BJP has decided to fight on its own to improve its vote share. Only the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Jana Sena Party (JSP) have announced a formal alliance for the 2024 elections in Andhra Pradesh.

Undoubtedly, southern States have scored better than north Indian states in the metrics of health, education and economic growth. The southern states are also peeved about the inequity in revenue sharing between the Centre and the states and how the more prosperous states are being short-changed in the revenue sharing formula.

It's often seen that when a regional party is apprehensive about losing its voter-base to a strong national party, it weaves a narrative lamenting about a north-south divide. We've seen this strategy adopted by several regional parties when the Congress had a strong presence nationally. The DMK, JD(S), AIADMK used this tactic. Even the Shiv Sena built its base depicting South Indians (particularly Tamils) as the enemy of the Marathi 'manoos'. The strong rebuttals to the so-called imposition of Hindi were another way of asserting regional identity. Playing to the gallery is inherent in building regional parties and giving melodramatic turns by using language as a tool gets quick attention. In their quest for survival, these parties play to their local audience, projecting the BJP as a north Indian party incapable of addressing specific concerns of the states. And that the state's language, culture, honour can be safeguarded only by the respective regional parties and therefore, more power should be given to the states in the federal system.

The polarising narrative rankles, for many. Chandrasekhar K from Kerala has worked in five states across India. Speaking from his experience, he says, "The north-south divide is for those who have not ventured out of their state. Anyone who has worked in a couple of states within our country knows that people find ways to communicate and live together. Divisions are created by political parties to outmanoeuvre one another in garnering voters' support. People are smart and politically savvy in our country.

"I have seen less educated people engaging in discussions on politics in tea stalls in north India. Interest and awareness matters. Many educated people don't care about politics or even voting," adds Mr Chandrasekhar.

(Bharti Mishra Nath is a senior journalist)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author