South maps the Centre

Post 1947, India had a maxim that has been turned downside up in recent times. The road to Delhi ran through Lucknow. One district, Allahabad, was the stomping ground of five prime ministers: Jawaharlal Nehru stood from Phulpur, Indira Gandhi from Rae Bareli, Rajiv Gandhi form Amethi. Lal Bahadur Shastri and VP Singh were also from the same neck of the woods.

It took decades for any one else to break through. Morarji Desai was from Gujarat but the core base of his support lay in the Hindi belt where the Congress was reduced to just two MPs in the Lok Sabha of 1977. It was not until the 1990s that the spell was broken by two premiers from the south: PV Narasimha Rao and HD Deve Gowda.

However, in another critical respect, India has shifted course. In the post Mandal era, UP has been deeply divided on lines of caste and class, community and ideology. The days when one party could sweep virtually all, whether in the Indira Gandhi wave of 1980 or in the case of the Janata Dal five years earlier, are long past. Even in its heyday, the BJP could lay claim to just 57 of the then 85 seats in the state.

As the north has been fragmented, so the south has risen in power, influence and appeal. In fact, since 1991, no government without a major stake in Tamil Nadu and a significant presence in Andhra Pradesh has lasted. Atal Behari Vajpayee failed to hold on to power in 1996 when he failed to get the numbers from the regional satrap in Hyderabad. Two years after and again in 1999, this same equation worked in his favour. Similarly, the Congress' return to power after eight long years has rested on lining up with the right player in Chennai and ensuring its own revival in the Telugu country.

The upshot of all this is clear enough. These 162 seats are worth a close watch. The recent polls in the Hindi belt in November-December 2008 are hardly a reliable guide to the mind and heart of the voter in the valley of the Ganga. In UP, the big battle is between Mayawati's dalit-led alliance and the legions of Mulayam Singh Yadav. Congress, in tying up with the latter, may well end up playing second fiddle but its own fate hinges on the Samajwadi Party leader's ability to stem the dalit-led tide.

Were Mayawati to hold on to the kind of vote share of 30 per cent her party polled in May 2007, she will be virtually unstoppable. It will be a test of her ability to retain her appeal on grounds of her record of governance and her capability at retaining the support of once antagonistic groups such as the dalits and savarnas (upper castes, especially brahmins) who together make up a hefty 40 per cent plus of the voters in the state. Such a basic realignment will re-create the old Congress coalition of the haves and have-nots in the heartland. However, it will not completely undercut the southern players. Unlike the Congress of yore, the BSP lacks a strong base in the peninsular regions.

The south is in a state of political turmoil. In the last general elections, M Karunanidhi lined up a virtually invincible alliance of regional nationalists, Left parties and the Congress. This alliance has come undone and the Left tie up with his rival - Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK - spells trouble for the DMK.

Andhra Pradesh was a virtual clean sweep for the Congress. Strong as its performance has been, the new opposition line up is a formidable one. What is critical in all the three states, UP, AP and Tamil Nadu, is the marginal realm of the BJP. On the face of it, this is good news for the Congress. But it also means that there is a greater menu of options for those who differ with the Hindutva brand of politics. Indeed, as the menu of options widens, so does the anxiety of the Congress.