Why India’s south confounds the otherwise all-conquering Narendra Modi


AFTER ITS crushing election victory last month, Narendra Modi’s government moved fast on one front. It unveiled a draft education policy which aimed to make the study of Hindi, the main language of the “cow belt” of northern India, compulsory in schools in non-Hindi speaking states. But then Mr Modi did a—for him—untypical thing: he quickly withdrew the proposal after it prompted instant uproar in the south.

The episode was illuminating. Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dominates the cow belt. It has made inroads into eastern parts of the country that are not traditional strongholds. But the brouhaha over Hindi shows how the south still dances to a different tune, one the BJP has not yet mastered.

In Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu (with 72m inhabitants, the south’s most populous state), the BJP won not a single parliamentary seat. Voters in Tamil Nadu even punished its local ally, the AIADMK. In Telangana, recently hived off from Andhra Pradesh, the BJP won only four seats, just one more than its national rival, the Congress party. Only in Karnataka, where the BJP has long sought to build a base, did the party manage a decent showing. That was thanks partly to north Indian migrants to the tech hub of Bangalore; partly because of a loyal following in northern Karnataka among Lingayats, a large Hindu sect; and partly out of voters’ disillusionment with the parties in power at the state level, to which the BJP provides the main opposition. In all, south India claims 130 seats in parliament. The BJP won just 29 of them.

The south, and perhaps Tamil Nadu above all, remains another country. Its distinctive history feeds a sense of exceptionalism. The local Dravidians, as opposed to the “Aryan” people of north India, are both proud of their ancient history and consider themselves to have been deprecated by India’s largely northern nation-builders.

Distinctions live on. In the north, Muslims suspected of killing cows get lynched. In the south, beef is widely eaten and when the Supreme Court banned jallikattu, a Tamil form of bull-baiting, hundreds of thousands turned out in protest. The south has long been readier than the north to agitate against the strictures of caste. Southerners are more relaxed about religion: Banyan’s driver in Chennai patronised various Hindu temples but went to church too. The most religiously strident are as likely to be atheists. Nearly every town in Tamil Nadu boasts a statue of the great social reformer E.V. Ramasamy, or Periyar. He used to burn images of the Hindu god Rama, at whose supposed birthplace the BJP wants to build a temple.

Greater prosperity than the north reinforces southern exceptionalism. But above all, the exceptionalism coalesces around language. A Tamil political identity was forged as far back as 1937, during the first agitations, led by Periyar, against the compulsory teaching of Hindi. Renewed language protests in 1965, when students set fire to themselves, paved the way for the DMK, a spin-off of Periyar’s movement, to win state power.

Since then, power has alternated between it and the AIADMK, another splinter. Given the significance of language, no wonder titans of the Tamil film industry long dominated the state’s politics, a saga just as melodramatic as those screened in cinemas. Muthuvel Karunanidhi, a screenwriter, poet and wearer of colossal sunglasses, died only last year, at the age of 94. He managed to outlast his arch-enemy, Jayalalithaa, who now rests next to him on Chennai’s Marina beach. (She liked to say that she was the only one who could slay Mr Modi.) Today, at least three younger Tamil film stars fancy their chances as successors. But, as A.R. Venkatachalapathy of the Madras Institute of Development Studies puts it, if a Bollywood star were to walk down a street in Chennai, he wouldn’t get a second glance.

Can the south remain immune to Mr Modi’s northern nationalism, embodied in the slogan “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan”? Pranav Kuttaiah of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi argues that, in the face of the BJP’s ideological onslaught, the identities of many south Indians are hardening around their state and its principal language—Tamil in Tamil Nadu, Malayalam in Kerala, Kannada in Karnataka. In other words, the BJP’s identitarian politics are spawning imitators across the south. That does not do much to advance the respect for diversity which Dravidians used to advocate in response to northern chauvinism.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline "Not cowed"