Modi holds the party symbol during a road show at an election campaign held ahead of the country's upcoming general elections, in Chennai on April 9, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

MADURAI, India: Few doubt Narendra Modi will win re-election in India’s marathon polls starting this month — the question is how far the prime minister will succeed in wooing the south.

After a decade in power, Modi hopes to significantly increase his Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) 55 per cent parliamentary majority — and to do that requires winning in southern states.

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Modi’s BJP won 303 of 543 seats in the lower house of parliament in 2019, but mainly from the Hindi-speaking north.

Holding repeated rallies across the south, Modi has sought to win new voters, offering his “topmost respect” to the south’s Tamil culture and language, including wearing the region’s traditional white wrap, waving from open-topped convoys in flower-strewn parades.

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Modi has also launched a social media handle in Tamil, to win over those who see the BJP dominated by northern Hindi speakers.

But the BJP’s push faces serious headwinds in the south, where voters typically back regional parties strongly rooted in appeals to social justice, and Modi’s Hindu nationalism holds little appeal.

“We give respect to people not depending on religion or caste,” 38-year-old Abu Backer, a steel business owner in Tamil Nadu state, said proudly.

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Palanivel Thiaga Rajan, Tamil Nadu's information technology minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party member, speaking during an interview with AFP at his office in Madurai. Image Credit: AFP

‘Harmonised’ religions

Palanivel Thiaga Rajan, Tamil Nadu’s information technology minister — commonly known by his initials PTR — said he hated seeing “polarisation” in politics.

Rajan, from Tamil Nadu’s ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party — which won 23 parliament seats in 2019 — said he was proud of the south’s long history of “harmonised” mixed-faith communities.

Many in India’s southern states have backed populist parties rooted in their cultural and linguistic identity, boasting of social reform efforts aimed at tackling India’s millennia-old caste hierarchy.

“Those places that have been able to maintain their cultural identity, language identity, their customs, their history... where people have the opportunity to grow... the BJP fares very poorly in those states,” the 58-year-old Rajan said.

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Image Credit: AFP

He was deeply critical of those he believes use Hinduism as “a political tool”.

In the last polls, the BJP won just over a fifth of seats — 29 out of 129 — across the five southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana.

In wooing the south, the BJP hopes to wrest the credentials of being a truly pan-India party from its already humbled rival, the opposition Congress Party.

But Tamil Nadu social activist Ramu Manivannan said Modi had his work cut out in the south, where literacy rates are higher than the national average.

“One of the most important reasons why it is a huge challenge for the BJP to come into the south... is because of social radicalisation,” Manivannan said.

Modi during a campaign rally in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu on April 10, 2024. Image Credit: Bloomberg

‘Fight for common issues’

About a fifth of India’s 1.4 billion live in the five southern states, and some fear if Modi wins, he could back a revision of electoral boundaries based on population.

That has worried some as it would likely mean a significant expansion of seats from northern states, reducing the south’s overall parliamentary punch even further.

Each time Modi visits Tamil Nadu - and he has made at least seven trips this year - social media erupts with a hashtag battle between “Welcome Modi” versus “Go Back Modi”.

The tax burden on the south, which some see as unfair, adds to the wariness.

Modi’s image, bolstered by India’s presidency of the G20 last year, has rested widely on his claims of steering the country into becoming one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

But with a 31 per cent contribution to the country’s GDP, India’s economic success has been driven by southern states.

Global supply chains shifting from China such as Apple have moved to Tamil Nadu, which boasts the highest number of factories in the country by state.

But Rajan argues that economic disparities have added to tensions, saying people feel “squeezed” by heavy tax duties they see little return for.

“The more they constrain the engines of growth and revenue, the more the overall pie shakes,” PTR said.

But some believe Modi could win big in the south, noting the party has reined in the religious rhetoric it utilises in northern heartlands.

“Now they (BJP) fight for common issues, just like the other parties,” said 58-year-old Sivakumar, a book sales manager in Madurai, adding he believes people were warming to that shift.

“That change might be beneficial for the BJP,” he said.