The 'Reverse Continental Drift' of South from North India

As the BJP legacy, we now have two Indias, North and South, with no trust between them. One can almost call it a second Partition—of the mind.

A performance of the Ramleela with a Ravana (in Kathakali costume, left) and a Sita (veiled and garbed in a distinctly northerly aesthetic, right) epitomise the combative North–South energy (photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
A performance of the Ramleela with a Ravana (in Kathakali costume, left) and a Sita (veiled and garbed in a distinctly northerly aesthetic, right) epitomise the combative North–South energy (photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Avay Shukla

Now that the Karnataka elections are done and dusted (at least until Mr Amit Shah launches the 2023 version of Operation Kamala), the media and social media are going overboard debating the impact of the Bharat Jodo Yatra on it, the contributions of EVMs and ATMs to the final vote tally, whether [H.D.] Kumaraswamy will now shift permanently to Singapore, and whether resort owners should be given a one-time tax waiver to compensate for the loss of income, as no horse trading was needed to form the government.

But there are a couple of other issues of import that bother me.

About 50 million years ago, the Indian plate, drifting across the Tethys sea from the south of Australia, crashed into the Eurasian plate to create the present-day Indian subcontinent. Mr Modi and his merry band, as ignorant of geology as they are of history, may have triggered a second continental drift—but this in time in reverse, with the peninsular part of the subcontinent (comprising the five southern states) drifting away from the mainland.

Karnataka has decisively shut the southern gate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Whatever slim chances it had of making inroads into Telangana and Andhra Pradesh in 2024 have disappeared like the triumphant smile on Mr Modi's visage. Consequently, we now effectively have two Indias, with little in common and certainly no trust between them. One can almost call it a second Partition—of the mind, that is—and this may yet turn out to be the BJP's lasting legacy for the country.

The gap between the southern states and the rest of India has been growing over the years (since before 2014) and is now taking the shape of an unbridgeable chasm. By all indicators which determine the health of a nation or society—economic, demographic, developmental, governance— the southern states are beginning to look like they are on a different continent from the rest of India.

Take that most basic of indicators, per capita income, for the five southern states and compare it with the five 'Hindu heartland' states of the north. The table below gives the position for 2020–21 at current prices:

STATE                 PER CAPITA INCOME (in Rs.)   RANK

Karnataka            2,36,451                                             5

Telengaga            2,31,103                                             7

Tamil Nadu          2,12,174                                             9

Kerala                  2,05,067                                           11

Andhra P            1,92,360                                           16

Rajasthan            1,15,933                                           25

Madhya P            1,04,894                                           28

Jharkhand            71,071                                          31

U.P.                    61,666                                          32

Bihar                  43,605                                          33

India (average)   74,567I

It may be noticed that all the southern states are far above the national average, whereas three of the northern states are well below it.

The same pattern repeats itself for other indicators like literacy rates, total fertility rates, infant mortality, poverty ratios, unemployment, etc. I could give the comparative figures, but it would take up too much space—those interested could google them on government web sites.

But here is another significant statistic: 30 per cent of the national gross domestic product (GDP) is contributed by the southern states, even though they constitute only 18.2 per cent of the country's population. And yet, when it comes to Central finance commission (FC) devolutions, they receive far less than the Hindi heartland states, thanks to terms of reference (TORs) that reward inefficient tax collections, bad governance, poverty ratios and population increase.

The five northern states mentioned in the table above have cumulatively received Rs.4,66,488 crores, almost three times their southern counterparts.

As per the 15th FC recommendations, the Union Budget 2023–24 provides ₹1,83,237 crore to Uttar Pradesh, more than the amount provided to all the five southern states put together (₹1,61,386 crore).

The south sees this as discrimination which, to be fair, has been happening since before 2014; but it has been made worse now by changing the TORs of the FC.

But what has further exacerbated this simmering discontent is the politics of the BJP since coming to power. It continues to push Hindi down southern throats by fiddling with educational syllabi, renaming campaigns where only Hindi is the preferred choice (the latest being the proposed amendment to change the Forest Conservation Act to Van Sanrakshan evam Samvardhan Adhiniyam), the systematic confrontation of governors with elected governments, the latest instance being the Tamil Nadu governor's suggestion that the name of the state should be changed! There is little consideration for feelings, emotions, sensitivities or even history south of the Vindhyas.

But what may now be bringing the kettle to a boil is the BJP's attempt to impose its anti-Muslim, hypernationalistic, Hindutva ideology on the southern states. It fails to realise, with its ignorance of history, that the South wants no part of this bigotry and religious hatred of minorities.

For one, its Hinduism is as deep-rooted as that of its northern cousins, with an equally long, if not longer, history and traditions.

Two, the Hinduism of the South does not suffer from the paranoia and insecurity of the North because the Mughals came to the South very late in their reign, when the fervour for demolishing temples had waned considerably and had been replaced by a more mature politics of trade and cooperation.

Three, the South was far removed, geographically, from the horrors of Partition, and therefore its two major communities have no reason to fear or hate each other.

Four, it has lived in harmony with the other sizeable minority, the Christians, for centuries—ever since Saint Francis Xavier landed on the shores of Goa in May 1542.

Notwithstanding the above, the BJP has been trying for years to stir the religious cauldron in the South, and had made Karnataka its southern laboratory in the run-up to these elections. With the help of a hijacked government, it tried everything—hijab, halal, Tipu Sultan, removal of quota for Muslims, Bajrangbali—but failed miserably. In the process, however, it has widened the North–South divide and made the latter even more suspicious of not only the BJP but all political parties north of the Vindhyas.

A perception and feeling is growing in the southern states that the North is acting as a drag on their development and progress, cornering all national resources for their own benefit. Even worse, there is now also a fear, ever since the BJP assumed power in Delhi, that they are being politically marginalised.

The apparition that haunts them is the impending delimitation of Parliamentary constituencies on the basis of revised population figures, which is due in 2026. So far the exercise has been kept in suspended animation since 1971. It is a contentious issue since the southern states are likely to lose out: they have done much better than the cow belt states in controlling population growth, and will therefore lose many seats once current population figures or projections are taken into account for allocating seats in Parliament.

If the 2011 census is made the basis for the delimitation, then four northern states ( Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan) shall gain 22 seats while the four southern states (Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana) are set to lose 17 seats. (Their position gets progressively worse with each succeeding census). What this means for them is that delimitation will only push them further into the political margins, if population figures do not continue to remain frozen.

Doing that, however, may require a Constitutional amendment, and the South has every reason to suspect that the BJP would not be inclined to bring in such an amendment. Its main support base is the cow-belt states; it is irrelevant in the South, and it would be happy to gain seats in the northern states to consolidate its power. And it may already be working in that direction with its usual foresight and thoroughness: the new Parliament building is reported to have space for 884 members in the Lok Sabha, against the current strength of 543—something which the southern states have not missed noticing.

To put it in purely geological terms, the peninsular plates are currently under a lot of tension and tectonic pressure. A victory for the BJP in 2024 could result in their beginning to shift, a continental drift we could do without and should all be worried about.

This, perhaps, is one context in which we should be looking at the BJP's loss in Karnataka.

AVAY SHUKLA is a retired IAS officer. Views are personal.

The 'Reverse Continental Drift' of South from North India

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines