Amidst his more serious preoccupations as a hyperactive Union Home Minister, Amit Shah is also wrestling with two southern questions. He has to choose the party state presidents in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where the incumbents have been sent as governors elsewhere. It is Tamil Nadu chief Tamilisai Soundararajan has become the Telangana governor, while her Kerala counterpart PS Sreedharan Pillai is now the occupant of the Raj Bhavan in Mizoram capital Aizawl. If Shah has to fulfil Prime Minister Narendra Modi's and his own ambition of BJP becoming a pan-Indian party, the choices become critical in the two southern states, where their party is a distant third from the dominant fronts in Kerala and is a junior partner of the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. Barring Karnataka, the south has so far been a bleak landscape for the ruling party as its presence is meagre in Andhra Pradesh and Puducherry, though the party has performed better than the Congress in Telangana, which is closer to Central India.
The urgency of choosing the right leader to head the two units is important as the assembly elections in both the states are due in the summer of 2021 and whoever is chosen as the president will technically be the BJP's chief ministerial candidate in Kerala and if the alliance with AIADMK continues, the party's Tamil Nadu chief will have to work closely with the current Chief Minister Edapadi Palaniswami.
The state units, despite not having power, are also riven with factions. In Tamil Nadu factionalism is rife in the party as groups from Nagercoil, Coimbatore, Chennai and Thirunelveli are affiliated to former MPs and other leaders. Shah and working president J P Nadda are searching for a leader who can be charismatic, build the organisation and also be acceptable to the factions. Tamilisai struggled not only with the factions but also an uncooperative secretariat in the state party headquarters. Sreedharan Pillai had his own issues in Kerala, especially during the recent by-elections.
A common factor for both units is the importance of H Raja, the national secretary from Tamil Nadu, who has been long-time in-charge of Kerala affairs. Raja, a Brahmin, had contested unsuccessfully against Karthi Chidambaram of the Congress-DMK front in the last Lok Sabha elections from Sivaganga. Raja, a senior leader from the Vajpayee-Advani days, has a strong group of his own in Tamil Nadu and had a say in party matters. But there are also voices in both the state units which do not want Raja to have the final say as he has not been successful in improving the party prospects in recent elections, despite the high popularity of Modi. But Raja has a thorough knowledge of the party affairs in both the neighbouring states and commands respect in the party high command.
Interestingly, the tinsel world has not been of help to BJP despite the arduous wooing of superstar Rajinikanth and earlier of another veteran actor Vijayakanth in Tamil Nadu. Vijayakanth was part of the NDA in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections but could not convert his support into votes as Jayalalithaa's AIADMK dominated both the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections held a couple of years later. The party had hoped that Rajnikanth, whose electoral strength is still untested, would favour it. The legend, however, had been sending mixed signals and last week he had stated that BJP has been trying to 'saffronise' him. Even though he has said his yet to be active with his political party it will contest the 2021 assembly elections, but he has declared that he will never cast himself in BJP's saffron hues. BJP leaders in Tamil Nadu fear that the actor's indecisiveness may keep the party guessing on till the time of filing nominations for the state polls.
The BJP is also not able to appropriate the vote base of Jayalalithaa, even though her party went through splits and crisis. The ruling group of CM Palaniswamy and his deputy O Paneerselvam feels not many seats should be given to BJP, even if AIADMK continues in the NDA, because they fear that the seats will only go waste.
The lack of highly charismatic campaigners with solid caste base and difficulty of central office bearers with Telugu, Malayalam and Tamil are also handicaps for BJP in the southern states even though Hindi, Urdu or Marathi are understood in a few parts of Karnataka and Telangana. The problem lies in the BJP headquarters itself. General Secretary P. Muralidhar Rao, who is in-charge of party publicity for southern states, every year calls journalists from southern newspapers and television channels from the peninsular states, and ask what needs to be done to spread its message. Frustrated by the dominance of Hindi in the central office, they repeat that press notes and other details should be available in English and southern languages. Even this November, the same complaint was raised and Rao repeated the promise that things will improve - perhaps by the time he invites them for tea next winter!