Is there a clear north-south divide in Indian politics?

Economic, social, historical and political factors have shaped how the north and south vote. Though, this is not a new trend; the south has rarely followed the electoral trend set by the north.

June 02, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 12:13 pm IST

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Deputy Chief Minister D.K. Shivakumar in Bengaluru.

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Deputy Chief Minister D.K. Shivakumar in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: ANI

After its loss in the recent Assembly elections in Karnataka, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is left with no State government in south India. The governments of the five States of the south are led by different parties — the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala, the YSR Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh, the Bharat Rashtra Samithi in Telangana, and the Congress in Karnataka. This is not a new trend; the south has rarely followed the electoral trend set by the north. In the 1977 Lok Sabha elections, while the Congress was emphatically defeated in the Hindi heartland, it continued to hold onto its seats in the south. Similarly, in the last nine years, even at the peak of its popularity, the BJP has been unable to breach the southern fortress as convincingly as it would like to. In a discussion moderated by Sobhana K. Nair, Sudha Pai and K. K. Kailash discuss whether there is a clear north-south divide in politics. Edited excerpts:

What makes southern India vote differently from the north?

K.K. Kailash: The differences between the south and the north are attributed to the historical, social and economic differences between the two regions. While these elements are important and explain much, I think we often miss out on the political dimension. 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. This regional assertion has become entrenched over the years. In the south, there are calls routinely made urging the Union government to concede more subjects to the State List of the Constitution. Protests against the Centre’s encroachment on the State government’s powers are also common. You cannot use this language [in the north] because of the relative homogeneity of the region in terms of language, culture, history, etc. And it does not allow for them to make a call for being different or manufacture this difference.

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Sudha Pai: I agree with what Professor Kailash said about the difference in political language. But underlying that are certain historical differences, which we can neither ignore nor over emphasise. The economic, social and political changes in the south and the north should also be taken into account. There are marked differences between the north and south in terms of the emergence and impact of social movements. Assertion by both the Backward Classes and the Scheduled Castes was late in north India compared to the south. The south experienced social movements during the colonial period around the caste question. The Veerashaiva movement of north Karnataka professed an anti-Brahmin, anti-ritualistic ethics and provided a counterculture to orthodox Brahminical Hinduism. So did the anti-Brahmin movement [in Tamil Nadu] and other movements across the south challenging the caste order. In contrast, in north India, there were no anti-Brahminical movements. The Dalit movements were late to start in the Hindi heartland and were scattered. The impact of B.R. Ambedkar was also late. In the United Provinces (present day-Uttar Pradesh), the Scheduled Caste movement started somewhere around the 1940s, but it disappeared soon after Independence. The Republican Party of India was strong in the 1960s, but its presence faded because of the dominance of the Congress.

K.K. Kailash: 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. As a result, you have caste groups tied to particular political parties. This makes it difficult for these groups to negotiate with the other political parties.

How much does the disparity in economic growth between the north and the south influence their politics?

K.K. Kailash: Until the 1960s, there was little difference between the two regions. Both were almost at similar levels of economic growth, if you were to compare the basic indices such as per capita income. It was in the 1980s that the transformation took place between the two regions, and they began to diverge. And this difference had to do with the politics of the two regions, which dictated economic strategies. While the south focused on long-term poverty alleviation steps and investing in health and education, the north employed relatively short-term wealth redistributive strategies.

Sudha Pai: I think the economic difference between the two regions goes further back in history. It began in the colonial period when south India underwent considerable economic transformation. The princely states of Mysore and Travancore heavily invested in education and supported progressive movements. There were British investments in the Madras and Bombay Presidency in terms of ports, railways, railway lines, schools, and other industries. Employment came in the way of recruitment into the Army. By the time the British spread into the Hindi heartland, the golden age of colonialism was somewhat over. By the time Oudh was conquered, it was 1856. After the First World War, Britain was a declining power with the rise of the U.S. And there was less investment in Uttar Pradesh. Consequently, the south did have something of an early start.

Does religion carry the same political currency in the north and south?

Sudha Pai: 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.

K.K. Kailash: There is one additional difference between the two regions — Partition. The Hindu-Muslim cleavage, which political scientist Ashutosh Varshney calls the “master narrative,” has much to do with Partition and the riots that followed. The impact of Partition was vastly different on the two regions and has had a long-term effect on the north.

Do you see this north-south divide narrowing or deepening?

K.K. Kailash: I do not see this gap closing anytime soon. In the 1990s, there were green shoots of growth in the north, both economically and socially. But three decades on, there hasn’t been any significant leap. At the same time, we need to consider one factor — the age pyramid. The southern States have an older population compared to the northern ones. In the last few years, we have seen economic migration from the north to the south. If they (workers) happen to settle there, there could be a change of profile in the long run. But in the short run, I don’t see the gap narrowing. And as far as the cultural dimension is concerned, no change can be expected in our lifetime. The two will continue to maintain their unique cultural structures.

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Sudha Pai: The north-south divide in economic terms is worsening. In the 1980s, there was a certain hope that the north would improve and the growth rates would go up. In the late 1980s, predictions were made about Uttar Pradesh, that “the sleeping giant was awakening” and for the first time the industrial and agricultural output of the State was crossing the national average. But then politics intervened. This period of economic growth coincided with the period of identity politics brought in by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. This was an era of competitive populism. And short-term governments contributed very little to long-term policies. The situation worsened to such an extent that Uttar Pradesh had to be rescued by the World Bank in the early 1990s.

The north-south divide is also worsening politically, due to attempts to impose Hindi on the south and with the presence of strong lower caste movements which view the BJP as an upper caste party. So, cultural differences will persist between the north and the south.

K.K. Kailash teaches at the Department of Political Science, Hyderabad University; Sudha Pai is a political scientist and former Professor, JNU

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