Many political leaders from southern states have been articulating their concern about the impact of a new delimitation exercise
The return of the Congress Party to power in Karnataka and Telangana and the reassertion of dominance within the Hindi-speaking states by the Bharatiya Janata Party has triggered a conversation around what has been termed a “North-South divide” in the country’s polity. Protagonists of the view that the BJP remains confined to the North and remains marginal to the politics of the South have been challenged by those who look at the BJP’s rising share of votes even in some southern states.
None less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi has rejected the thesis of a North-South divide. In fact, he was right to do so for at least one reason. Real political power today vests with two leaders from the western state of Gujarat, Mr Modi himself and Union home minister Amit Shah, with almost all the “North” Indian leaders within the BJP, save Yogi Adityanath, politically marginalised.
Despite the BJP’s impressive showing in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan neither Shivraj Singh Chauhan nor Vasundhara Raje Scindia can claim that they have been politically empowered. Other North Indian leaders within the BJP like defence minister Rajnath Singh have been marginalised by the Modi-Shah duo. The political power divide, if any, is not North vs South but West vs Rest.
There is no member of the Union council of ministers apart from the Prime Minister and the home minister who can claim to have an independent political standing and can assert their right to a ministerial berth. In fact, most ministers in charge of key portfolios, including finance and external affairs, are political nonentities. So, the real political power divide in geographical terms can be better described as a “West and the Rest” divide.
Students of power know that political power is only one dimension of power.
Consider the other dimensions. Even though the South-West of the country, or rather Peninsular India, from Gujarat through Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, is the industrially and economically more developed region of India, business and financial power remains largely concentrated among groups from the two or three western states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan.
Traditionally the Bania, Marwari, Agarwal and Jain communities hailing from these three regions have dominated the private corporate sector. The Forbes list of the top 100 wealthiest Indians in 2023 shows that 71 of them are from the West and North and only 25 from the South. None of the southern 25 wield the kind of clout that the top 10, that include Ambani, Adani, Tata, Jindal, Damani, Birla and Hinduja, have.
Given the political dominance of Mr Modi and Mr Shah and the business dominance of Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani, it is not surprising that various political parties and commentators have referred to the “Gujarati power elite” that dominate India’s power structure. The geography of political and economic power is therefore oriented more to the West than the North. However, given the fact that the BJP is essentially a North Indian, “Hindu-Hindi” party, one can argue that the power structure in India is tilted towards the North-West and away from the South-East.
My book India’s Power Elite: Class, Caste and a Cultural Revolution (Penguin Random House, 2021) identifies five centres of power -- political, business, bureaucratic, military and police, and media and entertainment -- and shows how in each of these five domains the North and West have come to dominate over the years.
In politics today, there isn’t a single South Indian or East Indian political leader of any consequence at the national level. In business, we have already seen the dominance of the West. In the bureaucracy, I draw attention to the decline in the number of South Indians in positions of national power. While the finance and external affairs ministers are South Indians, they enjoy no political power of their own. Apart from Mallikarjun Kharge, no South Indian leader has any presence even within the INDIA Opposition coalition.
The Indian Administrative Service had a far more balanced regional representation in the period when bright young people applied for the UPSC’s civil services exams from across the country. However, over the past two decades a large number of those qualifying for these services come from the North and East, with young people in the South and West opting for various professional courses, entering the private corporate sector and going overseas.
More to the point, the top jobs in New Delhi, in the Union government and in the Modi administration, have gone mostly to officers from the North and East. In the military and the national security and intelligence establishments too, we see the growing presence of officers from the North in the Modi government. Time was when many of the top government jobs in New Delhi went to officers from the South. Few officers posted in the South wish any longer to serve in the Central government.
Even in the world of media and entertainment, while top editors in the media and filmmakers come from across the country, the ownership of the big media, especially national television, is dominated by business persons from the North and West. The regional media has traditionally been controlled by regional business, but here too we find Mumbai and Delhi-based big business making incursions into the Hindi and non-Hindi media.
There are other axis along which one can parse the caste, regional and communal features of India’s power elite. The focus here is mainly on the geography of power and that is slanted overwhelmingly towards the North and West, despite the South being more developed and the East being better endowed with natural and cultural resources.
It is therefore not surprising that many political leaders from southern states have been articulating their concern about the impact of a new delimitation exercise that may increase the parliamentary representation of the Hindi-speaking states and further tilt political power in their favour. Some South Indian politicians like the former finance minister of Tamil Nadu, Palanivel Thiagarajan, have also raised concerns about fiscal transfers from the developed South to laggard states of the North.
There is no point in wishing these issues away. Rather, a truly national leadership must pay greater attention to such sentiments regarding a regional imbalance in the geography of power. Placing a Sengol in Parliament is not enough.